Overture to a Dance of Locomotives Summary
by William Carlos Williams

Overture to a Dance of Locomotives book cover
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(Poetry for Students)

Written at the end of 1916 and the beginning of 1917, “Overture to a Dance of Locomotives” remains one of Williams’ most intriguing poems, as it signifies a number of different things to various readers. Although the poem did not appear in print until 1921 in his collection of poems Sour Grapes, the poem did make an appearance when Williams read it in New York City at the 1917 Independents Exhibition held by the Society of American Artists in the spring of that year.

The occasion of the poem is the hustle and bustle of people, porters, and passenger trains in Pennsylvania Station in New York City. Porters yell train numbers and times, passengers rush to the correct track to get on their trains, and the trains themselves smoke and churn in the station, anxious to put their modernist muscle to work. But rather than represent this scene as chaos, Williams suggests that the landscape before the reader is an artistic landscape, and the station is a kind of museum. His language in describing the station and the throngs of people is sympathetic, artistic, lyrical. He even arrests his narrative about porters and passengers to describe the light filtering through the windows, as if the station is some sort of cathedral to modern industry.

This sympathetic portrayal of the train station and the trains themselves has led many scholars to argue that this poem represents Williams’ futurist leanings. Futurism championed aggression, typographical experimentation, language free of logical order, ameliorative possibilities of technology, and the beauty and symmetry of war. While the poem may contain some futuristic traces, it functions more like an anti-pastoral, a celebration of industry and travel, and the symmetry of people and machines moving in concert. Additionally, its myriad of voices has impressed many readers as an early experiment in collage (a work in which various images or ideas are juxtaposed with each other in no particular order) and pluralism (an approach that seeks to give expression to many views, not just one).


(Poetry for Students)

Lines 1–4
The opening lines of the poem might be confusing for some readers, as it seems like Williams is describing a man yelling in a museum. However, upon further reading, it’s clear that this is no ordinary museum, though it might still be unclear what exactly the setting of the poem is. One clue might be the fact that the men “with picked voices chant the names of cities.” The fact that they are yelling the names of cities might lead the reader to believe that the poem takes place somewhere where travel is done. When one considers that the poem was written in 1916 and 1917, there are very few other locations this poem could have taken place but in a railway station.

The reader might also notice the form of the poem. Early on, the lines are unrhymed, but they find formal use in Williams’ tetrameter, a line containing four metrical feet. The first three lines of the opening stanza feature end rhymes, but, overall, the stanza feels less orchestrated and more random.

Some scholars have noted that the opening stanza creates a dark, almost spooky, underground world resembling T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, or worse, yet, hell.

Lines 5–10
Williams continues the disturbing description here, noting the “rubbing feet of those coming to be carried.” For those readers familiar with Dante’s Inferno , this passage might sound like Dante’s description of the thousands of souls being marched through hell before being carried across the river Styx. But just as it appears the poem will continue on a downward spiral toward something doleful and nefarious, the poet informs us that the feet of the passengers transform the “grey pavement into soft light that rocks to and fro.” So rather than the nameless, bodiless feet walking their way into the underworld, these feet magically change the “pale earthcolored walls of bare limestone” into something luminous. This magical transformation might remind readers of...

(The entire section is 2,563 words.)