“To Elsie” is a free-verse poem of sixty-six lines, divided into twenty-two stanzas of three lines each. The title indicates the person to whom the poem is addressed: Elsie, the poet’s housekeeper.
Elsie’s early life is sketched in a few lines: “reared by the state and/ sent out at fifteen to work in/ some hard-pressed/ house in the suburbs.” Not even the first mention of her name, “some Elsie,” dispels the aura of obscurity that surrounds her. Moreover, this introduction is delayed until the fourteenth stanza, well into the poem.
Before Elsie herself is acknowledged, the poet implies her benighted conception: Stanzas 3 through 9 report promiscuous encounters between “devil-may-care men” and “young slatterns.” Such coupling is brutish and violent in its carelessness: “succumbing without/ emotion/ save numbed terror.”
Issuing from such an act, this “desolate” girl expresses “with broken/ brain the truth about us.” She embodies the indictment that opens the poem: “The pure products of America/ go crazy.” Elsie’s body—her “ungainly” hips and “flopping” breasts—represent the perversity of a vulgar, ultimately sterile culture. Her attraction to “cheap/ jewelry” and “rich young men with fine eyes” suggests the roving, lustful acquisitiveness that causes Americans to treat the earth that bears and would nurture them as “excrement.” They live as “degraded prisoners/ destined/ to hunger” until they “eat filth.”
Although the poet envisions “isolate flecks” in which “something/ is given off”—illumination in glimpses—“No one” is there “to witness/ and adjust”; that is, to interpret the signs and institute reform. The poem concludes with the observation that there is “no one to drive the car.” America runs recklessly, devoid of vision or good judgment.
An innovator in American poetry, William Carlos Williams promoted Imagism and its metamorphosis into Objectivism. His declaration “No ideas but in things” articulated his emphasis on re-creating objects and events rather than on directly expressing thought and emotion. In this poem, Williams’s feelings and convictions about American culture are concentrated in his portrait of the tawdry, crazed Elsie.
Fellow poet Octavio Paz has called Williams “the author of the most vivid poems of modern American poetry.” The critic Hugh Fox identifies Williams’s point of departure as sensation, which, through language, is transformed into things—more precisely, into “verbal objects.” The poem—in Fox’s words, a “fusion” of the “liveliness of sensation” and “objectivity of things”—itself constitutes a verbal object. Its self-defining, organic form is what Williams meant by free verse.
Rather than adhering to any formal metrical pattern, Williams based his work on the pauses and inflections of idiomatic American speech. He sought a “language modified by our environment, the American environment.” The stanzaic structure of “To Elsie”—a short line preceded and followed by longer ones—conveys the groping-for-words spontaneity of colloquial speech.
“To Elsie” evidences Williams’s focus on the local and the particular. As if searching out a specific spot on the map, the poem locates the reader in the “ribbed north end of/ Jersey” and finally in the “suburbs.” With intense detail, the poet re-creates the geography of the place—“isolate lakes and/ valleys,” hedges of “choke-cherry/ or viburnum,” “fields of goldenrod in/ the stifling heat of September.”
Within this perspective, the human scale diminishes; “deaf-mutes,” “thieves,” “devil-may-care men,” “slatterns,” and “degraded prisoners” populate the poem. These oblivious, bewildered souls bathe in and eat “filth” and flaunt “sheer rags.” Williams ends the poem with a metaphor for the delusionary and self-destructive narcissism of contemporary America: a driverless car. The poet refers to what popular culture celebrates and advertising exploits: America’s obsession with the automobile.
Williams intended his poetry to simulate “the inevitable flux of...
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the seeing eye.” The poet shared the aim of the cubist painters he admired: to revolutionize perception. His confounding of background and foreground in the plane of the poem, for example, challenges conventional ways of seeing. Editor Charles Tomlinson notes cubist effects in Williams’s use of ellipses, incongruous juxtapositions, and “verbal collages.”
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