(Poetry for Students)

Overture to a Dance of Locomotives cover image

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).