Some years ago, I was invited to a prereading dinner at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the guest of honor being Sam Hamill. At some point between the main course and dessert, the poets around the table, one by one, each began reciting William Carlos Williams's poem, "This Is Just to Say," perhaps in anticipation of the plums we would not be getting served since we were, alas, in the wrong season. Those seated around the table included Marvin Bell, James Galvin, Jorie Graham, and others—and all of us, it turned out, knew the poem by heart! To up the ante, Jorie began to pass out paper napkins and asked if any of us knew how to write the poem out, line by line, stanza by stanza, our communal recitation quickly turning into a parlor game if not a contest of wills. This occurred at a time when cell phones were still a novelty, for I remember when we were all finished Jorie whipped hers out and called up Jan Weismiller at Prairie Lights Bookstore who proceeded to verify the Williams as printed on the page. Only one of us got it right, and that poet became the evening's toast.
Here are the twenty-eight words (sans line or stanza breaks) of "This Is Just to Say": "I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast forgive me they were delicious so sweet and so cold."
In the intervening years since, in most every intro level workshop I've led, I have my students read and discuss this poem for a good fifteen minutes before asking them to close their books. Then I relate the anecdote above before writing the words on the board, issuing the challenge. Invariably, someone gets its right:
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
We spend the remainder of our time looking at Williams's enjambments, his grouping of three quatrains. In particular, we look at the three-two word pattern of the first stanza followed by a two-three reversal in the second. Then we consider how midway through the second stanza, Williams switches things up to a two-three syllabic pattern (thereby "saving" one word from each line in lines seven and eight) before restoring the final stanza to a two-three word pattern, thereby completing his chiastic structure. We go on to discuss the different parts of speech that terminate the lines (past participle, plural noun, preposition, noun, etc.) and the effect of concluding his final three lines with three adjectives in a row (delicious, sweet, cold). We discuss numerical symbolism (the meaning of one versus two versus three versus four) before moving onto issues like the absence of punctuation or why only one other word besides the opening "I" is capitalized. It was Williams who said that a poem is "a little machine made out of words," so it seems fitting to take his poem apart to see how it works. I often teach the sixteen-word "Red Wheelbarrow" in tandem with this exercise in enjambment.
Sometimes, I'll present another variation. I like to hand out a poem—say, the eponymous opening poem of Louise Glück's The Wild Iris—as a block of prose before instructing the class to break it up into twenty-three lines, and to hazard a guess at its stanzaic structure. Of course, I've never had anyone get it right. In fact, someone would be lucky to get even two or three lines exactly right. After sufficient time, I hand out a copy of the poem as it appears in her book, and we spend the rest of the time talking about her verse-libre choices, how much intellect comes into play versus, say, intuition. Or rhythm. Or how the thing ends up looking on the page. Or what is lost when the poem is presented as an unlineated prose poem. Lately, I've been going the other way, asking my students to take a prose poem (something from Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons or, say, Lydia Davis's "Men") and lineate it. In what ways is the poem augmented or diminished by such an exercise?
For what it's worth, James Galvin was the one that night who got Williams's poem right; but maybe getting it wrong was more the point, something worth remembering.
Reprinted from A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, edited by Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee, by permission of the University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 2011 by Timothy Liu.