The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 395

William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say” contains three stanzas, each composed of four short lines. No line exceeds three words. In the first stanza, the narrator-writer of a memorandum asserts that he has eaten plums that were in the icebox. In the second stanza, the narrator addresses “you” and acknowledges that the reader of the note was probably saving the plums for breakfast. In the first line of the third and last stanza, the narrator-writer asks for forgiveness and then expresses his relish of the plums.

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The appearance of the printed poem emphasizes the brevity of the unusually short lines, for white space dominates. Of the twenty-eight words in the entire poem, twenty-one are one-syllable words. Only two words are capitalized. Williams uses no punctuation. The pronouns “I” and “me” designate the narrator-writer, and the pronoun “you” addresses the reader of what appears to be a hastily written note. The brevity, the informality of the writing as exemplified by a complete absence of punctuation, and a partial absence of capitalized words combine with the title, “This Is Just to Say,” to create the register of a note or memorandum.

After the sentence “I have eaten/ the plums. . . .” in the first stanza, Williams maintains a focus on plums by using three pronouns placed through the poem to refer to the fruit. In the third line of the first stanza, the relative pronoun “that” stands for plums in the clause “that were in/ the icebox.” In the second stanza the relative pronoun “which” stands for plums in the clause “and which/ you were probably/ saving/ for breakfast.” In the last stanza the personal pronoun “they” refers to “plums” in the closing independent clause, “they were delicious/ so sweet/ and so cold.” Although two humans, the writer and the reader of the note, exist in the poem, the focus remains on the object, the plums.

The poem progresses in a narrative sequence of the narrator-writer eating the plums that had been put in the icebox. Stanza 2 works like a flashback in narration as the narrator surmises that the reader has saved the plums for breakfast. The third stanza has the opening line “Forgive me” with “Forgive” as the only word in the poem, other than the pronoun “I,” capitalized. Then the narrator evaluates the taste of the fruit with three adjectives—“delicious,” “sweet,” and “cold.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 604

“This Is Just to Say” appears artless. The poem appears in the form of a note, such as a spouse might write to explain missing plums that had been stored in the refrigerator. Figurative language, usually so plentiful in poetry, is not apparent upon a casual reading of Williams’s poem.

Upon careful reading, “This Is Just to Say” yields rich sensory pleasure. The pattern of words that leads the senses to taste include “eaten,” “plums,” “breakfast,” “delicious,” “sweet,” and “cold.” Because poetry must work intensely out of sound, the taste must be linked with the muscular sounds of the words Williams has chosen to suggest taste. The key link occurs between “delicious” and a juicy flow as the word rolls out of the mouth. Sound is joined by the kinetic element as the jaws of the plum-eater feel the flood of juice and then move tongue and lips to hold the juice before it dribbles out of the lips, just as the word “delicious” almost overflows the mouth.

The key noun in the poem—“plums”—also requires a linkage of sound and facial movement. The p pushes out the lips and opens the mouth. The l brings the tongue up to form a barrier of the tip of the tongue against the upper front teeth. The u opens the barrier, and the m closes it a second time. The s holds the sound and juice in the mouth in a reveling of taste. “Plums,” like other onomatopoeic and mimetic words such as “squish,” captures both the shape the mouth must take and the juiciness of the plum.

Williams used plums in a second poem, entitled “To a Poor Old Woman,” published in a 1935 collection. In both poems, the plums carry succulence, the juicy tang that brims in the mouth. The tang is furthered by the long e sounds of “eaten” and “sweet” in “This Is Just to Say.” Juiciness is prolonged in the s begun in the pluralization of “plums,” continued in “delicious,” and sustained in the alliteration “so sweet.” Again the mimetic links with sound as Williams ends the poem with the assonance created by the o in “so cold.” The noun phrase of focus, “the plums,” the sole words in the second line of the first stanza, and the three adjectives that close the poem, “delicious,” “sweet,” and “cold,” serve the poet in two ways. The words are referential, and they are also mimetic. As a consequence, as readers intellectually follow the narration, they are also physically involved with the act of eating sweet, cold plums.

Rhythm adds to the referential-mimetic correlation. Although Williams was averse to singsong rhythm, he did hold to one pattern used in four strategic positions in the poem. The pattern is one unstressed syllable followed by two stressed syllables. This stable pattern, amid a jumble of other varying meters, creates closure at the ends of the three stanzas. The pattern also appears in the first line of the third stanza: “Forgive me.” The first stanza closes with “the icebox,” the second closes with “for breakfast,” and the third stanza closes with “and so cold.”

Each closing line of a stanza ends in a spondee, in which two syllables in a foot are stressed. The metrical pattern then coincides with the stress patterns of ordinary speech, for each noun within the compound nouns is stressed. “Ice” and “box” create a spondee, as does “breakfast.” In the third stanza, the intensifier “so” is stressed, as is the adjective “cold.” The joining of ordinary speech patterns with the poetic spondee charges the apparently artless memorandum with artful poetic power.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 194

Axelrod, Steven Gould, and Helen Deese, eds. Critical Essays on William Carlos Williams. New York: G. K. Hall, 1995.

Beck, John. Writing the Radical Center: William Carlos Williams, John Dewey, and American Cultural Politics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

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.

Gish, Robert. William Carlos Williams: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Laughlin, James. Remembering William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1995.

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.

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