One of my favorite poems is Kenneth Koch's "Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams" which spoofs (mocks?) "This is Just to Say" by Williams, the famous poem about the juicy, ripe plums the speaker ate, which hinges on his phrase "Forgive me," and is likely directed to someone he lives with (a little too loving to be the kind of workplace refrigerator note one finds on Passive Aggressive Notes)--it finds beauty in a mundane domestic moment. Koch's variations are a funny four stanzas which grow more zany and preposterous, to wonderful comic effect. Here are Koch's stanzas one and four:
I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry,
but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.
we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!
is popular with many people and one can find numerous examples of folks following his example to write spoofs of Williams' poem and creating some clever and often hilarious variations. Koch’s own techniques for teaching kids to write poetry rely on this
kind of imitation and improvisation and it’s delightful to find these done in
the same spirit.
Williams’ plums, along with
his red wheelbarrow and chickens, have become nearly kitschified in the culture,
to the point where I wouldn’t find it surprising to see a lacquered kitchen plaque
with the a watercolor of plums and the poem written next to it for sale at Bed, Bath and Beyond. (As I write this I am thinking that such a thing probably
already exists, if not at BBB then on Etsy, and then I wonder why that would
be such a bad thing after all…if we hang posters of Edward Hopper paintings in
our homes or offices, are we not sustained by their vision, even if we could
never possibly own an oil painting of one?)
[As an aside, I find it
daunting to write about poetry on the Best American Poetry blog, though I have
read poetry my whole life, know quite a bit about it, and have strong opinions.
However, I can imagine the untrammeled vitriol to the above statement which
might seem to endorse Beth,
While I have not written a spoof of “This is Just to Say,” I have written variations and imitations of Williams’ poems in recent years. I went to them as instructors because I sought change in my approach to composition; they have taught me economy and simplicity in word choice, line breaks, and free verse forms, as well as complexity, length and masterful digression—there is his "Wheelbarrow" but also his "Asphodel" and both are American poetic masterpieces which can teach us much about technique. Williams also shows one how to observe the truth of a situation with a cold eye but not with a cold heart. Take, for instance, the young woman in “The Young Housewife,” leaving her domestic confines of a house that she is wife to, but is not hers: "At ten AM the young housewife / moves about in negligee behind / the wooden walls of her husband's house. / I pass solitary in my car."
At the end,
when the speaker says, “I bow and pass smiling” we find that his propriety and politeness
are mixed up with erotic feeling toward the housewife who dresses too
revealingly in her daily routines with male tradesmen. This is the daily life
of many of us, our impulses, erotic or otherwise, held in check by polite
gestures. As observers we take it in, nod, feel what we feel, and pass on our
way, neither heroic nor heinous. Williams is not without his bold assertions,
though, such as the first line of "For Elsie" : “The pure products of