Aug 2, 2011

William Carlos Williams’ “Death”: How Much Conciseness Is Enough?

Wiliam Carlos Williams’ poem “Death” is new to me, and I thank Robert Frost's Banjo blog for the Williams poems he recommended. Here are three versions. Which do you prefer?

Here is A:


He’s dead
the dog won’t have to
sleep on his potatoes
any more to keep them
from freezing











Here is  B:

He’s dead
the dog won’t have to
sleep on his potatoes
any more to keep them
from freezing

he’s dead
the old bastard
He’s a bastard because

there’s nothing
legitimate in him  any
more
        he’s dead
He’s sick dead

He’s come out of the man
and he’s let
the man go—
        the liar

Dead
    his eyes
rolled up out of
the light—a mockery

            which
love cannot touch—



And here is C, the version Williams actually settled on.


He's dead
the dog won't have to
sleep on his potatoes
any more to keep them
from freezing

he's dead
the old bastard—
He's a bastard because

there's nothing
legitimate in him any
more
           he's dead
He's sick dead

                         he's
a godforsaken curio
without
any breath in it

He's nothing at all
              he's dead
shrunken up to the skin

            Put his head on
one chair and his
feet on another and
he'll lie there
like an acrobat—

Love's beaten. He
beat it. That's why
he's insufferable—

            because
he's here needing a
shave and making love
an inside howl
of anguish and defeat—

He's come out of the man
and he's let
the man go—
                  the liar

Dead
       his eyes
rolled up out of
the light—a mockery

                                   which
love cannot touch—

just bury it
and hide its face
for shame.



Has Williams added important or essential elements?  Or is he obscuring or cluttering or digressing and detracting from a powerful primitive starkness, which I hear in the trimmed versions?  Do the additions in Version C  earn their keep and deserve to be there?

I like the poem as a whole, but I feel it never regains the force and momentum of the brutal first stanza. So I'm partial to  Version B   right now, but I'm just getting to know the poem, and I might be missing something obviously important, essential, in Williams' additional words. 



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8 comments:

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Is that a pair of dragon flies mating or is that a single dragon fly with two sets of wings?

A. it's shorter and whenever I hear the word "potato" I think of Van Goghs Potato Eaters. If I opened up a eatery, that's what I'd name it.

*Honest Abe said...

I never read this piece before but liked it both ways.

Banjo52 said...

PA, then you should open that eatery. Great idea for a name. That Van Gogh is at least as clear in my head as any of his work. Does that show what an amateur I am?

Abe, good. I like it all three ways, actually. I feel sure there's something in W's longer version that I just haven't caught onto yet.

I do still FEEL that he never regains the impact of the first stanza or two, but could they stand on their own???

Banjo52 said...

PA, I watched it for awhile, and I'm pretty sure it's just one dragonfly. Does that mean I've captured a genetic aberration? Or the dragonfly from Mars?

Brenda's Arizona said...

That first version/first stanza has the impact, doesn't it? I like it the best, as a stand alone. Maybe my limited knowledge of WCW makes me imagine his best 'stuff' is in the short stuff. Does his reputation precede him?

By the end of the 3rd version, I felt like I knew too much. Stick with the red wheelbarrow, the plums. "This is just to say..."

altadenahiker said...

I like door number two. With the third one, I wandered off somewhere in the middle.

Banjo52 said...

Brenda and AH, good. So it's not just me.

jackdarrow said...

C is best. A is a good poem. B is incomplete. I think WCW realized he had a lot more to say about his father and death in general. The first, excellent stanza just opened the door. Those aren't just words filling the middle of C, they're imaginative, powerful images.

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