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

William Carlos Williams, "“To a Poor Old Woman”" from Collected Poems: 1909-1939, Volume I copyright 1938 by New Directions Publishing Corp. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
Source: Collected Poems: 1909-1939 Volume I (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1939)

Writing Ideas

1. The next time you share a meal with someone, closely observe his or her movements. Does he or she take pleasure in eating? How can you tell? Describe what—and how—he or she eats, and what you feel watching him or her.

2. Williams’s poem is about watching a woman take pleasure in eating a plum. Write a poem of your own, also focusing on a single voyeuristic action: watching someone stand in line at the bank, read a book at the library, ride a bus to work, or play with his dog in the park. What in their body language suggests how they feel about the experience?

3. Williams’s poem seems at times seductive and hedonistic—a poem about pure pleasure. Write a poem that explores some of the other emotions people often associate with eating: guilt, regret, anxiety, and so on.

Discussion Questions

1. Watching the “poor old woman” eat, how does Williams know the plums “taste good to her”? In what ways does he convey the poor old woman’s pleasure?

2. Is it important to the poem that you know it’s a “poor old woman” eating the plums? Why? How might the poem have been different if Williams had observed a wealthy young man, or someone closer to him (his mother, a friend, a lover) eating the same piece of fruit?

3. In the second stanza, Williams repeats the phrase “they taste good to her” three times, breaking each line in a different place. How does shifting the line break also shift the meaning of the phrase? How does it affect your understanding of the poem?

4. Williams rarely ends his lines at the end of a thought, instead choosing to run ideas together and over onto the following lines. How does this enjambment heighten your sense of the drama inherent in this otherwise ordinary scene? What other effects does it have on your reading—and your hearing—of the poem?

Teaching Tips

1. Write the second stanza of the poem on the board and ask several students to read it aloud, emphasizing the differences in intonation the line breaks offer. After this initial work with the whole group, ask students to explore possible interpretations of some of his other breaks, perhaps in small groups.

2. Have students explore the painting Nude Descending the Staircase by Marcel Duchamp and read the poem that shares the painting’s name by X.J. Kennedy. In light of the work of these two other artists, have students discuss how the freeze-frame effect of Williams’ line breaks contributes to his exploration of the role of imagination in one human being’s relationship to another, as the speaker asks us to pause and consider the sensory experience of the woman he observes.

3. After sharing Stephen Burt’s poem guide or its main ideas with students, have them generate ideas about why the speaker is speaking and the speaker’s possible audience(s). Have several students memorize and recite the poem, presenting through performance the various possible arguments of the poem.

4. “Can a warm man understand a man who is freezing?” This question is raised by Ivan, a freezing prisoner in one of Stalin’s notorious gulags from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The scene, in which the prisoner approaches a doctor in the sick bay and is struck by this question, raises interesting questions about the idea of empathy, perspective, and the role of imagination in human relations. After discussing the question, have students listen to and read the poem and discuss the ways in which the poem complicates this question.

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