William Carlos Williams may be most famous for his 1934 poem, "This Is Just To Say." Sure, his poem "The Red Wheelbarrow," is super famous, but "This Is Just To Say" has all the high drama of a soap opera with its juicy, shocking confession:
The speaker has eaten all the plums!
We'll pause for appropriate gasps. And then a befuddled eyebrow raise or two. You're bound to be a little confused. How can what seems to be a refrigerator note be widely considered a poetic masterpiece? Because William Carlos Williams wrote it, that's why.
We might start to answer this question by looking at Williams' life. He was a doctor by day, earning his living by working as a general practitioner and pediatric doctor in New Jersey, and a poet by night. So the guy was pretty familiar with the working life, the everyday—the mundane. He knew it well from both his own life and the lives of his patients, who were often in working class families and struggled with poverty.
So, as you read Williams' poetry, especially poems like "This Is Just To Say," imagine this doctor, squeezing moments of poetry out of his busy life, packed with everyday tasks that don't seem all that interesting. Things that we all do—like eat the food we know someone else was saving—become poetry under Williams' hand.
Come on, admit it. You ate the last apple in the fridge even though you knew your brother wanted to take it for lunch. You ate some of the cookies your mom was making to give out as presents. You borrowed your sister's car without filling up the gas.
We've all done things like this—we know we probably shouldn't, but, for some reason, we fall prey to the temptation, and, like the speaker of this poem does, we eat the plums someone else was saving.
Of course, there are a ton of deeper, darker interpretations of this poem: some people say it's repeating the fall of Adam and Eve, who ate forbidden fruit; some people say it's about repressed sexuality; some people say it's about nothing at all. Some people think the poem is outright hilarious.
Sure, all of those people could be right, but we think Williams would sit there with a grin on his face, surprised at all of these whacko meanings people were coming up with.
That's because we agree with the people who say this poem is meant to be a found poem. Maybe, we think, Williams really did eat the plums that were in the icebox, and left this note as an actual apology. Now, the scholars with their fancy theories might scoff at this. What kind of poem is that, they might say.
Yet it's their theories, and the ability for theories and thoughts to arise from something so simple, that make this poem profound. Look at all of the complexities and all of the beauty, the poem seems to say, that can arise from such an everyday, uncontrived moment.
So, as you read, explore every meaning you possibly can. Use your imagination. Maybe the poem is a hidden metaphor for something sexual, or the fall from the Garden of Eden. Even better, maybe you can find something in this poem that no else can find. Or maybe, a dude ate some plums and feels guilty about it.
Remember, as you read, the simplicity, the everyday life at the heart of this poem, and smile. "I forgive you," we think as we read, forgetting that it's not even our plums he's eaten.
And if all else fails, at least learn a lesson. If you really want to do something you shouldn't, you should probably ask first. Or at the very least leave an apology note afterwards.
Hey Shmoopers, are you gonna finish those fries?