The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The title of William Carlos Williams’s “The Yachts” serves as the first two words of the poem. Making the title and the poem continuous in this manner is a technique he uses elsewhere, in poems such as “To a Poor Old Woman” and “The Raper from Passenack.” It calls into question the separability of the poem’s subject and its expression. Yachts have always been an emblem of wealth, but beginning in the 1890’s they became particularly strongly identified with American business magnates who did battle for the America’s Cup in races off Newport, Rhode Island. Seeking both to retain the cup and to avoid being the first American to lose, J. P. Morgan, the Vanderbilts, and other tycoons sailed against foreign contenders such as Sir Thomas Lipton in huge racing craft that were aesthetic and engineering wonders driven by acres of canvas.

The poem is descriptive and narrative through the first eight stanzas but becomes nightmarish in the final three stanzas. Sea and harbor are very different domains, and the yachts that “contend” in stanza 1 do so with one another and not directly with the “ungoverned ocean.” Here, the yachts seem fragile and face outside the harbor an inimical force that “sinks them pitilessly.” Their implied delicacy of construction is confirmed when the yachts are described as “Mothlike in mists” and “scintillant in the minute brilliance of cloudless days”—a phrase that gives the entire scene the shimmer...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Yachts” is composed in terza rima, a series of three-line stanzas that was used by Dante in the fourteenth century as the stanza form of the The Divine Comedy (c. 1320), and by the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in “Ode to the West Wind.” In a fully realized terza rima, the three-line stanzas are in iambic pentameter rhythm and are linked by a complex overlapping rhyme scheme: aba, bcb, cdc, and similar patterns. Williams gestures toward this pattern of rhyme by making the first four lines conform to it. The rhyme is soon abandoned, however, with the loose rhythm of blank unrhymed verse used throughout the rest of the poem. Aside from making “The Yachts” unusual—Williams rarely borrowed traditional poetic forms—the terza rima recalls the theme of creation and destruction in the Dante and Shelley poems. Still, the lapsed interlace rhyme and Williams’s use of blank verse mark the poem’s origin in the twentieth century, and the reader might expect that the handling of its themes will similarly reflect a modern sensibility.

The relation between the sentence units and the individual lines and stanzas in “The Yachts” shows the strain Williams places on the traditional terza rima form. Lines and stanzas in the poem do not usually end with one of the natural breaks within the sentences. The first sentence ends partway through the second stanza, and within the sentence the phrases...

(The entire section is 583 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.