2014 Poetry Essay for Penn Modern Poetry Course

Poetry Essay on Imagism in William Carlos Williams’ “Young Woman at a Window”

Another essay I wrote for my poetry class, this time analyzing “imagism” in two different versions (the original upublished draft vs. the revised published version) of William Carlos Williams’ “Young Woman at a Window.”

Young Woman at a Window” by William Carlos Williams

Show, Don’t Tell: Analyzing Imagism in Williams’ “Young Woman at a Window” by: V.C. McCabe

The second version of “Young Woman at a Window” by William Carlos Williams presented here clearly, succinctly describes only the exact image of a crying woman holding a child on her lap infront of a window and nothing more.

There is no insight or even a mention of the woman’s life, her feelings, her relationship to the boy or anything beyond what the eye can see. It’s as if the poet were an sculptor chiseling the image of the woman and child into marble with a few sharp words.

In some ways the first, slightly more descriptive version of the poem seems to make more of an emotional impact, but it strays from the imagist manifesto by bringing the invisible into the scene — namely the possible emotional cause (resentment, perhaps of the maternal variety) behind the woman’s tears as well as the boy’s ignorance of his, or his actions’, negative effect on her.

Even if Williams changed nothing else in the poem, the very first word “While” indicates there is more being communicated through the poem then just the visual scene itself. Something else is happening or being expressed “While” the woman sits and cries.

The second version omits the “While,” focusing instead only on what can be seen in the present moment. It leaves the reason (or person) behind her tears, all the unspoken and unseen elements of the scene, completely open to the interpretation and imagination of the reader. This time the boy may have nothing or everything to do with her tears, the choice is up to us. Whatever the cause, the poet only presents the immediate reality of the tears on her cheek.

The second version also strips away unnecessary “decorative” words  — such as “there” and “little” — of the first version to present the image as exactly as possible in as few words as possible, fulfilling another tenet of the imagist manifesto.

The lines about the boy also differentiate the two poems and their respective places in the realm of imagism. The first version has the boy in motion, physically and mentally, as he “robs,” “knows nothing” and “rubs his nose.” The second version has no such action or consciousness. Instead the boy is still, motionless, with his nose pressed against the glass. And yet the added detail that he sits “in her lap” brings the image more sharply into focus.

It is that juxtaposition of cold, precise description and stillness with freedom in regards to form, subject and interpretation that makes the second version a better example of imagism.

Williams’ poem reminds me of Edward Hopper’s paintings, particularly “Room in New York.” Hopper and Williams both captured still, seemingly mundane moments in ordinary life in such a realistic way that one solitary tableau could easily be interpreted as part of any number of greater narratives.

Imagism in general, particularly in this poem, seems to follows the “Show, Don’t Tell” technique used by many classic writers. We’re given only the clearly visible surface of an image. This forces us to confront and accept the immediate reality presented in the poem, but at the same time leaves untold depths to be filled by our own imaginations.

Published by V. C. McCabe

V.C. McCabe is an Appalachian poet and the author of Ophelia (Femme Salvé Books, 2023) and Give the Bard a Tetanus Shot (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2019). She has edited for Barren Magazine, the New International Voices series (Ice Floe Press), and Frontier Poetry. Her work appears in ekphrastic exhibits and journals worldwide, including EPOCH, Poet Lore, and Prairie Schooner. Her website is vcmccabe.com.

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