Between Walls (William Carlos Williams)

Poem: Between Walls
Poet: William Carlos Williams
In: The Voice That is Great Within Us (ed. Hayden Carruth)

Between Walls

the back wings
of the

hospital where
nothing

will grow lie
cinders

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green
bottle


This is a poem that has rewarded re-reading, and I am pleased that it was chosen to represent Williams in this collection, in place of the comparable but dramatically more famous poem about the red wheelbarrow. (It is not the only Williams selection, to be clear, but it is the only selection in this particular mode.)

At its core the poem is an image: the broken pieces of the green bottle lying amid the cinderblocks of an industrial dead zone. Indeed, this image is very nearly the poem itself. I say “very nearly” because there is one bit of editorializing on the part of the narrator. This is the implied comparison between the description of the setting as one in which “nothing // will grow” and the greenness of the broken glass, which, against that background, clearly suggests that we are to take it as a sort of industrial plant.

But beyond that, the poem tells us nothing about how we should feel about the image. And indeed, the justification for the implied comparison between the absent plant life and the present bottle is that it gives shape to the uncertainty of what to make of the scene described.

What, exactly, are we to make of this image? One might read it as a celebration of what is not often celebrated: a dead, ugly looking place—but wait, for there is life here, too, the broken bottle is the vegetation appropriate to such a place, and furthermore, is evidence that humans live here, that there is life even here. It is the task of the poet to find signs of life even where others see only ugliness and decay, and that is the virtue of this poem.

One might equally see in the comparison of the bottle to a plant a statement on just how different they are, how pale an imitation of true life the bottle is. The similarity then serves only to draw our attention to just how dissimilar the two really are. And what sort of life is evidenced by this bottle: a drunk, skulking about hidden places—no life at all. Such a reader might also note a feature of the setting I have thus far left unremarked: that this occurs around a hospital building. The whole setting is one of death and disease.

Well, there are two readings. Does the poem tell between them? Not in the slightest. Both are the impositions of the reader. In the end, there is only the broken bottle amid the cinder blocks. Make of it what you will.

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