Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 447
“Tract,” from Al Que Quiere!, Williams’s second book of poetry, appears at first to be a frankly didactic poem in which the speaker attempts to teach the proper way “to perform a funeral.” The speaker gives advice in four areas: hearse, flowers, driver, and bereaved.
In stanzas 1 through 3, objecting to the usual funeral, with its standardized conventions which insulate mourners from the meaning of death, the speaker would substitute for the polished black hearse a “rough dray” to be dragged over the ground, with no decoration other than perhaps gilt paint applied to the wheels for the occasion. In stanza 4, in place of the usual wreaths or hothouse flowers, the speaker recommends “Some common memento . . . / something he prized and is known by:/ his old clothes—a few books perhaps—/ God knows what!” In stanza 5, he would have the driver pulled down from his seat to “walk at the side/ and inconspicuously too!” His final admonition, in stanza 6, is to the mourners:
Walk behind—as they do in France,seventh class, or if you rideHell take curtains! Go with some showof inconvenience; sit openly—to the weather as to grief.Or do you think you can shut grief in?What—from us? We who have perhapsnothing to lose? Share with usshare with us—it will be moneyin your pockets. Go nowI think you are ready.
By such simplicity and show of inconvenience, the poem holds, the townspeople “are ready” to conduct a funeral properly.
At first glance, “Tract” seems to be a poem of direct statement: The speaker attempts to reform his neighbors’ ideas about the proper conduct of a familiar ritual by setting forth specific precepts. The speaker’s impulse to reform, however, reveals a preoccupation with the idea of form that goes beyond the subject of funerals. The fact that the funeral is a common ritual is a reminder that any such group activity is inevitably symbolic and, in Williams’s view, a kind of art. From this perspective, the speaker’s injunctions apply not only to one rite but also to a whole range of symbolic activity in which members of a community may be involved.
Metaphorically, the “tract” becomes a statement of an aesthetic as the poet asserts his commitment to certain principles of form which he urges upon his unenlightened townspeople. These are, not surprisingly, the familiar tenets of an organic theory in which rigid, predetermined conventions are rejected in favor of forms that are free and functional and adapted to the circumstances from which they arise. The separate assertions of what had seemed a poetry of statement are revealed to be integral parts of a more comprehensive, dramatically unified symbolic art.
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