Edward Hirsch reads William Carlos Williams’ “To Elsie”
Poetry of American Identity: A Collection of Field Recordings by Award-winning Contemporary Poets
XVIII The pure products of America go crazy— mountain folk from Kentucky or the ribbed north end of Jersey with its isolate lakes and valleys, its deaf mutes, thieves old names and promiscuity between devil-may-care men who have taken to railroading out of sheer lust of adventure— and young slatterns, bathed in filth from Monday to Saturday to be tricked out that night with gauds from imaginations which have no peasant traditions to give them character but flutter and flaunt sheer rags—succumbing without emotion save numbed terror under some hedge of choke-cherry or viburnum— which they cannot express— Unless it be that marriage perhaps with a dash of Indian blood will throw up a girl so desolate so hemmed round with disease or murder that she’ll be rescued by an agent— reared by the state and sent out at fifteen to work in some hard-pressed house in the suburbs— some doctor’s family, some Elsie— voluptuous water expressing with broken brain the truth about us— her great ungainly hips and flopping breasts addressed to cheap jewelry and rich young men with fine eyes as if the earth under our feet were an excrement of some sky and we degraded prisoners destined to hunger until we eat filth while the imagination strains after deer going by fields of goldenrod in the stifling heat of September Somehow it seems to destroy us It is only in isolate flecks that something is given off No one to witness and adjust, no one to drive the car
—William Carlos Williams
Edward Hirsch on William Carlos Williams’ “To Elsie”
Transcription of Commentary
My name is Edward Hirsch and I’m reading a poem by William Carlos Williams called “To Elsie”.
This poem was untitled when William Carlos Williams first published it. It was “Poem Number 18” in Spring and All, which he published in 1923. It was only until when he published a later Collected Poems that he gave the poem the title “To Elsie”. In its relationship it’s about (or uses) Elsie Borden, who was a mentally handicapped nursemaid from the state orphanage who came to work for the Williams family. And the odd thing about the poem, or one of the odd things about the poem, is it’s called “To Elsie” but it doesn’t really . . .it’s not really addressed to Elsie, she isn’t spoken to. It’s really kind of toward Elsie. And Elsie becomes both a particular person and an embodiment, a representative of some kind of suffering in the culture. Because there is a moment in the poem—it’s about a third of the way through the poem, almost halfway—where she’s sent out. He’s describing her as someone who’s so desolate, hemmed out, the kind of family she grew up in so surrounded by disease and murder, that she was sent out to an agency at the age of fifteen and then farmed out to work for the Williamses, “some hard-pressed house in the suburbs;” the Williams family, “some doctor’s family,” which Williams Carlos Williams was a doctor; “some Elsie.” So it’s not . . . she’s both a person and she’s a representative who’s there to express the truth about us.
And the poem becomes a kind of diagnosis of the American situation. And we’re a new country, in this diagnosis, but the people have lost contact with peasant traditions, with European traditions, with something that’s come before. And this lack of continuity with anything that’s come before, with any folk traditions from the old country, has left Americans lost. And it’s left them in some kind of situation, from the mountain folk of Kentucky or in Jersey, in New Jersey where William Carlos Williams lived, surrounded by these young guys who work and get drunk all of week and take out these girls who then are in danger of getting pregnant and passing on disease and so forth. And Williams doesn’t exactly give us the solution, but it seems to be the imagination needs contact with earth under our feet. And there’s a beautiful line in this poem:
and we degraded prisoners destined to hunger until we eat filth while the imagination strains after deer going by fields of goldenrod in the stifling heat of September
Contact was an important word for Williams, and so in place of these ancient traditions what we have in America are people who need contact with the earth, with the natural world, with a new culture that we can create. And “To Elsie”—actually the whole book Spring and All—is the about the difficult birth, of the difficulty of birth, the struggle it is to be born, and here to make a new culture. So Williams gives us a kind of diagnosis of a situation in America in 1923 (and America afterwards as well), and a kind of solution: we need contact with the earth.
“To Elsie” by William Carlos Williams, from THE COLLECTED POEMS: VOLUME I, 1909-1939, copyright ©1938
New Directions Publishing Corp.
Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
Edward Hirsch (1950- ) was born in Chicago and attended Grinnell College and the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of eight books of poetry and four books of criticism. His honors include the National Book Critics Circle Award for Wild Gratitude (1986), as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation. The president of the Guggenheim Foundation, he currently serves as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Photo credit: Julie Dermansky.
Learn more about Edward Hirsch at The Poetry Foundation
William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was born in New Jersey and educated at the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in medicine. While working as a physician, he published nearly thirty poetry collections. Williams won the National Book Award for Poetry for Paterson (Book III, 1949) and Selected Poems (1976). He was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962) and the Gold Medal for Poetry of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Learn more about William Carlos Williams at The Poetry Foundation