Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Back to school

I'm taking an American poetry course with Coursera the main part of which is writing essays. It's been quite a while since I did anything like that, and needless to say back in the day essays used to come in Russian, so my first results were as miserable as you could expect. They probably still are, but the last week's essay was finally the one I'm not that ashamed to share.

So the task was to compare two versions of William Carlos Williams's "Young Woman at a Window" (1, 2) and decide which one looks "more imagist" and why.


"The song sings itself"

According to a famous apocryphal story Michelangelo was once asked how did he know what to cut away. The response was, "It's simple. I just remove everything that doesn't look like David."

Much like Michelangelo's work, the second version of the poem looks like it was stripped of everything that wasn't very necessary to shape the idea. Pretty much everything representing a logical consequence of something already stated has been cut out. As a result, every new line of that version adds something new to the picture which did exist before instead of simply clarifying or detailing presented the previous stanzas. "Nor the merely decorative word".

This becomes clear when two versions are compared line by line. "She sits there" - where else can she sit? What changes if the woman sits "here" and not "there"? Sorry, but "there" has to leave. "While" - not needed, this poem is snapping a moment like a camera, so of course it's "while", no need to state it literally, goodbye and thank you.

Although these were the easy bits and it gets more complicated later. "The child who robs her knows nothing of his theft" - the whole point is gone in the second version, so this time it is not only about removing some obstructive words, this is a complete message being removed. That seems like an important edit yet it doesn't make a new poem, it stays under the same title - that probably means it's still the same and the cut wasn't damaging to the global idea.

This is where another imagism manifesto point comes to mind, particularly "to represent an image" one. From the image poem creates, reader is supposed to get the fact the child changes ("robs") woman's life of something on his or her own. Should it be stated directly, it'd give reader the idea straight away "robbing" them of their own impressions and intellectual work. Everything else in the poem would become nothing more than a frame for that literal statement rendering most of it once again unnecessary.

When the message is removed, all left is an image of a woman crying, holding a child who is interested in something else, "his nose pressed to the glass". He is not focused on the woman at the moment while she has him on her lap and obviously can't ignore him even being extremely disappointed. She is robbed by child having to care about him without receiving much back yet.

The same message is still delivered, only in a gentle way.

The manifesto also defines imagism as something "hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite." This fits the vision again. While the reader is invited to make their own conclusions, the picture created by the second version of the poem remains crisp. All the major words are nouns with very particular meaning in a focused context: "cheer", "tears", "lap", "child", "nose", "glass". Metaforical interpretation is hardly possible here - the "woman" is the woman and the "child" is the kid, they aren't, say, Nature and Humanity, such a comparison seems very artificial and non-applicable.

Everything is kept simple and the image is clear.

Here is a woman in tears. Her child doesn't hear her.