"I am an idealistic, naive, passionate, truth-seeking, spiritually motivated artist, unschooled in the science of law and finance." --Wesley Snipes

Friday, April 22, 2005

The Plums, the Petrarchan Mistress, WCW, Accessibility, and High vs. Low

We all know this little nugget:

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

* * *

One one hand, we can read this poem as what it purports to be—a simple note to the absent (sleeping?) wife.

What makes it poetry? People tend to either really love this poem, or dislike it greatly. A student came into my office this week and told me that he didn’t like it at all! It was, he said, like “one of those paintings you see in a museum that has two squares of yellow,” the sort of thing that the “common man,” the Hank Hills of the world, look at and say “I can do that!” If “anyone” can do it, it can’t be art! Right?

I know. Old story. My friend J (a literate person who reads literature—but not much poetry) “confessed” that her own poetry tastes were for “bad” or “simple” poetry, as if to imply an equivalence between simplicity and badness. Even “simple,” though requires some explanation—something I won’t do here. So J sez: “For example, I really really like the WCW poem about the plums. Is that dumb?”

“High Art” still struts its stuff. High Art exists for many who never or rarely view art or read poetry. And the fact that this capitalized concept even still exists among people for whom it doesn’t or shouldn’t matter testifies to its insidiousness.

I attended a panel at AWP last month during which one panelist called for us—writers—to make our writing MORE DIFFICULT because the common man only reads John Grisham and Newsweek, and the way to solve this current “crisis” is to make our work really inaccessible. A big “fuck you” to the peons who may want to like poetry or more demanding fiction, but don’t know how or where to start.


I would favor a more politicking approach. Why not teach “simple” poems like the above Williams and move on to more “difficult” stuff? I find, though, when I teach this poem (and other “easy” poems) the class divides into the “I love it,” and “I hate it” camps rather readily. Budding aesthetes decry its simple surface, its lack of depth, its non-resemblance to their new favorite metaphysical poem (which they read for the first time last week), while the “I love it” crew loves it precisely because it makes not no demands but different demands upon the reader. Metaphor is replaced by direct representation.


Camille Paglia’s reading of “This is Just to Say” imagines the absent object of the poem as a Petrarchan mistress, ruling an icy domain—the feminine kitchen, the “marble vault” (to borrow the rather chilling description Andrew Marvell paints of his lover’s unused genitalia) of the icebox. The subject, a thief in the kitchen, steals the fruit, the curvy plum, suggesting a sexual assault of some sort. Paglia, however, stops short of suggesting that there is anything malevolent in the poem, but that it is a “mock confession and plea for absolution.” Perhaps so. In this, it prefigures WCW’s real masterpiece, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” which is exactly that, minus the “mock.”


Billy Jones said...

Howdy Tony,
Just wanted to let you know that your friend/fan Laurel Snyder nominated you to become the world's first, Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere

Good luck at the polls.

Emily Lloyd said...

Tony--yes--from a recent post of mine:

*Most, I think, who argue for more "accessibility" in contemporary poetry mean accessibility in terms of word choice, syntax, and phrasing. Is "The Red Wheelbarrow" an accessible poem? Given the above, it would seem so. But it's also one that causes many highschoolers to scoff, "A baby could make that," as they would at a Pollock painting. That's how I felt when I encoutered it in my freshman year. Now I know that I could study poetry for a lifetime and never write "The Red Wheelbarrow." Do the rest of the people in my freshman class know that? Probably not, unless they've studied poetry. Is "The Red Wheelbarrow" accessible?

If you're interested, the larger post (and a bundle of comments on the accessibility question) are at

Btw, I adored Kenneth Koch's riff on the plums at Poetry Dailier...I'd been in a funk for days, and that cut right through.

Jesse said...

i like simplex tantamount poems. does that mean anything?