"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Poetry: “Daisy” by William Carlos Williams

I just completed my year long poetry read, Imagist Poetry: An Anthology, from which I blogged a couple of poems (the D.H. Lawrence and the Ezra Pound) here this year.  I am going to conclude with a another short one, this one titled “Daisy” by William Carlos Williams.

William Carlos Williams was one of the top American poets of the 20th century and extremely influential.  One can look at modern poetry as branching in two different directions.  One branch would be the T.S. Eliot/Ezra Pound branch of highly structured poetry with integrated allusions that suggest, despite its radical approach, continuity with tradition.  The other branch simplifies the structure, minimizes the allusions, if not completely eliminates them, and makes the language more immediate and colloquial.  And in many cases this second branch tries to break from associating with tradition altogether.  This branch has its origins in Walt Whitman, but through William Carlos Williams it shapes modern poetry perhaps even more so than the Eliot/Pound branch.  The Beat poets are a straight line development from Williams’ work. 

The most interesting fact of Williams’ life is that he was a medical doctor, a pediatrician in fact.  Poets don’t make any money from their poetry, so they all have to have other work.  The fact that Williams was a doctor which involves a lot of study and application and still produce high level poetry is amazing.  You don’t usually have enough time as a doctor and a family man (husband and father of two) to really concentrate on writing, but apparently Williams accomplished it all.  Whenever I read a Williams poem, I always look for any medical or pediatric allusions. 

Williams seems to write a lot of poems on flowers.  He may have been a gardener as well.  I have a vague memory that it was something he enjoyed, but I have not been able to verify it.  Flowers for Williams tend to be a metaphor for something more profound.  This poem is in that mode.

by William Carlos Williams

The dayseye hugging the earth
in August, ha!  Spring is
gone down in purple,
weeds stand high in the corn,
the rainbeaten furrow
is clotted with sorrel
and crabgrass, the
branch is black under
the heavy mass of the leaves—
The sun is upon a
slender green stem
ribbed lengthwise.
He lies on his back—
it is a woman also—
he regards his former
majesty and
round the yellow center,
split and creviced and done into
minute flowerheads, he sends out
his twenty rays—a little
and the wind is among them
to grow cool there! 

One turns the thing over
in his hand and looks
at it from the rear: brownedged,
green and pointed scales
armor his yellow. 

But turn and turn
the crisp petals remain
brief, translucent, greenfastened,
barely touching at the edges:
blades of limpid seashell.

On its most basic level, the poem is about aging and the fading away of a simple daisy in late August.  We know the flower isn’t standing erect, but is “hugging the earth.”   He is a bit tattered but still fresh enough so that his “twenty rays” of flower petals are intact, and so "he" recalls “his former/majesty.”  We have this unusual observation that the flower is not just male, but “a woman also.”  That is not to say a flower is genderless, but hermaphrodite, which is scientifically true since flowers contain elements of both sexes. 

That scientific observation is actually key to understanding the rest of the poem.  In the two concluding stanzas, the poet seems to be holding the daisy and turning it round and round making observations.  The stance between an observing eye and the flower is the core of the poem, a stance of scientific observation.  Notice the reflection between the daisy which is described as an eye with “a yellow center” and the poet’s eye looking back.  The poem was published in 1921, which would make Williams about thirty-eight, and if we assume he wrote it relatively close to publishing it, then we could make the metaphorical jump that the daisy represents the poet himself, feeling passed mid life and heading toward the autumn of his years.

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