William Carlos Williams’ Poem, ‘This Is Just To Say’

I recently analyzed a Charles Bukowski poem (shocker!) on the blog, it was just a little while ago, where he makes observations about little things in life, the leftover sandwich and the overturned shoes, and Tirza (Tirza Reads) mentioned how it reminded her of William Carlos Williams’ poem This Is Just To Say.

What a lovely poem it is, in the same vein of Bukowski’s, both in terms of simplicity and brevity:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

When researching Williams, as I like to do with poets I’m not familiar with, I learned that there is a name for this sort of poetry: Imagism. According to Wikipedia, Imagism was an early-20th century movement in America that favored “precision of imagery and clear, sharp language,” that was the catalyst for modernism. Poets in this loosely-connected movement, like Williams, believed in the “directness of presentation, economy of language, and a willingness to experiment with non-traditional verse forms. Imagists used free verse.”

Who knew that in all my time of enjoying poetry exactly like that that it actually has a name? Well, others apparently did, but I’ve never taken a poetry class to my remembrance (which is spotty at best), so I didn’t know that.

This poem really exemplifies the Imagism movement. It’s a 12-line poem with only 28 words all about the delicious, sweet and cold plums Williams has taken from the icebox (a much cooler (puns!) name for the precursor to the refrigerator), for which someone else — the “you” here, perhaps a lover, a friend, a relative? — was prepared to have instead.

The simple way to read it is … the simple way: Williams is reflecting the simple joy (even if naughty!) of enjoying some delicious plums. Whoops, sorry about taking them from you. We’ve all done this, right? If you’ve ever had a shared icebox filled with leftovers or prepared food or store-bought food for days later, it’s inevitable that at some point, you’re going to eat something meant for someone else. Because it just looks so darn delicious sitting there waiting to be eaten! And yes, you feel bad about it, but it was also delicious. It’s a fun mix of low-key, day-to-day emotions.

But, of course, it wouldn’t be poetry analysis without people excavating the poem a bit more, looking for deeper themes. Is Williams trying to say (in a simple way) something about temptation? Guilt? How even the smallest acts of thievery or wrongness can fill us with guilt alongside those delicious, sweet and cold plums?

Maybe. But the poem is also entitled This Is Just To Say. So maybe the poem is just to say that plums are delicious and he wanted them. Nothing more, nothing less. That’s beautiful, too.

To be sure, while it is as simple and uses brevity like Bukowski, one note I’ll make is that Bukowski’s words always drips with a bit more … nihilism? In a way? Maybe some would call it cynicism or fatalism or whatever other “ism,” but he ended his simple observational poem with, “yes, some lives were made to be wasted.” Whereas, Williams is almost giddy with his little plum thievery, and that translates into a fun read. Again, it’s the joy of life rather than a meditation on the wastefulness of life. And Bukowski doesn’t exactly seem to be taking pleasure in the sandwich he’s eating at 6 a.m.

It reminds me of still life painting, where the painter paints a basket of fruit or some such object that’s, well, still. It’s simple, but sometimes simple conveys the most.

What do you think of this poem?

2 thoughts

  1. Thank you for the mention, Brett! And that is great information about imagism. I think the imagist poetry is some of my favorite. Another poem that gives a simple image is “The Red Wheelbarrow.” It’s one of my favorites for some reason, even though it’s such a short poem and there isn’t much to it. 😂

    I agree that Bukowski’s poems have a more readily seen expression of nihilism to them. I like that Bukowski uses some of the imagism style but goes beyond just the image and gives an emotional tone to his poetry. Williams’ poem might mean something more but it’s a little harder to name what it could mean if it really does mean anything beyond what is written. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this poem! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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