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.
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.
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.
(**I wrote this a few years ago when my daughter was a teenager. It was published in the New Smyrna Beach Observer.**)
The b-word is a silent word in my house. I glare at anyone that uses it, and they know to stay far away from me if they do. It’s not the b-word you are probably thinking of. It’s the word bored.
If you are a parent, chances are you hear the b-word quite often, especially during long summer vacations, spring break or on those horrible half-days the county has so generously offered its students. When my 17-year-old, Kayla, allows my ears to hear what a dull life she has, I hand her a “nothing to do list” that may include the following: wash the car, read a book, pull weeds, or watch the birds play in the trees.
Of course Kayla doesn’t seem to appreciate my “nothing to do list”, usually answering back with something like, “That was the old days, Mom. Kids don’t do those things anymore.”
“Then here are the car keys,” I say smiling, handing her the keys, and watch her eyes light up for a slight moment. “The only place you’re driving is on the lawn – where you will be washing the car.”
After enough times of creating my “nothing to do list” for her, Kayla is learning slowly but surely that life isn’t so boring after all. Miraculously, her mind is suddenly stimulated with her own to-do list when she sees me pick up that pad of paper and pen.
Except to write this article, the word bored is not even a part of my own vocabulary. With a never-ending to-do list, I cannot fathom being bored with nothing to do. I do confer that if you find yourself bored, then more than likely you are probably boring as well. Incidentally, the definition of the root word bore means a dull, tiresome person or thing. If your children are bored, perhaps it’s time to take a look at meaningful and enriching things for them to do with their lives. The same applies to bored (or boring) adults.
Just the other day I was observing old photographs of children taken in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. I wondered how bored they must have been without television, video games, cell phones, and computers. What in the world did those kids do to entertain themselves? What boring lives they must have led! Then I quickly remembered my own childhood during the 1970’s and 80’s.
I didn’t have video games, my own phone, a computer, or cable television either. Our family was a little on the poor side, so most summer vacations and spring breaks were spent riding my bike or going to the beach, and of course as I got older I worked. I had books to read, poetry to write, and friends to play with in the street. Since most of my friends also came from monetarily challenged families, we did anything and everything we could to be out of our houses, because most of us didn’t have the luxury of living in air-conditioned homes year round. We weren’t given many choices, which forced us to think creatively instead of clouding our reality with things of substance rather than superficial junk.
I have lived in different cities and have had the opportunity to teach amongst various income levels throughout my adult life. When I taught young children, I would take them out to recess and they always wanted to bring the balls or hula-hoops. Sometimes I wouldn’t let them bring the balls or hula-hoops or anything, and I’d tell them they had to bring their imaginations. At first they would be angry with me, moping around the playground, kicking sand and pouting, and then I would suggest they use the slide as a ship, the dirt as a fort, etc. After awhile they caught on and they’d laugh and say “Can we go to recess and bring our imaginations?”
Given too many options, children will become bored, and ultimately will become boring adults as well. What children need are not new gadgets; what they need is fostering of the mind. Take away all of the shallow objects they think they need and see what becomes of them. They may amaze you with some of the things that can come from within themselves. Or you can do like me and hand them a “nothing to do list” next time that b-word comes out of their mouths or just tell them to bring their imaginations!