William Carlos Williams revisited

For our final assignment in the ModPo class on Coursera, we were to use an ‘unoriginal’ or conceptual approach to write a poem. I added a bit to this post to describe my experience with this method. The approach I chose was to take an existing poem and remove the adjectives. I used Danse Russe by William Carlos Williams as my source:

If I when wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a disc
in mists
above trees,–
if I in room
before mirror
waving shirt round head
and singing to myself:
“I am.
I was born to be,
I am!”
If I admire arms, face,
shoulders, flanks, buttocks
again the shades,–

Who shall say I am not
the genius of household?

Danse Russe by William Carlos Williams is intitally not much changed by removing adjectives. It is not until the singing starts that the poem takes a marked new tone. Instead of decribing himself as lonely, born to be lonely, the song becomes a triumphant declaration of existence: I am, I was born to be, I am! This gives the poem more confidence, arrogance than the original. The last question becomes less ironic, and more straightforward. The ego of the poet leads him to say he is a genius, for the mere fact that he exists. The poem is also less private, the poet seems to be more on display, since it isn’t clear that he is in a different room with drawn shades, he may well be in the same room as the sleeping wife and baby, admiring himself proudly, publicly. Without adjectives, the feeling of the poem is inverted: The public exercise of ego, instead of its private denial.

In terms of my experience ‘writing’ this poem, I do not feel a sense of ownership like you might from something traditionally authored. I do, however, feel a bit closer to William Carlos Williams (a poet I quite enjoy). Writing a poem in this way is more communal, reflecting our interconnectedness, than it is an act of authorship.

By removing the adjectives and seeing what happened, I also grew in appreciation for how precise word choice in poetry needs to be. The entire meaning of the poem is inverted with this seemingly small change. The conventional narrative of the poem is relatively unchanged: Williams still dances in front of a mirror while his family sleeps. It is only the emotional impact of the poem that is changed.


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