Spontaneous Poetics – (William Carlos Williams – 5 – To Elsie)

AG: There’s a very beautiful poem to America (by William Carlos Williams) called “To Elsie”. Considering how mixed-up everyone else was in their language, and how mixed-up they were in their desires, substituting desires for television with desire for a clear language, or practice of clear language, or substituting argument for clear language. [Allen reads Williams’ “To Elsie”]


The pure products of America
go crazy –
mountain-folk from Kentucky

or the ribbed north end of
with its isolate lakes and

valleys, its deaf mutes, thieves,
old names
and promiscuity between

devil-may-care men who have taken
to railroading
out of sheer lust of adventure –

and young slatterns, bathed
in filth
from Monday to Saturday

to be tricked out that night
with gauds
from imaginations which have no

peasant traditions to give them
but flutter and flaunt

sheer rags – succumbing without
save numbed terror

under some hedge of choke-cherry
or viburnum –
which they cannot express –

Unless it be that marriage
with a dash of Indian blood

will throw up a girl so desolate
so hemmed round
with disease or murder

that she’ll be rescued by an
agent –
reared by the state and

sent out at fifteen to work in
some hard-pressed
house in the suburbs –

some doctor’s family, some Elsie –
voluptuous water
expressing with broken

brain the truth about us
her great
ungainly hips and flopping breasts

addressed to cheap
and rich young men with fine eyes

as if the earth under our feet
an excrement of some sky

and we degraded prisoners
to hunger until we eat filth

while the imagination strains
after deer
going by fields of goldenrod in

the stifling heat of September
it seems to destroy us

it is only in isolate flecks that
is given off

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car.

Student: That’s called “Elsie”?  “To Elsie”?

AG: Well, it’s (a) section – “To Elsie”.  It’s on page 270 of the Collected Earlier Poems. That was one of the first I heard him read, I think. What was interesting, and relevant to what we’re talking about, in terms of working with the particular and accepting the particular – or accepting the self, (accepting the place where we are means accepting the suffering of the situation, as well as accepting the realization that we’ve all sold ourselves out for heaven, and sold the earth out, and are not appreciative of what we have already) – “as if the earth under our feet/ were /an excrement of some sky / and we degraded prisoners/ destined/ to hunger until we eat filth”

Student: Will you say something about the line “addressed to…

AG: “…rich young men with fine eyes”

Student: ..addressed to cheap ornamental jewellery or something…

AG: Her “hips and flopping breasts/  addressed to cheap/  jewellery” – (“addressed” means, as well, “dressed” – dressed with cheap jewellery) – but, addressed her sex and woman parts, “addressed” (to) “rich young men with fine eyes”, who take advantage of her – “giving herself to”.. as a fifteen-year-old hard-working maid, sent out by the State to work as a house-girl in a doctor’s office.. there’s the young prince of the family, coming along, up in the attic, to fuck her and give her a baby, (then need) to get an abortion, or whatever. So he was just noting the sociology of it (all)

Student : Yes I guess, but the word “addressed”, I was wondering…

AG: It’s interesting. “her great/ ungainly hips and flopping breasts/  addressed to cheap/  jewellery/ and rich young men with fine eyes/  as if the earth under our feet…” – as if that was the best she could do, as if that was all that fate had for her, as if that was all she could ask for.

Student: Uh-huh

AG: ..all that she knew to ask for.  “It is only in isolate flecks that/ something/ is give off” – those are the poems. Those are his poems, I think he was referring to (as well as “isolate flecks” of perception – occcasionally – isolate flecks of perception when we penetrate through our illusions and our daydreams and see our own condition, or own lack-love, or own imprecision, our own denial of our desires and denial of our own perceptions). “No one to drive the car” – that’s a funny metaphor – metaphor? – I guess it’s a metaphor for that condition of American life he was talking about (using a very American image). No one to drive the car – of the mind, I guess.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *