Peter Halter: On "The Great Figure"

For Williams's friends, "The Great Figure," with its sensitivity to things completely outside the confines of Art, Beauty, and Culture, was a paradigmatic achievement. It was this poem in particular that Kenneth Burke singled out for praise in one of the earliest appraisals of Williams's art in 1922: "What, for instance, could be more lost, more uncorrelated, a closer Contact, a greater triumph of antiCulture, than this poem" ("William Carlos Williams," p. 50). . . .

The image of the firetruck racing through the city in the midst of the frenzy of "gong clangs" and "siren howls" evokes the enthusiasm of the Futurists for the dynamic chaos of the modern urban civilization. The poem is, together with a few others (e.g., "Overture to a Dance of Locomotives"), clearly related to the fascination that the metropolis held for the Futurists, the epitome of a teeming life force with myriad nodes of energy. . . . 

The golden 5 in Williams's poem is the focal point in a dynamic contemporary environment and embodies the technological nature of the things that make up this world. . . .

In Williams's poem. . . the environment is the dramatic setting that enhances the epiphanic effect of the golden figure on the "I," the individual whose special sensitivity enables him to be thrilled by something that is "unheeded" by all the others around him. As the 5 flashes by, large and prominent against the red background of the racing firetruck, it produces an intense moment of revelation. The golden figure is suddenly much more than a mere number; it becomes one of the new heraldic signs that are part of the specific beauty of the modern age.

"The Great Figure" is also one of the poems that recall Duchamp's influence, in particular that of his ready-mades: The golden figure 5 is a veritable objet trouvé, discovered by the poet among the innumerable things that belong to the neglected "soulless" present-day technological environment so systematically bypassed by the more traditional artists. It is evident that Williams's poem belongs within the wider context of Duchamp's praise of American technology and the new self-confidence that this praise instigated in the American avantgardists. In addition to that, as pointed out earlier, the Frenchman's provocative ready-mades undoubtedly helped Williams to come to the conviction that a poem, like any other work of art, "can be made of anything." The very title of "The Great Figure" contains this conviction in a nutshell: In 1920, when the poem was published for the first time, a reader probably expected it to be about a figure of public importance rather than about a number, or immediately realized the clash between what one could generally expect to find in poetry and what one found here - a poem that violated the basic poetic conventions by almost any standard.

Apart from influences from the visual arts, there are of course also literary ones. Al Que Quiere! and Sour Grapes, shows how Williams adopted Imagist techniques for his poems of discovery, as one could call them. It reflects some of the basic tenets of Imagism, such as the utmost concentration on one or a few images, and the total absence of "verbiage" or outworn poetic diction. But here, too, there are differences; it is characteristic of Williams that he refuses to invariably "poeticize" the details on which the poem focuses by means of overt metaphors and similes. Hence Williams hardly ever takes up the Imagists' haiku-inspired practice of linking up an "outward" image to an "inward" metaphorical one but tries to remain as faithful as possible to the immediate sensory experience. This might, but as often did not, necessitate the introduction of overt metaphors and similes. . . .

Thus in "The Great Figure" only one word--"tense"--is used metaphorically: The poet,in an empathetic identification with the tenseness of the firemen and the whole situation, projects it onto the firetruck and the golden 5 itself.

The short lines are another device that can be related to Imagist tenets, since they direct the attention to each single detail; only when these details stand out in utmost clarity can they fully display their "virtues of form and color." The effect, however, is not noticeable to the same degree throughout the poem, as the various lengths of the lines indicate. Even in this short poem there is a clear progression from beginning to middle and end. The opening lines focus on two details of the city and night - "rain" and "lights" - and in very few words create the atmosphere of a specific setting. Then the poem moves on quickly to the center of interest. Once its focus is fully on the number 5, the even shorter lines slow it down and arrest our attention by throwing each detail of the seemingly trivial object into relief. The most striking element is, of course, the gold, which "jolts the poem into life," as James Breslin remarked in his excellent analysis of the poem, "seeming to leap out at us and demand our attention." Part of this effect is rhythmic: If we take the first two lines as a unit - "Among the rain and lights" - we get, together with the third line, two completely iambic lines with three accents in each of them:

Among the rain / and lights I saw the figure 5

Coming after this, the exclamatory "in gold" receives the greatest possible emphasis, with the sole beat of the line on "gold" and a pause after it (or a fermata, musically speaking) that adds to its impact. In addition to this, the lines following ("on a red / firetruck") mark a complete rhythmic change; "in gold" thus becomes the climactic endpoint of the first iambic part of the poem, which is followed in the second part by a more complex and tenser rhythm.

This change in rhythm coincides with the change in focus - the view is gradually enlarged from the gold to the "red / firetruck" and from the truck to the hectic movement and the nerve-racking sounds; in a series of powerful syncopated double-beat lines:

to gong clangs siren howls and wheels rumbling through the dark city.

In the end, when the dramatic moment is over, the poem is also over, with the firetruck disappearing into the night. Thus the last line takes us back to the beginning; the poem opens and closes with a wide-angle shot, so to speak, of the dark city with its rain and lights, a background which very effectively frames the sudden appearance of the golden figure in an exciting flash of color, sound, and movement.

Peter Halter. From The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Copyright 1994 By Cambridge University Press.