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Analysis of Poem 'To A Poor Old Woman' by William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams

'To a Poor Old Woman' Analysis

'To A Poor Old Woman' is a snapshot of a clean moment in time, a poem that encapsulates the poetical approach of William Carlos Williams, who said that poetry should be 'rooted in the locality which should give it fruit.'

Williams had a thing about fruit and especially plums, tasty ones. They turn up in some of his most famous poems, and in this particular poem, they're being eaten by the old woman.

Doctor Williams, an obstetric and pediatric physician, lived most of his life in Rutherford, New Jersey, where he gradually built up his literary reputation, insisting that poetry could be found everywhere:

'It is actually there, in the life before us, every minute that we are listening, a rarest element, not in our imaginations but there, there in fact.'

This emphasis on daily life and ordinary things wasn't at all welcome in the eyes of some other poets at the time, including Ezra Pound and T.S.Eliot. Williams positively disliked the stiff academic approach of Eliot and thought his poetry (such as 'The Wasteland') had set back the modern movement by decades.

  • Williams wanted spontaneity in his poems, his idea being that the poem was a field or area in which the words painted a fresh, realistic and insightful truth. This was important to Williams, who loved modern art, and was a highly perceptive poet.

Eventually, critics and poets began to accept the work of Williams for what it was - an original and innovative use of the American idiom, a masterful attempt to capture the essence of poetry on the street as it were.

  • Published in 1935, 'To A Poor Old Woman' has become almost as popular as 'The Red Wheelbarrow', and 'this is just to say' and is famous for its unusual second stanza containing the repeated:

They taste good to her

They taste good

to her. They taste

good to her

which challenges the reader to place the correct emphasis on the correct word and so get a different meaning out of each line. A difficult thing to do but an enriching experience nonetheless.

So it is that a short, quirky poem from the unspectacular streets of Rutherford becomes embedded in the psyche of most modern poetry lovers. Love him or hate him, Williams certainly gave a new angle on the theme of simple language meets complicated line break.

'To A Poor Old Woman'

munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand

a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her

Overview of the Poem

'To A Poor Old Woman', a free verse poem, takes the reader immediately into the finely focused world of the speaker, observing an old woman with a bag of plums. The title itself leads us straight into that here-and-now first line.

The poor woman is munching a plum, she's right there in front of the speaker and reader, just enjoying that fruit out on an ordinary street. In one hand she holds the plum she's eating, in the other is the bag full of more plums.

  • That first stanza is easy enough to understand because the language the poet uses is simple, single-syllable stuff apart from the word munching. No difficulty there.
  • What is a challenge to the reader is the way the lines break at the word on and bag - the line break undermines the syntax, the way the words are supposed to flow and follow the rules. The stanza makes sense but the lineation skews it a little, plays with it.

Reading that first stanza is to leap tiny hurdles at each line break, creating a quick-quick-slow rhythm which is syncopated, that is, slightly unpredictable, which adds to the unexpected, plucked out of the air type of situation. Gone are the traditional regular, plodding iambics. In their place is a series of beats and stresses that are reflective of every day, short conversations and comments.

  • The second stanza, a quatrain, has a phrase repeated three times, each line bringing a different emphasis to different words leading to a different meaning for each.

They taste good to her

They taste good

to her. They taste

good to her

The plums perhaps taste good only to her at this moment in time and no one else. Or are the plums universally good? Are they good because the woman is poor and old and in need of extra nutrition?

  • The third stanza confirms this goodness. The speaker deepens the detail of the observation and states that the woman gives herself to her half-eaten plum. She is wholly committed to that fruit, as if her life depended on it. It's as if the plum is giving her extra life as she sucks out the insides.
  • This third stanza has a different rhythm to the first two; it flows more syntactically.

The final stanza has the speaker judging that the woman is now comforted, the plums having helped her out in some special way. The word solace specifically points to less sadness, so the woman, by eating the plum, is happier because of that act.

And the line seeming to fill the air gives the poem an additional twist, the speaker hinting at a complete, if transitory, change in the woman's life. Is that the air around her, the atmosphere within, sweetened by the scent of tasty, good, ripe plums?

There is hope in this poem. Something positive has happened to the poor old woman, spotted eating her delicious fruit by a passer-by on his way to the hospital, perhaps, maybe to deliver another baby?


The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 2005

© 2018 Andrew Spacey