William Carlos Williams’ “Young Woman at a Window”

I love learning new things. Last year I took a free course on Coursera – Modern Poetry with Al Filreis from the University of Pennsylvania. One of ModPo’s assignments required us to compare Williams’ two poems, but the assignment required us to say why the second one was more imagist than the other. Once again, I did things my own way and disagreed that the second poem is more imagist than the first. I guess I see things differently.

The second version of William Carlos Williams’ “Young Woman at a Window” does not follow the imagist manifesto more clearly than the first, because both poems leave a large window of interpretation. In both versions, the images are questionable and often unclear. Although they are very similar, both tell a completely different story by the way they are written in stanza. Williams’ first version (v1) of the poem tells us a story of a woman being robbed by a child. In the second version (v2), Williams tells us about a woman on the verge of a breakdown.

wcw-young-woman-version-1

In the first line of v1, “While she sits / there”, the image is unclear. The word “while” is indefinite, as we do not know what period of time this could mean. She is sitting where? “There” does not indicate where she sits, so it does not mean the criteria of imagist poetry. In the second part of v1, “with tears on / her cheek,” the stanza seems to be clear that the tears are on her cheek without any alternative meaning or image. Williams uses the lines “her cheek on her hand” in both versions of the poem, but he separates them in stanzas. We know here that her cheek rests on her hand: “her cheek on / her hand” because it is in one stanza.

Williams’ choice of words in the fourth and fifth stanzas of v1: “this little child / who robs her // knows nothing of / his theft” could be construed as being either literally or figuratively robbed. Since imagists are supposed to be clear-cut in their poetry, I must conclude that this image is blurred from the poet’s intention.

At the end of v1, Williams concludes: “but rubs his / nose”. If in fact the child robbed the woman, he could very well thumb his nose at her. If he is figuratively robbing her, he is probably tired and crying, which causes him to rub his nose.

In v2 the poem begins: “She sits with / tears on” in the first stanza. This completely changes the meaning from the way it was written in v1 if each stanza represents a separate idea or image. The word “on” could be interpreted that the woman’s tears are turned on like a faucet.

wcw-young-woman-version-2

Because v2 has been broken up into separate stanzas: “her cheek/her cheek on // her hand, the child,” it paints a different picture than the first version. Here, her cheek is emphasized, which makes the reader wonder if this particular cheek is part of her face or her buttocks. We can imagine both scenarios – her cheek on her hand could mean resting her hand on her face or sitting on her hand. Even though we may assume in v2 her cheek may be on her hand, the separate stanzas are a new idea. Then Williams throws us with: “her hand / the child.” Is the child acting up and she uses her hand to discipline him? First we had her cheek on her hand, now it seems to be on the child. Who can blame this woman, because she is clearly stressed!

However, in v2, Williams eliminates the “child who robs her” stanza altogether. Instead, he writes: “in her lap // his nose.” Here I imagine the child’s nose in the woman’s lap, the way young children bury their heads, especially after they’ve been disciplined by the hand.

Finally, v2 ends with “pressed / to the glass,” and I believe that Williams is using figurative language here. When glass is pressed hard enough, it breaks. Perhaps other readers will assume the child’s nose is pressed to the glass, but because the stanzas are separate, I imagine differently.

Although the second version of the poem is considered “more imagist,” I have to disagree. Neither are “hard and clear” as defined by the imagist manifesto, in my opinion. Just because someone claims one to be “more” than the other doesn’t make it so.

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About Shannon Hart

Photographer, Writer, Artist

Posted on November 16, 2013, in Blogging, Education, Life, parenting, Poetry, Women, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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