Each little stanza of this poem is like a sweet and juicy plum popped into the mouth. Read the poem aloud and try to taste the plums as you do. See, that's just the thing: this poem isn't about sound. It's about flavor.
We might encounter this poem as a note on the fridge and chuckle to ourselves at the disproportionate guilt the writer felt. Or we might hear it read aloud and imagine just how juicy, sweet, and cold those plums are. Whatever the case, we're not looking for rhymes or rhythm. We're looking for an experience, and that's just what we get.
In fact, the poem sounds like something anyone could say, any day. It reminds us that mundane experiences, like pilfering plums from your leading lady, can be a delightful experience, worthy of poetry. This, we think, is part of the point of this poem—it sounds simple and everyday, but it tastes delicious.
We will make one teeny tiny note on sound in "This Is Just To Say," though. This poem uses a little thing we like to call sibilance. Did you notice all those S sounds hissing their way through the poem? That's sibilance, and it creates a unique, subtle effect in "This Is Just To Say" (hmm, that title is pretty sibilant, too, huh?). All those S's slow the poem down, so that it hisses in our ears, like a hot, sweltering morning. A morning perfect for pilfering plums.
The title of this poem seems like it could have been the first line. When you read the poem aloud, the title and the first line flow together nicely.
Some people say that this poem is supposed to be a "found" poem, meaning that it could have been an actual note someone left on the refrigerator, cleaned up and broken into lines. The title gives us that impression: "this is just to say" is something that a note could start with naturally. But we wouldn't call this a poem if it was your average note left on the refrigerator, and the phrase "This Is Just To Say," has more layers than it might seem to.
At first, the title "This Is Just To Say" seems to suggest that this poem has no hidden meanings—it's just to say something, for the sake of saying it. It would make sense that the speaker just wanted to say he ate the plums, and ask for forgiveness. But the idea that you could write a poem just to say what the poem says, with no subtleties or metaphors to be discovered, could make some stodgy poetry scholars roll over in their graves.
So, of course, poetry scholars have found all kinds of deep things in this poem. They've compared it to Adam and Eve, they've found sexual themes, marital strife, marital bliss. This poem, according to scholars, could have many hidden meanings.
To find different, hidden meanings in this poem would assume that the title is ironic—it's telling us one thing, but really means another. We may not be meant to believe the title at all. Perhaps, the poem hints, nothing is ever "just to say"—there are emotions and actions behind every word that is said.
But, as with much in poetry, the meaning of the title, and the poem, is up to the reader. Do you think it's "just to say," or something more?
Plums? Icebox? We're totally in a kitchen. In fact, the poem itself could be a note on the refrigerator. It could literally be in a kitchen.
See, "This Is Just To Say" was published in 1934, when refrigerators were first becoming widespread, but were sometimes still called iceboxes, which is what it's called in this poem. Good, thing, too, because the big, clunky word "refrigerator" would stick out in this little poem, don't you think?
It also seems as if our speaker is up early. He's writing notes, instead of sticking around to say something in person. He's got somewhere to be, and he's hungry. He couldn't resist eating these plums, which are probably quite different from his normal morning routine breakfast of Weetabix and a cup o'.
On the other hand, this poem could be set late at night—our speaker has come home when everyone is asleep. He eats the plums as a midnight snack, even though he knew they were probably meant for breakfast. Whoops.
Either way, we're guessing our setting is as simple and everyday as the language of this poem. It's just a normal kitchen, in a family's normal life. Nothing special, nothing dramatic, nothing spectacular. But still, in its own small way, it can inspire poetry.
If the speaker of this poem were, indeed, William Carlos Williams, he would have been in his fifties, married, and a father when it was published. So, we'd guess that he would be writing this note to his wife before he went off to his day job as a doctor. Right? Right.
But it's dangerous to assume that the writer of a poem is its speaker, because poets often write about the lives of others. So we'll just have to hazard some guesses about our guy, based on the (meager) evidence we get from the poem itself.
The poem lets us know just a little bit about our guy: he's nice enough to write a note to apologize for eating these plums, but easily tempted enough to eat them. He also puts great value in simple things, like the taste of these plums, and their temperature.
Let's use our imaginations to guess a little more about our speaker. We can picture our speaker waking up on a balmy morning, and heading down to get his normal breakfast of cereal when he sees these plums, and he just can't resist them. We're guessing he's got a steady job—he could be a lawyer, a banker, a dentist—whatever he is, he's got to be there pretty early.
He'll be gone, at work, when his wife wakes up to find her breakfast missing. He feels guilty about eating the plums, and leaving her with none, and figures he'll write a note so that she knows he's sorry. He could also feel a little lonely, waking up in the morning without her, and wants her to know he's thinking about her.
The speaker takes great stock in his own words—he's written this note very carefully, with the fewest words possible. He goes slowly, building up to what he considers the most important: that the plums were delicious.
We like to think that, as the speaker goes about his day, the memory of the taste of these plums will stay with him, giving him a little bit of sweetness and cold even as the day drags on. He hopes that this note, and its description of the plums, will give his wife bit of joy too.
If you read this poem and think, "I don't get it, anyone could write something like that," then, actually, you've got it. The hardest part about this poem is getting over our preconceptions about poetry. We have to really ask ourselves: what is poetry in the first place?
Williams thinks that poems don't have to be complicated and hard to read. They can be about something that happens everyday, and they can be written in everyday language. As long as something strikes us as true to a human emotion, then it's a poem. Where can you find poetry in your everyday life?
Williams wrote many poems that are longer and more complex than this one, sure. But his poetry on the whole often reflects everyday American life and everyday American language. A doctor whose patients were often working class, or very poor, Williams had an idea of what everyday life was like for all kinds of folks. In his poetry, he condensed and perfected impressions of the everyday moments that stuck with him, and stick with readers, too. Williams can take something as simple as eating a plum and turn it into poetry. Awesome.
Though Williams claimed in an interview with John Gerber (source), that "This Is Just To Say" was metrically regular, meaning that it has a regular rhythm, he must have meant this visually, and not in the traditional sense. There is no regular beat in this poem, though it is fun to read aloud and rolls smoothly off the tongue. That means we're working with free verse, dear Shmoopers.
Yet the attention to line breaks and form is very deliberate in this poem. This isn't some free for all, scribbled on the back of a grocery list. It's a poem. And poems are often all about how they appear on the page.
"This Is Just To Say" is divided into three four-line stanzas, and the lines are all about the same length—very short. There's no punctuation in the poem, which would seem to mean that it's just one sentence—one of those big ol' run-ons your English teacher might hate. Notice, though, that the word "Forgive" is capitalized in the third stanza, which may mean we're dealing with a new sentence.
The most distinctive part of this poem's form is its short short short lines. We mean, they're short on short, which can make things a bit awkward if you take them all as pauses. So if you're reading this poem aloud (which is always a good way to help understand a poem) keep in mind that a line break doesn't necessarily mean that you should go all silent on us. If there's no comma or period, just keep right on reading with no break.
Still, you'll notice as you read, especially the first few times, that even if there's no punctuation, you have to pause at the end of the line at least a little to let your eye skip down to the next line to know what's coming.
All of these little pauses make each little line seem more significant. The speaker seems to be having trouble writing this little apology. He feels guilty for eating these plums, and wants to write about it exactly. Think of the pauses as more mental or emotional than audible.
Finally, this is just to say, the line breaks also help this poem have a somewhat humorous effect. It surprises us with each new line. Seriously, dude? You're feeling bad about chowing down on some stone fruit?
This entire poem centers on these plums—they were saved, then they were eaten, leaving the person who saved them with no plums for breakfast. So sad, the premature death of these plums. They were, after all, delicious, sweet and cold—and one person had to go and hog them all. Even though the word "plums" is only used once in the poem, every single line of this poem refers to them, so let's take a closer look.
This poem sets up a kitchen scene. We see an icebox, plums, and we can imagine the later breakfast (sans stone fruit). The poem itself is probably a note on the icebox. This image shows us a lot about the life of our speaker, and about his relationship to the other person who lives with him, although we can't always pin it down. He is close enough to her to eat her plums, but loves her enough, and feels bad enough, that he leaves this note. What she has to say about her missing fruit, we can only guess.
This whole poem is an apology for eating pilfered plums. But our speaker doesn't let us know that until the very last stanza. However, we can see hints of his guilt throughout the whole poem.
It's a kitchen. Get your mind out of the gutter.