Saturday, September 27, 2014

MOOC ModPo Bonus Feature: "Portrait of a Lady" by William Carlos Williams

Songs of Eretz Poetry Review is pleased to present a MOOC ModPo bonus feature, "The rose is obsolete" (first published in Dial, 1920) by William Carlos Williams.  The poem is in the public domain and therefore legally reprinted here.  An audio recording of a reading of the poem by the poet may be found here:  Williams was the Songs of Eretz Poet of the Month for August 2014.  A brief biography of Williams and references may be found here:

Portrait of a Lady
William Carlos Williams

Your thighs are appletrees 
whose blossoms touch the sky. 
Which sky? The sky 
where Watteau hung a lady's 
slipper. Your knees 
are a southern breeze -- or 
a gust of snow. Agh! what
sort of man was Fragonard?
-- As if that answered
anything. -- Ah, yes. Below 
the knees, since the tune
drops that way, it is 
one of those white summer days, 
the tall grass of your ankles 
flickers upon the shore -- 
Which shore? --
the sand clings to my lips -- 
Which shore?
Agh, petals maybe. How
should I know?
Which shore? Which shore?
-- the petals from some hidden 
appletree -- Which shore?
I said petals from an appletree.

"Portrait of a Lady" is a satirical examination of the frustrations faced by a modernist poet attempting to compose a traditional love poem, probably a sonnet.  Throughout the poem and intruding upon it are the musings of the poet as he composes it.  This creates a satirical meta-poem--a poem about the process of writing a modern love poem.  

In an attempt at originality, the poet begins by describing his lady's thighs--most traditional poets would have started with her eyes (which rhymes with thighs).  He then tries to choose an unusual (to be diplomatic) metaphor for his lady's thighs, doubtless in an attempt to avoid cliches.  The unfortunate apple tree touches the sky with its blossoms--a cliche if ever there was one.  So, the poet attempts to mitigate this by evoking the sky of Watteau--a poor choice, as Watteau was a Rococo painter.

Moving on to his lady's knees, the poet at first compares them to a southern "breeze," nicely rhyming with "knees" and "trees."  The poet immediately realizes that he has written a horrible cliche, just what he was trying to avoid, and hurriedly contemplates substituting "a gust of snow," of all things, in an attempt to be modern.

Moving on, the poet compares his lady's ankles to tall grass flickering upon a shore.  At this point, he becomes completely flummoxed, angry, and disgusted with himself.  In desperation, he attempts to return to his original metaphor of apple blossoms, and then winds up abandoning the entire project.  The abortive and disastrous poem in progress probably would have read something like this:

Your thighs are apple trees
whose blossoms touch the sky--
the sky where Watteau hung a lady's slipper. 
Your knees are a southern breeze.

Below the knees one of those white summer days.
The tall grass of your ankles
flickers upon the shore.
The sand clings to my lips.

The petals from some hidden apple tree

It must have indeed been difficult and frustrating for the modernists to break away from the expectations of a traditional love poem.  This is still a problem for the poets of today.  My advice?  Stick to the old school stuff when writing poetry for the purpose of wooing women.  It may be a cliche and tired way to go, but it still produces the desired results--perhaps better than any other form will ever be able to do so.

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