Modern poetry broke the barrier of poetry and prose and transformed into a new form of narration that is textually interdependent. The poem, “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams is a short, autobiographical, 12-lined poem, that seeks forgiveness from the poet’s wife, for an insignificant offence of eating the plums that she might have saved for the breakfast.
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The offence is not of significance for an analysis as this being a modern poem, shows how poetry can be written about anything and everything. The poem clearly demonstrates how a poem can be poetic in tis simplistic theme and way. The poem stands out in its brevity and summons a plethora of interpretations.
Some believe that the poem is a biographical confession to Williams’s wife while other interpretations more strenuously focuses on the part the poem plays in associating with Modernism, Imagism, or with the idea of poem that Williams has associated with in his published essays (Bogel 103).
Some other interpretations of the poem have concerned itself with the apologetic or forgiveness seeking language of the poem and interpret the moral and linguistic pattern of the act presented in the poem (Bogel 103). Some other critics like Charles Altieri have used this poem to dissecting the literary text to tease out meaning of words like “Just” to literarily contextualize the poem (Bogel 104).
So, how can we interpret the poem, given such diverse interpretation provided by critics? Is it simply an autobiographical poem seeking forgiveness or does it hold some greater meaning within the poem’s brevity and simplicity? Alternatively, is it an exposition of the nature or state of marriage? I will argue in this essay that Williams in the poem “This is Just to Say”, tries to invoke an argumentative communication between the husband and wife.
I believe Williams’s poem is filled with sensual marital emotions that has often been belittled by other interpreters. Some critics believe that the poem is an inquiry into the nature of forgiveness, but the most apparent meaning that becomes apparent after reading the poem is the intensity of the relationship that is demonstrated through the words.
The poem, I believe, demonstrates the relationship between couples, through the description of the actual eating of the plum. This act demonstrates the nature and state of the domestic relation. The relationship between the man and the woman seem to be strong and long-standing as the woman seemingly accepts this short, almost half-hearted apology of the man.
I believe the apology is half hearted as the speaker simply states what he has done and how he felt eating the plum, but makes not further promise of not doing it again nor does he give any reason why he has actually eaten the plums. Instead, he simply writes a note of apology and is almost sure that his partner will understand him and excuse his action. Thus, in its brevity and almost incompleteness, the poem holds the secret to the relation of a couple described in the poem.
Some critics believe that the poem is not eating a literally eating a plum, which is simply a euphemism to depict the poet’s supposed infidelity with another woman. The apology that the poet seeks is not simply for eating the plum but for his sexual transgressions, which he may continue doing in future, as he has not left a note stating that he promises not to do it again.
If we assume that the poem is about a confession of infidelity, then it leaves another aspect of the relationship between the couple. The poet leaves the readers wondering that if he was actually apologizing for an extramarital affair to his wife, why did he not complete his apology by stating his intentions for the future. It almost seems that the poet assumes that his wife will understand whatever he has done and will accept it, without seeking any assurance of a cessation of his infidelity. This definitely raises questions regarding the coldness and indifference in the marital relationship of the poet and his wife.
Be it eating the literal plum or the sexual encounter, the poem definitely leaves the apology unfinished, leaving a large space for interpretation. The relationship and the state of the relationship between the poet and his wife remain shady and somewhat shadowed by the veil of understanding.
Does she really understand the actions of her husband and accepts an unfinished apology or does she pounces on this half-hearted apology and starts a marital feud? Thus, can the poem be interpreted as an apology intended to ignite an argument with his wife? I believe that the poem shows the state of a marital relationship.
The poet commits an action that he is sure would be prohibited by his wife and so he simply writes a letter of apology to state what he has done, instead of expressing his intentions of not doing it again. In his non-expression, we may assume that he intends to continue doing such a thing, and is almost not bothered as to what his wife will make of his action. He asks for her forgiveness but does not say that he will not do it in future.
The usage of the words “This is just to say I have eaten the plums” (Williams par. 1) the poet simply states a reality and creates a rhetorical communication rather than a referential one. The very first lines of the poem act as a beacon to marital argument. The sentence that states “so sweet and so cold” actually depicts the state of the marriage that is sweet for the poet at the same time he could feel coldness in it.
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The poem ends with this sentence but there is no punctuation to show the ending. In a way this poem seems a pre-dialogue before a quarrel where the poet states what he has done and seems unapologetic about the act and that is why he sarcastically say “Forgive me they were delicious” (Williams par. 3). These words actually imply his sarcasm, taunting his wife’s temper and stating his actions and his defiance of her regime.
Hence, I feel the poem is a precursor of a marital quarrel rather than a poem of apology. In a way, the poem is an exposition of the marital life of marital couple living together in querulous routine and fight on trivial issues.
Is this really a poem? A modernist trope of writing poetry is to keep the readers wondering if the poem they read is actually a poem. Thus, it leaves the readers think about what poetry actually is. The rhetorical issue that the poem brings forth is the relation between the poet and his partner and the nature of the relation that may be rhetorical or literal.
Bogel, Fredric. New Formalist Criticism: Theory and Practice. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print.
Williams, William C. “This is Just to Say.” 1993. Poetry Foundation. Web.