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William Carlos Williams' "Proletarian Portrait" and Karl Shapiro's "Auto Wreck"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Text of William Carlos Williams’ "Proletarian Portrait"

William Carlos Williams' "Proletarian Portrait" features a shape similar to "The Red Wheelbarrow." The poem's function is also similar to "The Red Wheelbarrow"; it makes a statement through a brief description.

While the poem about the farm implement offers the simple claim regarding the importance of the tool, the portrait of the proletarian is a bit more complex, and it also has three more lines in a couplet and a single line.

The poem portrays its subject in a total of eleven lines: five couplets and a final single line. Although somewhat awkward in its presentation, the poem offers a glimpse at its subject, a young woman.

Readers of this Williams poem cannot be certain that Williams took as his purpose to trigger the mystique of the Marxist class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, but that is likely to happen when readers run across such terms as "proletarian."

Williams, as a member of the "bourgeoisie," paints what he supposes would be a sympathetic response to this young woman's struggle. But is the woman too poor to buy proper shoes, or is she a bourgeois housewife who just has not bothered to replace an old pair?

The colorful little drama never confirms the ambiguity for the reader.

Proletarian Portrait

A big young bareheaded woman
in an apron

Her hair slicked back standing
on the street

One stockinged foot toeing
the sidewalk

Her shoe in her hand. Looking
intently into it

She pulls out the paper insole
to find the nail

That has been hurting her

Compiled Recitation of William Carlos Williams’ "Proletarian Portrait"

Commentary on William Carlos Williams’ "Proletarian Portrait"

Invoking the Marxist mystique of the proletarian vs. bourgeoisie struggle, Williams attempts to offer a sympathetic look at a young woman's plight. But the ambiguity of his subject confuses the issue.

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First Couplet: A Woman

A big young bareheaded woman
in an apron

The speaker identifies the subject as a working woman. She is young, large, her head is uncovered, and she is wearing an apron. The apron, however, could indicate that she is a housewife, and nothing in the rest of the couplets proves otherwise.

If the use of the modifier "proletarian" in the title attaches only to the young woman, then the reader infers that the woman may be a restaurant worker.

It is not impossible that the speaker, however, has observed a bourgeois housewife, standing outside of her house. In that case, the term proletarian is inaccurate.

Second Couplet: Minimal Description

Her hair slicked back standing
on the street

The young woman whom the speaker has observed standing outside in the street has her hair "slicked back." A restaurant or grocery shop worker would likely do her hair this way.

However, there is no reason why a middle-class housewife who does not employ maid-service would not also wear her hair this way while cleaning her house.

Third Couplet: Little Additional Information

One stockinged foot toeing
the sidewalk

The speaker then offers the additional information that the young woman is wearing

stockings, and the one bare foot's toe is helping her balance.

But the reader does not know why the woman's foot is "toeing / the sidewalk" until experiencing the next couplet. But again, there is no information to confirm that the young woman is actually "proletarian."

Fourth Couplet: Peering into Her Shoe

Her shoe in her hand. Looking
intently into it

As expected, however, the woman has one shoe off. She is peering into the shoe. Again, the reader must wait to learn the purpose of this act.

Fifth Couplet: Cheap Shoe Means She Poor

She pulls out the paper insole
to find the nail

The fifth couplet features the woman's action of pulling out the insole of her shoe, and it also explains why she is tearing her shoe apart: she wants to locate a nail.

Final Line: The Poor Cannot Buy Proper Footwear & Must Suffer

That has been hurting her

She wants to locate the nail because it has been digging into her foot, and that hurts.

Lying through Stereotypes

When poets rely on stereotypes and stock responses, they expect too little of their readers, but sometimes poets ask too much of their readers. They say, in effect, "trust me, this is how it is or was."

But the reader who refuses to remain credulous or to be tricked will not immediately accept as fact what is stated, even though it is dramatized or poeticized. Williams has not proved his claim in the poem.

Using a loaded word like "proletarian" has rendered him suspect, and he never convinces the reader that the image he describes is what he says it is.

Karl Shapiro

Karl Shapiro

Introduction and Text of Karl Shapiro’s "Auto Wreck"

The speaker in Karl Shapiro's "Auto Wreck" is offering the impressions and the images that he experienced while watching the aftermath of an automobile accident.

His imagery often slips into the realm of surrealism which results likely from the welling up of emotions that overcome his thinking.

Auto Wreck

Its quick soft silver bell beating, beating,
And down the dark one ruby flare
Pulsing out red light like an artery,
The ambulance at top speed floating down
Past beacons and illuminated clocks
Wings in a heavy curve, dips down,
And brakes speed, entering the crowd.
The doors leap open, emptying light;
Stretchers are laid out, the mangled lifted
And stowed into the little hospital.
Then the bell, breaking the hush, tolls once.
And the ambulance with its terrible cargo
Rocking, slightly rocking, moves away,
As the doors, an afterthought, are closed.

We are deranged, walking among the cops
Who sweep glass and are large and composed.
One is still making notes under the light.
One with a bucket douches ponds of blood
Into the street and gutter.
One hangs lanterns on the wrecks that cling,
Empty husks of locusts, to iron poles.

Our throats were tight as tourniquets,
Our feet were bound with splints, but now,
Like convalescents intimate and gauche,
We speak through sickly smiles and warn
With the stubborn saw of common sense,
The grim joke and the banal resolution.
The traffic moves around with care,
But we remain, touching a wound
That opens to our richest horror.
Already old, the question Who shall die?
Becomes unspoken Who is innocent?

For death in war is done by hands;
Suicide has cause and stillbirth, logic;
And cancer, simple as a flower, blooms.
But this invites the occult mind,
Cancels our physics with a sneer,
And spatters all we knew of denouement
Across the expedient and wicked stones.

Reading of Karl Shapiro’s "Auto Wreck"

Commentary on Karl Shapiro’s "Auto Wreck"

Karl Shapiro's "Auto Wreck" is focusing on the human mind's inability to comprehend and compute the wave of emotions that well up in contemplating such a catastrophic event.

First Stanza: The Approaching Ambulance

Its quick soft silver bell beating, beating,
And down the dark one ruby flare
Pulsing out red light like an artery,
The ambulance at top speed floating down
Past beacons and illuminated clocks
Wings in a heavy curve, dips down,
And brakes speed, entering the crowd.
The doors leap open, emptying light;
Stretchers are laid out, the mangled lifted
And stowed into the little hospital.
Then the bell, breaking the hush, tolls once.
And the ambulance with its terrible cargo
Rocking, slightly rocking, moves away,
As the doors, an afterthought, are closed.

The speaker opens his descriptive montage by painting a picture of the approaching emergency vehicle. The bell sound of the vehicle seems to be beating on the speaker's and the other observers' brains as it approaches fast, maneuvering with necessary speed.

The speaker, who is observing this chaotic scene, takes in the imagery that accompanies it. The vehicle itself seems to be floating, as the confused speaker tries to get a grip on his emotions.

Resembling a bird, the vehicle seems to have "wings" that "curve" as it maneuvers among the crowd of people, who have gathered around and stand staring at the activity in the aftermath of the crash.

Some folks will, no doubt, offer their assistance, while other, out of morbid, idle curiosity, will just stand gawking at the blood and gore.

After the ambulance has come to a halt, the emergency workers step out of the vehicle. The light inside the vehicle seems to come pouring out like water. The paramedics are now carrying out the stretchers, onto which they will quickly place the injured bodies of the crash victims.

The medical workers then "stow[]" the crash victims "into the little hospital." Finally, the sound of the bell commences again as the vehicle pulls away to deliver the maimed and injured to the actual hospital facility.

Second Stanza: Observer Derangement Syndrome

We are deranged, walking among the cops
Who sweep glass and are large and composed.
One is still making notes under the light.
One with a bucket douches ponds of blood
Into the street and gutter.
One hangs lanterns on the wrecks that cling,
Empty husks of locusts, to iron poles.

The speaker exaggerates a bit, claiming that he and the other observers "are deranged," but they are, no doubt, disturbed as they are walking among the cops. The cops are cleaning up the broken glass and other debris left by the wreck, for example, they "sweep glass," as they write down notes.

One of the cops is washing into the gutters the pools of blood that have accumulated. One cop has placed lanterns on the parts of the vehicle that are still smashed up against the pole. Those remains looks like "[e]mpty husks of locusts" to the speaker.

The reader now if informed of the nature of the crash—the car smashed into a pole.

Third Stanza: What the Observers Must Be Feeling

Our throats were tight as tourniquets,
Our feet were bound with splints, but now,
Like convalescents intimate and gauche,
We speak through sickly smiles and warn
With the stubborn saw of common sense,
The grim joke and the banal resolution.
The traffic moves around with care,
But we remain, touching a wound
That opens to our richest horror.
Already old, the question Who shall die?
Becomes unspoken Who is innocent?

The speaker then continues to speculate about the emotions the people must be experiencing. He moves on with his description of the feelings of the other observers. He claims that their "throats were tight as tourniquets" and their "feet were bound with splints."

The speaker is employing medical metaphors to underscore how deeply the observers are now sympathizing with the injured victims of the crash.

The observers themselves have become victims of the crash that they have been merely watching, and now they seem to require their own convalescence as they make unwarranted and likely stupid quips about the situation.

The emergency vehicle, now holding the injured victims of the crash is leaving, moving out from the crowd. As it moves, it seems to rock slowly back and forth as the doors are closed.

Even the closing the doors seems like an "afterthought" because the emergency medical workers are in such a hurry to get the injured to the hospital.

Traffic then finally begins to move beyond the wreck, but still many in the crowd remain and continue to stare. Their minds cannot let go of the spectacle.

The speaker again speculates about what the others might be thinking: how did the accident happen? is someone to blame? are there innocent and guilty parties? what might those responsible deserve? will anyone die? or be maimed for life?

The observers appear to be throwing out through their bland smiles only clichés and other drivel. Their remarks sound grossly out of place. They are too numb and befuddled to come up with some original fresh insight into this terrible ordeal.

Some of them even attempt to offer jokes, but they remain darkly thoughtless and unsatisfying. Then there are others who seem to want to offer some justification for such a disquieting event, but those justifications remain merely "banal resolution[s]."

Questions abound in the startled and overwhelmed mind of those who observe such destruction. And all of this speculation, however, is arising in the mind of the speaker. It is, in fact, only the speaker who is raising such possibilities.

He is not interviewing his fellow observers; he is merely musing about what they may be musing.

Fourth Stanza: Philosophical Musing

For death in war is done by hands;
Suicide has cause and stillbirth, logic;
And cancer, simple as a flower, blooms.
But this invites the occult mind,
Cancels our physics with a sneer,
And spatters all we knew of denouement
Across the expedient and wicked stones.

Death by automobile crash haunts the mind and heart as it seems so random and unheralded. For example, people engage in war with deliberation and for a purpose.

There seems to be no purpose in dying in a large can of steel that plows into a pole. The speaker's philosophical musing about the causes of death, like his others effusions, is likely brought on by the trauma of the event he has just experienced.

It seems that only "the occult mind" may hold the reasons for such a strange and disconcerting event. The speaker has learned only that he can describe the event, he can speculate about how it was caused, and even what might happen next.

But he is helpless and totally without the power to comprehend what that "occult mind" might know. He can't even be sure there is such a mind!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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