Poet's Pick April 22
William Carlos Williams: "Queen-Anne's Lace"
Selected by Emily Hoffman
National Poetry Month 2015

Letter from the Editors

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Emily Hoffman's Poetry Month Pick, April 22, 2015

"Queen-Anne's Lace"
by William Carlos Williams (1883 - 1963)

Her body is not so white as
anemony petals nor so smooth—nor
so remote a thing. It is a field
of the wild carrot taking
the field by force; the grass
does not raise above it.
Here is no question of whiteness,
white as can be, with a purple mole
at the center of each flower.
Each flower is a hand’s span
of her whiteness. Wherever
his hand has lain there is
a tiny purple blemish. Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end,
until the whole field is a
white desire, empty, a single stem,
a cluster, flower by flower,
a pious wish to whiteness gone over—
or nothing.


  

* Emily Hoffman Comments:

Here are the objects we have to hand: a woman, a flower, and the idea of a woman as a flower.  “—Say it, no ideas but in things—“ goes Williams’ famous dictum. And certainly he lavishes attention on the wild carrot flower. He called the poem, and the three others named for flowers in his 1921 collection Sour Grapes (“Daisy,” “Primrose,” and “Great Mullen”) “still lifes”: “I looked at the actual flowers as they grew.” But the flower is not the poem’s only object, nor is the woman’s body. It is the tired simile itself—my love is like a flower—that Williams objectifies, holds in his hand, deftly manipulates, sets, in the end, spinning like a top.

It is a rote association. Here it is again in the beginning of Paterson,

A man like a city and a woman like a flower
—who are in love. Two women. Three women.
Innumerable women, each like a flower.

                                                            But
only one man—like a city.

These are the associations one has, vulgarly put, for free. What then to do with them?

The poem advances through a series of observations set at odd angles to one another; each seems to follow from and to contradict what has preceded. Take the question of whiteness, another trope. The word white or whiteness appears 6 times in 21 lines; Williams keeps shifting its placement in the field. First, whiteness is a remote ideal, which the beloved’s body does not attain. (“Her body is not so white as…” recalls Shakespeare: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”) “Here is no question of whiteness,” Williams continues, seemingly in the same vein, until the line jackknifes into its idiomatic usage: that is, no question of whiteness, not because she is not white, but because she is “white as can be.” So white, in fact, that whiteness is next used as a metonym for something like her substance (“Each flower is a hand’s span/ of her whiteness”), which can be measured out in units of a hand, a hand which then blemishes that whiteness. And now white is a figure for desire, now associated with piety, now soured (“gone over”), and, at last, a figure for disappearance.

I find the experience of reading “Queen-Anne’s Lace” much like that of riding a slide. Hand over hand, one climbs the rungs of the initial descriptions, the increasingly trochaic meter propelling one forward. Each figure seems to call the next into being, as if Williams really were building the ladder as he went. He lands on the phrase “each flower” (“with a purple mole/ at the center of each flower.”) and this phrase inaugurates the next thought: “Each flower is a hand’s span/ of her whiteness.” Whose hand? “His hand”: “Wherever his hand has lain there is a tiny purple blemish.” Then one attains the summit: “Each part/ is a blossom under his touch/ to which the fibres of her being/ stem one by one, each to its end…” It’s all downhill from there, at a dizzying pace. Stop the poem, I want to get off.

A kind of sexual congress is being described, to be sure, but I am more excited to think of the poem’s final lines as a rapid-fire meditation on metonymy. Which is the part and what is the whole? Look at a Queen-Anne’s-Lace—from afar it looks like a single flower atop a stem; up close the flower is revealed to be a cluster of many blossoms. “O chestnut tree,” Yeats asks in the stately final stanza of “Among School Children, “great rooted blossomer,/ Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?” Williams advances ambiguity not through question but through contradictory assertion. The field is, at once, “a/ white desire, empty, a single stem,/ a cluster, flower by flower,/ a pious wish to whiteness gone over—/ or nothing.”

And suddenly the poem is over. Something is lost, I think, in an attempt to slow it down. The poem’s strength exceeds any account of its individual images or its logic: it’s in the movement. Every time I finish reading it I feel compelled immediately to begin again, like a child rushing back up the steps of the slide, or, to use a metaphor more germane to the form, like reciting a rosary.


About Emily Hoffman:
Emily Hoffman lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her poetry has been published in The New Republic and she has written about dance for BOMB, Music & Literature, and Performance Journal.


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