Poet's Pick April 7
William Carlos Williams: "Tract"
Selected by David Hernandez
National Poetry Month 2017

Letter from the Editors

Dear Readers,

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Thank you so much for your support! Enjoy today's special poem and commentary from 2007!

Warmest regards,

Don Selby & Diane Boller

David Hernandez's Poetry Month Pick, April 7, 2017

by William Carlos Williams (1883–1963)

I will teach you my townspeople
how to perform a funeral—
for you have it over a troop
of artists—
unless one should scour the world—
you have the ground sense necessary.

See! the hearse leads.
I begin with a design for a hearse.
For Christ's sake not black—
nor white either—and not polished!
Let it be weathered—like a farm wagon—
with gilt wheels (this could be
applied fresh at small expense)
or no wheels at all:
a rough dray to drag over the ground.

Knock the glass out!
My God—glass, my townspeople!
For what purpose? Is it for the dead
to look out or for us to see
how well he is housed or to see
the flowers or the lack of them—
or what?
To keep the rain and snow from him?
He will have a heavier rain soon:
pebbles and dirt and what not.
Let there be no glass—
and no upholstery, phew!
and no little brass rollers
and small easy wheels on the bottom—
my townspeople what are you thinking of?

A rough plain hearse then
with gilt wheels and no top at all.
On this the coffin lies
by its own weight.

                              No wreaths please—
especially no hot house flowers.
Some common memento is better,
something he prized and is known by:
his old clothes—a few books perhaps—
God knows what! You realize
how we are about these things
my townspeople—
something will be found—anything
even flowers if he had come to that.
So much for the hearse.

For heaven's sake though see to the driver!
Take off the silk hat! In fact
that's no place at all for him—
up there unceremoniously
dragging our friend out to his own dignity!
Bring him down—bring him down!
Low and inconspicuous! I'd not have him ride
on the wagon at all—damn him—
the undertaker's understrapper!
Let him hold the reins
and walk at the side
and inconspicuously too!

Then briefly as to yourselves:
Walk behind—as they do in France,
seventh class, or if you ride
Hell take curtains! Go with some show
of inconvenience; sit openly—
to the weather as to grief.
Or do you think you can shut grief in?
What—from us? We who have perhaps
nothing to lose? Share with us
share with us—it will be money
in your pockets.                  
                             Go now
I think you are ready. 


* David Hernandez Comments:
Included in his collection Al Que Quiere! (1917), this poem by Mr. “No ideas but in things” gives us plenty of ideas on how to conduct a funeral.  Unlike the concise and meditative poems which became his trademark, William Carlos Williams’s “Tract” is full of whimsy, bravado, attitude, and exclamation points.  I envision him furiously banging away on his typewriter when he wrote this poem, a mind on fire, pushing against Wordsworth’s assertion that poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility.”  It’s all there in the barked instructions and admonitions (“For Christ’s sake not black— / nor white either—and not polished!”) as if the speaker was raised by a family of drill sergeants. 

I love Williams’s brazen use of colloquialism, that he employed this technique (“from the mouths of Polish mothers,” as Williams was once quoted) when many of the other modernists were using a high diction.  Although “Tract” is a good example of free verse, Williams still uses a few poetic devices here and there—the alliteration of  “a rough dray to drag over the ground,” for instance, and the iambic line “the undertaker’s understrapper!”

Of course, I was curious as to how Williams’s own funeral was conducted and discovered the following: “[He] was buried in Hillside Cemetery at Rutherford on a cold, rainy morning.  The closed casket funeral service, simple, and without ‘a lot of religious stuff,’ as Williams had requested, was conducted by a Unitarian minister.  Nothing from the Bible was read, rather the minister intoned to the Rutherford citizens Williams’s poem ‘Tract’.”

David Hernandez:
David Hernandez’s latest collection of poetry is Dear, Sincerely, which was published last year as part of the Pitt Poetry Series. His other books include Hoodwinked (Sarabande Books, 2011), Always Danger (SIU Press, 2006), and A House Waiting for Music (Tupelo Press, 2003). He has been awarded the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, an NEA Literature Fellowship, and two Pushcart Prizes. David teaches creative writing at California State University, Long Beach and is married to writer Lisa Glatt. Visit his website at www.davidahernandez.com.

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