"The Great Figure" is a short poem by the American modernist William Carlos Williams. The poem describes the speaker's encounter with a number he saw on a fire truck as it raced by him in the city. If you have read William Carlos Williams's famous poem "The Red Wheelbarrow," you'll notice some similarities between the two poems. First, the guy had a thing for the color red. Second, he likes to describe objects very closely (often objects coated in rain). Finally, he uses very short lines, often only a
Williams was an experimental poet, whose early mentor was the influential modernist Ezra Pound. Pound was a central figure in a movement called Imagism, which was dedicated to the faithful description of objects through poetry, using direct common language. Both "The Great Figure" and "The Red Wheelbarrow" demonstrate the influence of Imagism, through their use of clear and precise language to frame a single, central image: the number 5 and the wheelbarrow, respectively.
Despite his literary experiments, Williams lived a fairly normal life as a doctor in Rutherford, New Jersey. Poetry was just something he did on the side. In his Autobiography, he describes how he wrote "The Great Figure" on his way to visit his friend Marsden Hartley after a long day of working at the medical clinic:
Once on a hot July day coming back exhausted from the Post Graduate Clinic, I dropped in as I sometimes did at Marsden's studio on Fifteenth Street for a talk, a little drink maybe and to see what he was doing. As I approached his number I heard a great clatter of bells and the roar of a fire engine passing the end of the street down Ninth Avenue. I turned just in time to see a golden figure 5 on a red background flash by. The impression was so sudden and forceful that I took a piece of paper out of my pocket and wrote a short poem about it. (source)
The resulting poem, "The Great Figure," was published in Williams's 1921 collection Sour Grapes. Two years later he would publish what has become his most famous work, the mixed poetry/prose manifesto Spring and All (You can read more about the title poem on Shmoop.) With its emphasis on American rhythms of speech, Williams's poetry was influential among later poets in the 20th century, including Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Rexroth. He continued writing throughout his life and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1962 for his collection Pictures for Brueghel and Other Poems.
People pay attention to the darndest things, don't they? Often when we "space out," we're actually paying attention to things other than the ones we're "supposed" to pay attention to. Consider William Carlos Williams. He's walking home from work one day, bone tired and ready for a drink (of, um, coffee), when all of a sudden a fire truck comes barreling past him, lights flashing and gongs clanging. His first thought is not about where the fire truck is going (to a burning building). No, his primary interest is in the number in gold letters on the truck. Not that we think Williams was insensitive for focusing on this number – he was a doctor, after all, who saw quite enough injured and distressed people during the day. To the contrary, we think Williams was a very sensitive guy, whose finely honed perception can teach us a lot about how to notice the poetry that surrounds us all the time.
In school or at work, people are always telling you to "pay attention" – to the teacher, the reading assignment, the computer, or whatever project you happen to be working on. But Williams in this poem expresses the joy of "spacing out," of just totally getting caught up in a seemingly insignificant image. Haven't you ever been listening to a friend talk about something important and found yourself puzzling over her hairstyle, the shape of her hat, or even, say, the bushiness of her eyebrows? And she's like, "Are you even listening to me!" and you respond, "Of course! What'd you say again?" And in your head, you're thinking, "Wow, those eyebrows are like a bird's nest." After reading "The Great Figure," you should know that the appropriate response to your friend's annoyance is to whip out your notebook and jot down your impressions of whatever it is you've been staring at. We're confident she'll forgive you once she realizes that you have written a profound modernist poem about her eyebrows. (Results not guaranteed.)
So go ahead and allow yourself to "space out" every once in a while. You might just find yourself "tuned in" to a cooler, stranger reality.
The Poetry Foundation
Find some of Williams's most famous poems and read a lengthy biography, including info on his feud with T.S. Eliot.
On "The Great Figure"
The Modern American Poetry website includes a page on Williams's poem, with juicy biographical info and critical analysis.
"The Great Figure"
A fascinating video that captures the movement and excitement of the poem using old-time siren sounds and footage of fire trucks.
This website features an amazing collection of audio readings by Williams. Sadly, it does not include "The Great Figure," but there's plenty else to hold your interest.
"I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold"
Charles Demuth's famous painting, based on Williams's poem.
The American artist Jasper Johns painted this update of Demuth's work.
Williams painted this self-portrait in 1914.
And here's what Williams really looked like.
The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams by William Carlos Williams
The poet tells the story of his fascinating life as a doctor and writer. He also describes the day he wrote "The Great Figure."
Collected Poems Vol. 1 by William Carlos Williams
The first volume of Williams's collected poems includes his early modernist and Imagist works, including "The Great Figure" and "The Red Wheelbarrow."
A River of Words by Jen Bryant
A children's picture book about the life of William Carlos Williams. It even was named a Caldecott Honor book.