A POEM AND ITS PARODIES -- THIS IS JUST TO SAY...
Sometime early in the Great Depression, in the poetry hotbed of Rutherford, New Jersey, a doctor came home to find a note on the “icebox.”
“Dear Bill: I've made a couple of sandwiches for you. In the ice-box you'll find blue-berries--a cup of grapefruit, a glass of cold coffee. On the stove is the tea-pot with enough tea leaves for you to make tea if you prefer--Just light the gas-- boil the water. . .”
On the note went, ending:
Love, Floss. Please switch off the telephone.
Your average doctor would have eaten the sandwiches, made the tea, switched off the phone. But this doctor was also a poet. A decade had passed since his last collection, but he was working on a new one. Poetry, he insisted, should be living language. So he was always seeking the rhythms of speech, listening to friends, family, his patients, asking “how shall I be a mirror to this modernity?”
Sometime early in the Depression, William Carlos Williams played with his wife’s little note.
This Is Just To Say…
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold.
Though it first appeared with little fanfare in a book of just 500 copies, “This is Just to Say” is now among America’s most beloved poems. High school teachers love it because it tells teens, struggling to extract wisdom from their messy lives, that anything can be a poem. College profs love it because they can tangle its simple structure in terminology such as “visual prosody” and “heavily enjambed.” And budding poets love it because it’s so easy to parody. (Stay tuned.)
But why is this a poem? When asked, Williams pointed to its carefully broken lines, its “patches of metrical coherence.” But everydayness makes the poem special. “No one believes that poetry can exist in his own life,” Williams said. “The purpose of an artist, whatever it is, is to take the life, whatever he sees, and to raise it up to an elevated position where it has dignity.”
In 1933, Williams turned 50. As chief of pediatrics at a New Jersey hospital, he had wearied of the exhausting work. But poetry remained ever fresh. And writing in the age of e.e. cummings, just as H.L. Mencken was eulogizing The American Language, Williams favored the daring, the modern, the local. Above all, he knew a poem when he heard it, and this was one. Evocative. Fun. Just the thing to tweak those old masters, so set in their rules. Just the thing to say: “This is a poem, dammit. From New Jersey!”
Williams has been called a “cubist,” a modernist, but “This is Just to Say” made him poetry’s populist, proving in 12 lines that poetry is a part of daily life. Reading Williams, one professor noted, “each reader is left free to construct a poem, and the reader becomes the owner of the resulting poem.”
The parodies began in the 1960s with Kenneth Koch’s “Variations on William Carlos Williams.”
I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting. . .
Koch also got his students in on the fun. One sixth-grader wrote:
This is Just to Say...
Sorry I took your money and burned it,
but it looked like the world falling apart
when it crackled and burned.
So I think it was worth it.
After all, you can't see the world fall apart every day.
Williams’ note/poem has since become an Internet meme, a trope that seems to surface everywhere. Hashtags in hand, the parodies go on and on and on. So This is Just to Say. . .
I have closed
that were in
you were probably
Forgive me. . .
And this is just to say. . .
I have written a post
About dreams and angst
And recovery from
Too much of everything
Which you probably
Weren’t thinking about remotely…
Can’t these poets find their own poems? On refrigerators? On subway walls? Online? But Williams would have appreciated the mimicry. Poetry, he said, pushes “the advancing edge of art: that’s the American tradition.” And “This is Just to Say” freed all poets to find poetry wherever language is playful.
So dare to eat a peach. Dare to overhear a line. Dare to call anything you like — forgive me — a poem. “The poem is our objective,” Williams wrote, “the secret at the heart of the matter.”
(Thanks again to my neighbor and WCW biographer Paul Mariani.)