Barry Ahearn: On "Portrait of a Lady"

One exception to the dearth of love lyrics is "Portrait of a Lady". . .from 1920. This poem anticipates what will become a major pattern in Paterson: the poet's monologue disrupted by a woman's comments. The lady Williams addresses in "Portrait" seems to inquire closely into his claims and assertions. We hear her voice secondhand, in Williams's increasingly irritated echoing of her questions. What Williams tries to do--at least ostensibly--is to address a poem of praise to the lady. His nettled response to her questions, however, suggests that he may be more interested in playing the poet than the lover. "Portrait of a Lady" indicates how the impulse behind the love lyric (to enumerate the beloved's attributes) can be rapidly divorced from the subject of praise. The poem becomes a mechanism subject to its own laws. Its operating principles, in other words, make it more closely related to other lyrics than to the beloved. This warping of the poem away from the person described may be reflected in the gap that opens between "Your" (the first word of the poem) and "I" (the first word of the last line). Other details in the poem indicate a tendency for love lyrics to turn self-referential: portions of the lady's anatomy are designated simply because they offer convenient rhymes ("knees" with "breeze"); the poem gradually shifts its focus away from her head (we proceed from "thighs" to "knees" to "ankles") and hence away from that part of her which speaks; the poem's diction lapses into the vernacular when Williams grows weary of her questions: "How / should I know?" The beloved in "Portrait of a Lady" refuses to be entombed by praise. She resists being effaced by the operations of the traditional love lyric. How does she accomplish this?

She inquires into the nature of his metaphors in such a way as to call them into question. She asks for a larger context for the metaphor; if her "thighs are appletrees," she wants to know where these trees are located. The lady commits poetic sabotage, because the metaphorical machinery of the love lyric requires a swift transition from one metaphor to the next. To ask the lyric to dwell on a detailed extrapolation of one metaphor is to ask it to relinquish the basis for its form. A virtuoso performance such as Robert Frost's "The Silken Tent," which sustains a single metaphor over fourteen lines, demonstrates how difficult it is to restrict a love lyric to a single metaphor.

In a way, "Portrait of a Lady" shows Williams being forced to choose between two loves: (1) the lady who is the subject of the poem and (2) the form memorialized and rededicated in the poem. Finally, the poem also demonstrates Williams's comprehension that the traditional love lyric had to acquire a new form to be viable in a world where some women were no longer content to receive the artist's ambiguous accolade in becoming silence.

Barry Ahearn. From William Carlos Williams and Alterity: The Early Poetry. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title Barry Ahearn: On "Portrait of a Lady" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Barry Ahearn Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication William Carlos Williams and Alterity: The Early Poetry
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