William Carlos Williams: “To a Poor Old Woman”
TO A POOR OLD WOMAN
munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand
They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her
You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand
a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her
How does he know she is poor? From her dress, perhaps, or from the fact that she is eating her plums on the street and seems eager (“they taste,” not “it tastes”) to eat more than one. The exceptional pleasure she shows suggests poverty too; plums are not especially expensive, but she may not be able to afford them except as an unusual pleasure, a treat. She may have had to splurge to buy a whole bag.
Many ancient and modern poems encourage us to pluck flowers or enjoy ripe fruit; most of these poems address the nubile young with sexual overtones. Williams wrote poems in this tradition himself (see, e.g., “Queen Anne’s Lace”). Here, though, Williams gives us hunger rather than lust, and a woman who is (too) “old” to fit the poetic conventions that liken virgins to rosebuds and new wives to plucked fruit. She is, instead, a citizen: unfortunate in her circumstances, fortunate in how she finds these plums. This is a modern, egalitarian riposte to a European tradition; modern poems, it seems to say, ought to acknowledge all sorts of enjoyment, for all sorts of people, especially those shut out of older verse.
Williams enjoyed such ripostes: he liked to show comfort, beauty, and profundity in materials (places, people, objects) that almost any previous poet (except for Walt Whitman) would have thought ugly. “Between Walls,” for example, shows us “broken // pieces of a green / glass bottle”; here we see an otherwise nondescript woman on the street. “To a Poor Old Woman” is a poem of appreciation—for the taste of the plum as the old woman seems to find it, and for the old woman herself, for her power to enjoy life despite her poverty and to find “solace” where she can.
We can notice all these goals as the poem works to meet them, and still ignore Williams’s most important invention, an invention that this poem exemplifies. Not only did Williams work to see a more egalitarian America, but he also worked to hear it, to make a new American sound from spoken language. Whitman modeled his democratic free verse on the long lines he found in the King James Bible (for example, in the Psalms): he described nineteenth-century America in end-stopped lines and sentences whose cadence—however unlike Longfellow’s or Tennyson’s—grew from centuries-old English roots. Williams invented free verse of a whole new sort. Unlike Whitman’s works, a Williams poem is usually short-lined, irregular in cadence, and dependent on frequent enjambments, where line breaks at phrase ends are the exception rather than the rule. Williams did not do it all himself—as early as the late 1910s, fellow poets were publishing similar verse in the same magazines—but among all those allies, he had the best ear and most often found the best uses for the defiantly un-English, un-Biblical, demotic patterns he heard. His constant exposure to immigrants’ speech, his own trilingual background (his mother spoke French and Spanish at home), and the procession of working-class patients he encountered as a New Jersey doctor likely helped.
In this new American free verse, the line break became Williams’s great, virtuosic instrument and “To a Poor Old Woman” is a bravura performance. Its repeated independent clause, “They taste good to her,” becomes something like a scientific experiment: line breaks vary, while the rest of the language (the same words in the same order) remains constant. We thus see the power that enjambment can exert over sentence sound and meaning. The first iteration works as a sort of control group showing the sentence whole, as a line without enjambment (“They taste good to her”). They taste good, rather than bad; Williams can see, and we see with him, how much she enjoys them. The second iteration (“They taste good / to her”) suggests that they might not taste good to us (unless we are poor); her hunger leads her to rate the plums more highly than we would. And the next restatement (“They taste / good to her”) could imply that, while they may taste good, they look ugly (spotted, bruised, discolored, or half-rotten). The break after “taste” also emphasizes “good,” so that we ask what good means, what might be “good to her.” The last line repeats the sentence without enjambment. In between comes more description, as in a cinematic close-up: to know more about what “good” means to her, we have to look longer at her.
Other stanzas further reveal the beauty in Williams’s irregular yet patterned verse. Williams never uses the sort of rhyme schemes we might find in someone like Robert Frost, but he does embed half-rhyme in couplets: “herself . . . half,” “the air . . . to her.” “Comforted . . . ripe plums” revels in “o” and “u” sounds, in repeated “p” and “m,” and brings back, perhaps, the sounds in “munch.” The poem tries to savor its sounds, as this old woman savors her fruit. When “To a Poor Old Woman” appeared in a magazine in 1934, the last stanza began “Comforted, relieved—”; Williams’s revision emphasizes the positive idea of comfort, not the negative one of “relief” from privation, by giving the poem its only one-word line.
In recordings of Williams reading this poem and others, he does not pause at line breaks, but uses them as marks of emphasis. To hear him read these lines is to see how enjambments allow him to choose among the potential meanings and tones for his key words. Such lessons in listening also become lessons in democratic sympathy. Listening to these lines about this woman means paying sustained attention to her by listening to language she might use (all common monosyllables, repeated) and thinking about what she enjoys and how she might feel. For Williams, the neglected syllables, the “common” and too often overlooked words in our language, correspond to the “common” people and to common pleasures: as we attend to one, we defend them all.
“To a Poor Old Woman” might end on a lesson especially appropriate for the Depression, a lesson about charity, pity, and social class. If we are fortunate enough to read modern poems frequently, if we are closer in social position to Williams than to the woman of whom he writes, we ought to think, when we think of “the poor,” not of abstractions to be treated alike but of many people with many tastes. “They taste good to her,” the complete independent clause, recurs to conclude the poem. As a stand-alone line, it does not give, as the earlier stanza did, some contrast between what she does and what we might do, between what the plums are to her and what they might be to us; rather, it offers the simpler fact of her delight, her “solace . . . seeming to fill the air.” She becomes an example, and not only a political, ethical one: she (via Williams) might help us to enjoy life—to enjoy what we hear, and what we taste—ourselves. No wonder, then, that in these sixteen lines Williams finds pleasure in all five senses: sight, hearing (the onomatopoeia of “munching”), taste and touch (her lips on “sucked out” fruit), and finally the savor of plums in the air.
When you first come to Williams, you may ask why his work sounds so little like older poetry, whether it has anything at all in common with the verse of John Keats, his first love, or of William Shakespeare. When you read him often, you will see how close to those older poets’ concerns William Carlos Williams, for all his new American metrics, can come. Keats, like Williams, celebrated the sense of taste, and the pleasures of this Earth, while evoking their limits, in his “Ode on Melancholy” (which also involves ripe fruit). Williams echoes, and renders secular, language from the Bible too: “O taste and see that the Lord is good,” says Psalm 34.
Yet these allusions, even if we hear them, lie far below the surface of Williams’s carefully egalitarian claims. The plainest, most common parts of creation, the simplest pleasures, the poorest and least apparently remarkable people, as well as the most everyday words, are, for Williams, as important as the most rarified. From this woman’s unconcealed hunger, her unrefined and necessary enjoyment, and his new American rhythms, Williams assembles an appropriate poem of praise.
Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...