Sunday, May 31, 2009

"This Is Just To Say"

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

- William Carlos Williams

In its economy, Williams' poem, "This Is Just To Say," takes a form typical of his work. It is only eleven lines long, with no line containing more than three words. In addition, the title functions as if it were the first line, furthering the poem's economy. The poem seems to be a simple note, perhaps taped to a refrigerator, notifying someone that the plums that she (no specific gender is referred to, but for the purposes of this essay I am assuming that the note-write is male and the plum-saver is female--mostly because the author is male) has been saving for breakfast have been eaten. The note goes on to ask for forgiveness and uses the sweet, cold deliciousness of the plums as a justification for the transgression. However, on closer examination, what seems to be a simple note begins to take on a deeper, more complex meaning. The poem becomes a metaphor for man's inability to resist temptation, and further, for his lack of remorse for his sins.

As mentioned above, the title of the poem serves as the opening line and gives us the impression that it is the introduction to a brief note. The word "Just" in the title has the effect of making us feel that the content of the rest of the note will probably be something of little importance and is only written as an afterthought or as a courtesy. It is as if the speaker is trying to diffuse what he thinks might become a contentious situation before announcing what has actually happened.

Stanza one explains what has happened. The plums that were in the icebox have been eaten by the speaker. There is little in this stanza that gives us insight to the speaker's motivations or feelings about what he has done. However, it gives us the triggering action that is the impetus for the rest of the poem.

Stanza two, on the other hand, reveals the true conflict. The plums that the speaker has eaten were being saved for breakfast by the person to whom the note is written. Further, the note-writer has a pretty good idea that this person is saving them as is evidenced by the fact that he writes in lines six and seven "you were probably saving. . ." The fact that the speaker knows that he has trespassed against the plum-saver begins to give us some insight to the true complexity of the situation. Also, the mention of breakfast in line seven makes it seem as if the plum-saver may have already retired for the night at the time that the note was written and the note-writer, perhaps coming home late or getting up early, has stumbled on the "forbidden fruit" and impulsively gobbled them up. The question of whether the note-writer cares that the plums were being saved begins to appear since, up to this point, there is no mention of remorse.

Stanza three begins with the words "Forgive me" (line 8), thus indicating that the note-writer does understand the implications of his actions. However, lines nine through eleven in which the note-writer describes the plums as being "Delicious/so sweet/and so cold" seem almost taunting as if the note-writer was trying to rub it in to the plum-saver that she has missed out on what she was saving, and further, tht it was worth saving because of how good it was. The fact that in stanza one "plums" is plural shows us that there was more than one plum. Therefore, the note-writer could have saved at least one whole plum while consuming one for himself. This indicates some degree of gluttony on his part. It begins to seem as if the note-writer was not only unable to resist the temptation of the plums, but he may have actually eaten them all on purpose as an act of aggression against the plum-saver. An additional hint that this might be true is the use of the words "so cold" to describe the plums. This choice of words brings to mind the saying that "revenge is a dish best served cold." Suddenly, as we finish reading this poem, the possibility that the note-writer is doing nothing more than taunting the plum-saver with the details of how good the plums were occurs to us. In hindsight, the entire note begins to take on a taunting tone.

Though there is ambiguity as to whether or not the note-writer had vengeance or aggression in mind when consuming the plums, it seems clear that he was unable to resist the temptation of what he clearly knew was off-limits. The fact that he went to the trouble to describe how delicious the fruit was indicates a lack of true remorse for what he has done and almost a revelry in his misdeed.

The strength of this poem lies in its ability to appeal to the reader on several different levels, both individually and simultaneously. using only twenty-eight words (thirty-three counting the title), Williams is able to conjure up images of things ranging from a simple note on the fridge to archetypal concepts of forbidden fruit and man's inability to resist temptation. In the poem's ambiguities we find questions as to whether the speaker is simply a gluttonous fool or a vengeful character bent on tormenting his adversary. It is not in absolute answers that the power of this poem lies, but in the fact that it has the ability to continually challenge the reader to plumb its depths.

I wrote this in November of 1993. In the last few weeks I've been teaching my high school American Literature class about the "moderns," including Williams. It made me think of this essay, so I dug it out and posted it here.

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