Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Williams is notable for his psychological insights and character studies as well as for his strong, expressive manner. Bruce Bauer, writing about Tar (1983) in Poetry, noted that “one has the feeling, unusual when reading today’s poets, that [Williams] is truly interested in the lives around him.” If anything, his interest in humanity is more pronounced in Flesh and Blood.

Williams adopts five different stances in the poems: He observes others; he participates in events; he seeks to explicate psychological states; given a situation, he imagines a scenario; and, least frequently, he is a watcher of nature.

Williams acts something like a sociological psychologist in many of his poems, presenting vignettes charged with human energy. He explains in “American Native” why the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poetry his father once read to him will no longer serve: “A teacher attempted to make us understand that our vision of exotics and minorities was so contaminated/ that we not only had corrupted ideas of history but didn’t know what went on under our noses.” Williams’s poems represent his personal struggle to find out. In “Crime” a robber is shot by police, and neighborhood children rush in to grab the dropped change; in “Pregnant” an unwed teen pushes the fetus in with her hands; in “Men” a garbage man viciously mocks a fellow worker who is in pain.

The meaning of Williams’s work is seldom in question. None of the difficulty that supposedly makes poems avant-garde is here, yet he never talks down. His art is concerned with revealed clarity. As an observer he is keen of eye and discerning of detail, discriminatingly weighing without seeming to do so. In “Love: Loss” he portrays an exact motivation in terms of the Orpheus-Eurydice tale. The “pretty post-teen princess gone to the grim gutter” approaches “the half-respectful wino” in pretense of wanting a smoke, but when “their solitudes emerge” her heart fails, and she turns, leaves, and “picks herself back to the silver pathto the boiling whispers.”

Sometimes Williams as participant compares himself to mythological...

(The entire section is 894 words.)