Sound Bites: William Carlos Williams

williams

 

“To be hungry is to be great”–William Carlos Williams

“To be hungry is to be great” is the name of a poem from a collection called An Early Martyr and Other Poems. The epic-sounding title does not appear in the body of the poem, which describes a recipe for eating a humble weed.

The small, yellow grass-onion,
spring’s first green, precursor
to Manhattan’s pavements, when
plucked as it comes, in bunches,
washed, split and fried in
a pan, though inclined to be
a little slimy, if well cooked
and served hot on rye bread
is to beer a perfect appetizer——
and the best part
of it is they grow everywhere.

I’ve been thinking about this little poem a lot this spring. It’s finally May, the farmers’ markets will open back up in Philadelphia, and among the remainder of last fall’s hardy potatoes and winter’s hardy greens there will be new delicate growth: ramps, scallions, chives, and other small pungent alliums. Like ramps and dandelion greens, the onion grass described here would probably be considered weedy or wild by some folks, but for Williams, the fact that this humble plant can be found in abundance anywhere is part of its appeal.

Williams went to medical school in Pennsylvania and worked as a doctor in his home state of New Jersey; he travelled, but while his contemporaries were expatriating and forging a transatlantic literary identity, Williams wrote about the characters and landscapes he found closer to home. He favored plain language and natural speaking rhythms to the erudite vocabulary and allusion employed occasionally by Wallace Stevens and frequently by T. S. Eliot, two other Modernist poets with whom Williams is frequently contrasted. Whatever else may be said about him as a poet or as a person, Williams appeared to be committed to writing poetry that, like the onion grass, could grow anywhere and be enjoyed by anyone. To know and have an appetite for such simple pleasures was, in his philosophy, something great.

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