Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 605

Although the themes of the poem are developed throughout, it is in the third stanza especially that they are brought into the forefront. When the poet says that by the afternoon “we’d understood:/ we were going to perish of all this, if not nowthen someday,” it is clear that the...

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Although the themes of the poem are developed throughout, it is in the third stanza especially that they are brought into the forefront. When the poet says that by the afternoon “we’d understood:/ we were going to perish of all this, if not nowthen someday,” it is clear that the image of the battered furnace boiling a “Dantean broth” and spewing “malignant smoke” into the atmosphere has become more than a metaphor for the potentially lethal technology of the Three Mile Island plant. This furnace and the nuclear accident happening not far away are both images for him of the precariousness of life in late twentieth century America.

For a moment, he has a clear and bleak vision of a future generation cursing “our earthly comfortsour surfeits and submissions.” That is, the demand for earthly comforts will eventually lead to the destruction of the planet when the increasingly complicated technology that has been developed to sustain an American lifestyle rich with such comforts backfires.

The mention of “the president in his absurd protective booties, looking absolutely unafraid, the fool,” is a reference to a tour of the plant that President Jimmy Carter took when the crisis was winding down but was by no means over. Some frequently reprinted photographs of this tour showed Carter wearing no special protective clothing other than some protective footwear, but smiling and looking confident. Within this poem, Williams seems to see the president’s confidence as a part of the larger social machinery that is malfunctioning. Rather than facing the danger with an examination of the larger social forces that have led to such a breakdown, the president responded with a display of confidence that Williams clearly thinks was misplaced.

The most vivid image the poet retains from this incident is of the workmen “silvered with glitter from the shingles, clinging like starlings beneath the eaves.” Calling a comparison of the workmen to birds “clingingbeneath the eaves” the most vivid image of this incident suggests that the relative helplessness of birds who try to find a home in a building they have no real power or control over is, to Williams, a situation akin to the dilemma of residents of twentieth century America who live in a society that is reliant upon technologies that most people can neither understand nor control.

The image with which the poem actually ends, “obscenities and hearts” scribbled with hardened lumps of tar on sidewalks by the children in the neighborhood, has a number of meanings. On a very basic level, this is a reassuring image, in that the lightheartedness of children scrawling graffiti is something of a relief from the heavier images and issues with which the poem has been dealing; even after a crisis such as this, one might read the poem as saying, children will be children. Coming as it does at the end of a poem called “Tar,” however, this image of “obscenities and hearts” being scribbled with lumps of tar “so black they seemed to suck the light out of the air” takes on additional meaning. Williams seems to be suggesting that one danger of such a baffling crisis is that such things as scrawled obscenities can seem to be the only possible response, and the very magnitude of the crisis can make any other response seem reduced to the level of unoriginal, quickly scribbled graffiti on the sidewalk. Against the backdrop of these scribblings, the poem itself emerges as an attempt to try to find lasting truths from these images he recalls from a brush with what had threatened to be a national (if not a worldwide) calamity.

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