May 26, 2013

THE FOURTH PANE: Observations on "Young Woman at a Window"

I have posted previous discussions of William Carlos Williams, one regarding "Danse Russe" and another on "Smell". I have also translated three of his pieces into Filipino ("Marriage", "XXII", and "Between Walls"), perhaps only one of which may be considered a success. Today, I wish to post a paper I once submitted comparing two versions of his one poem:


Williams's second version of this poem provides a solid example of imagism, of poetry aspiring to the impact and clarity of sculpture. It is "more imagist" than the first: a better cadence has been fleshed out, a superior condensation of sounds presented. Common words have been arranged in 1 to 3-syllable lines and paired into 4 to 5-syllable couplets. We observe no punctuation marks and find only "She", the first word, capitalized (more tangible than the "While" of version 1). The poem sounds like one sentence, but it's been cut near-evenly into five successive aspects of a single scene, a still of two people.

This truncated, unpunctuated arrangement departs from traditional forms such as sonnets and ballads. It maintains a lack of embellishment, adjectival description, sentimentality, even narrative and characterization, or at least the old manner of telling stories through lyric. In lieu of all these, we receive fresh cadence, meaningful enjambment, a view of five panes, a new logic of lineation. From these givens, we can derive the image.

The first couplet sets the scene and also establishes a presence (the capital S "She") as well as an absence after "with". Later, we learn that a child is with her, but this dangling "with" suspends his presence with a blank space. Come the next line, "tears" take over, again, with an absence of cause after "on". The second couplet is a pair of cheeks, perhaps the woman's. The couplet shows her being doubled by the child or the reflection on the window (this window crystallizes less effectively in version #1).

Like the second, the third couplet is composed of two halves of different, adjacent clauses (like a face halved by the pane and within that pane, joined to another half). The reader's eye moving from cheek to hand. Also, the hand "becomes" the child, or perhaps his claims on the "hand" of the woman, his provider and protector. Likewise, this juxtaposition could mean the child as a physical and psychic extension of the mother.

The pairing in the fourth couplet is interesting, how "her lap" engages "his nose", how "his nose" could be blocking "her lap" from other possibilities, or how this unity gives the woman her singular consolation (I find "in her lap/his nose" a more definite, concrete alternative to "his theft" in version #1). The fifth couplet closes the scene: the woman cries, the child looks out the window. The window offers the child a view of other scenes, things, possibilities, but it blocks "his nose". It locks him in with her, both "pressed/to the glass" for our observation, for Williams's composition.

Exactly like the poem, the transparent, semi-reflective surface of the window shows spliced, superimposed images and reflections, multiplying the scene with a great thrift of images (She, tears, cheeks, hand, child, nose, glass). Through this, we are free to read hopes, causes, relationships, and pain from the generous blank spaces that are also of the poem.