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The Great Figure

The Great Figure


by William Carlos Williams

The Great Figure Theme of Time

Williams's distinctive use of poetic form, with short lines and lots of enjambment, results in a poem that stretches out time like a rubber band. Specifically, time moves in an arc, going faster, then slower, then faster again. These effects are extremely subtle, and we're talking about a difference in line lengths of only a few syllables. The poem captures a few moments as if inside a frame, so that we can scrutinize every detail. It demonstrates that the perception of time is relative to the mood and position of the observer. Charles Demuth's famous painting (see it here), inspired by the poem, provides one artist's take on how the experience with the fire truck is broken up into distinct moments.

Questions About Time

  1. Do you think time moves faster or slower in the middle of the poem?
  2. Can we guess anything about the position of the fire truck in relation to the speaker at different points in the poem?
  3. Do you read the poem with long pauses, short pauses, or as a single, fluid sentence?
  4. Does time move forward in the poem, or does it capture a single moment?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Time is divided into smaller moments in the middle of the poem, as the fire truck passes closest to the speaker.

The poem can be recited without any pauses without distorting its meaning.

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