The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Nantucket” by William Carlos Williams is a short lyric poem of five two-line stanzas, which vividly describes a room, presumably on the Atlantic island of Nantucket, off the coast of Massachusetts. The poem consists entirely of Imagistic phrases, noting the flowers through the window, the sunshine, a glass tray, a glass pitcher and tumbler, a key, and finally “the/ immaculate white bed.” It reads like a verbal still-life, painterly in its precise rendering of things seen and adding to sight another sensual appeal: the “Smell of cleanliness.”

Similar to Williams’s more famous “The Red Wheelbarrow” in its sharp focus and love for what is ordinary, the poem, within its own small frame, is richly colored and shaped. It creates clean, fresh, airy intimate space, beginning with the enticing and benedictory view from a window and ending, as if inevitably, at a bed, which seems equally luminous and inviting. The poet’s palette is limited but lush: lavender and yellow set off by white, the color that sunshine takes on in late afternoon, and the translucent noncolor of glass. This is a vision of pleasure: composed, quiet, secure, anticipatory, reminiscent of some imagined room painted by seventeenth century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer before people have entered it, or an eroticized interior by the modern French painter Henri Matisse. Here is a poem of unswerving objectivity and directness, a poem seemingly without an “I” or any other...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Williams’s stanza form was not inherited, but finely honed by his intense personal engagement with his subject. Each of the stanzas in “Nantucket” is composed of two lines of almost equal length. Each of these lines contains two or three accented syllables, rendering it light but chiseled, casual-seeming, and yet composed. At first the lines enjamb on nouns and adjectives of solid description, but by line 8, which ends with the pronoun “which,” and line 9, ending with the phrase “And the,” enjambment on less weighty words causes anticipation of the poem’s most emotionally freighted items: the key and the bed.

Three devices contributing to the delicate, brilliant sound and feel of the poem are the four aerated white spaces between stanzas, the reliance solely on dashes for internal punctuation, and the lack of any closing punctuation. This last leaves the impression that there is indeed more to say about “the/ immaculate white bed,” which has been so magnificently introduced by a midline, uppercase “And,” itself introduced by one of those breathless dashes.

The poem is built of six noun phrases, subjects that promise to lead to verbs and then do not, deferring all action to beyond or after the poem, and thereby riveting the reader’s attention on the objects at hand, while increasing the sense that there is more here than meets the eye, and more that could be expressed. The poem relies heavily on...

(The entire section is 504 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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Bremen, Brian A. William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Copestake, Ian D., ed. Rigor of Beauty: Essays in Commemoration of William Carlos Williams. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

Fisher-Wirth, Ann W. William Carlos Williams and Autobiography: The Woods of His Own Nature. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989.

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Lenhart, Gary, ed. The Teachers and Writers Guide to William Carlos Williams. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1998.

Lowney, John. The American Avant-Garde Tradition: William Carlos Williams, Postmodern Poetry, and the Politics of Cultural Memory. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1997.

Mariani, Paul. William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. 1981. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.

Vendler, Helen, ed. Voices and Visions: The Poet in America. New York: Random House, 1987.

Whitaker, Thomas R. William Carlos Williams. Boston: Twayne, 1989.