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To Elsie

XVIII

The pure products of America
go crazy—
mountain folk from Kentucky

or the ribbed north end of 
Jersey
with its isolate lakes and 

valleys, its deaf mutes, thieves
old names
and promiscuity between

devil-may-care men who have taken 
to railroading 
out of sheer lust of adventure—

and young slatterns, bathed 
in filth
from Monday to Saturday

to be tricked out that night
with gauds 
from imaginations which have no

peasant traditions to give them
character
but flutter and flaunt

sheer rags—succumbing without 
emotion
save numbed terror

under some hedge of choke-cherry
or viburnum—
which they cannot express—

Unless it be that marriage 
perhaps
with a dash of Indian blood

will throw up a girl so desolate
so hemmed round 
with disease or murder

that she’ll be rescued by an 
agent—
reared by the state and

sent out at fifteen to work in 
some hard-pressed
house in the suburbs—

some doctor’s family, some Elsie—
voluptuous water
expressing with broken

brain the truth about us—
her great
ungainly hips and flopping breasts

addressed to cheap 
jewelry 
and rich young men with fine eyes

as if the earth under our feet 
were
an excrement of some sky

and we degraded prisoners
destined
to hunger until we eat filth

while the imagination strains
after deer 
going by fields of goldenrod in 

the stifling heat of September
Somehow
it seems to destroy us

It is only in isolate flecks that 
something
is given off

No one 
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

—William Carlos Williams

Edward Hirsch on William Carlos Williams’ “To Elsie”

Transcription of Commentary

My name is Edward Hirsch and I’m reading a poem by William Carlos Williams called “To Elsie”.

This poem was untitled when William Carlos Williams first published it. It was “Poem Number 18” in Spring and All, which he published in 1923. It was only until when he published a later Collected Poems that he gave the poem the title “To Elsie”. In its relationship it’s about (or uses) Elsie Borden, who was a mentally handicapped nursemaid from the state orphanage who came to work for the Williams family. And the odd thing about the poem, or one of the odd things about the poem, is it’s called “To Elsie” but it doesn’t really . . .it’s not really addressed to Elsie, she isn’t spoken to. It’s really kind of toward Elsie. And Elsie becomes both a particular person and an embodiment, a representative of some kind of suffering in the culture. Because there is a moment in the poem—it’s about a third of the way through the poem, almost halfway—where she’s sent out. He’s describing her as someone who’s so desolate, hemmed out, the kind of family she grew up in so surrounded by disease and murder, that she was sent out to an agency at the age of fifteen and then farmed out to work for the Williamses, “some hard-pressed house in the suburbs;” the Williams family, “some doctor’s family,” which Williams Carlos Williams was a doctor; “some Elsie.” So it’s not . . . she’s both a person and she’s a representative who’s there to express the truth about us.

And the poem becomes a kind of diagnosis of the American situation. And we’re a new country, in this diagnosis, but the people have lost contact with peasant traditions, with European traditions, with something that’s come before. And this lack of continuity with anything that’s come before, with any folk traditions from the old country, has left Americans lost. And it’s left them in some kind of situation, from the mountain folk of Kentucky or in Jersey, in New Jersey where William Carlos Williams lived, surrounded by these young guys who work and get drunk all of week and take out these girls who then are in danger of getting pregnant and passing on disease and so forth. And Williams doesn’t exactly give us the solution, but it seems to be the imagination needs contact with earth under our feet. And there’s a beautiful line in this poem:

    and we degraded prisoners
    destined
    to hunger until we eat filth
         
    while the imagination strains
    after deer
    going by fields of goldenrod in
         
    the stifling heat of September

Contact was an important word for Williams, and so in place of these ancient traditions what we have in America are people who need contact with the earth, with the natural world, with a new culture that we can create. And “To Elsie”—actually the whole book Spring and All—is the about the difficult birth, of the difficulty of birth, the struggle it is to be born, and here to make a new culture. So Williams gives us a kind of diagnosis of a situation in America in 1923 (and America afterwards as well), and a kind of solution: we need contact with the earth.

“To Elsie” by William Carlos Williams, from THE COLLECTED POEMS: VOLUME I, 1909-1939, copyright ©1938

New Directions Publishing Corp.

Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Related Resources

Edward Hirsch

Edward Hirsch

Read “Liberty Brass” by Edward Hirsch

Edward Hirsch (1950- ) was born in Chicago and attended Grinnell College and the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of eight books of poetry and four books of criticism. His honors include the National Book Critics Circle Award for Wild Gratitude (1986), as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation. The president of the Guggenheim Foundation, he currently serves as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Photo credit: Julie Dermansky.

Learn more about Edward Hirsch at The Poetry Foundation

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was born in New Jersey and educated at the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in medicine. While working as a physician, he published nearly thirty poetry collections. Williams won the National Book Award for Poetry for Paterson (Book III, 1949) and Selected Poems (1976). He was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962) and the Gold Medal for Poetry of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

Learn more about William Carlos Williams at The Poetry Foundation