Bram Dijkstra: On "The Young Sycamore"

The poem has a very precise linear movement which finds its logical conclusion in the description of the tree's top branches. At the same time it remains fixed within the compass of a single object, leaving the object to express its own universal regenerative significance. What makes this poem especially interesting is that it would seem to be a minute description of the tree in Stieglitz's photograph "Spring Showers" (see photo): Williams' description of the tree in its environment of pavement, gutter, and trickling water, as well as his emphasis on its young branches bung with cocoons, and on the trunk which suddenly divides itself at half its height, makes it correspond so minutely to the facts of Stieglitz's photograph that the possibility of coincidence seems highly unlikely.

Williams, in fact, seems to have come to the conclusion that he need not limit his poetry to a description of the incidents fixed by the camera eye of his own imagination, but that he might just as effectively make poems out of the visual records of experience presented in those paintings, drawings, or photographs which caught his fancy. Beginning with the Twenties an ever larger part of his writing began to consist of such materials. His stories and essays are filled with descriptions, often fragmentary, of pictures remembered, and in many of his poems we come across sudden thumbnail sketches of specific works by his favorite painters. Not infrequently, as in "Young Sycamore," he would make a painting the basis for a whole poem. Sometimes he would openly acknowledge such a poem's derivation, or he would give an oblique hint, such as in the title of his poem "Classic Scene," which is based on Sheeler's painting "Classic Landscape"; but usually be would give no indication at all that a poem was based on a painting or photograph, rather than on an incident taken directly from reality.

Williams was "a great gallery-goer" during the Twenties and Thirties. He "saw Stieglitz often and if there was an exhibit of the French masters or any show at the Modern Museum or the Whitney gallery," he was sure to be there. It is therefore very likely that among the many poems which seem based on personal observation of elements in nature or the city, a number are in fact records of what the poet observed in the visual constructions of other artists. For Williams, who, after all, regarded a work of art as a perfectly autonomous, perfectly "real" object, this must have seemed a legitimate practice. . . .

From Cubism, Stieglitz, and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Copyright © 1969 by Princeton University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title Bram Dijkstra: On "The Young Sycamore" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Bram Dijkstra Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Cubism, Stieglitz, and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams: The Hieroglyphics of a New Speech
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