Christian Reed: On "The Yachts"

In 1955, Williams folded into a file a set of notes containing the following gloss of “The Yachts”: “It is a false situation which the yachts typify with the beauty of their movements while the real situation (of the poor) is desperate while ‘the skillful yachts pass over.’” On one hand, this information helps readers tremendously; it supplies them with a rubric for understanding the relationship between the two very different scenes depicted in this poem (one is “false,” one is “real”). This is useful: the problem presented by these two seemingly irreconcilable scenes is an obsession in the criticism surrounding this poem – it is “the problem with interpreting ‘The Yachts,’” “a tactical difficulty” that produces “intense confusion for the reader” (MAPS: Schneider and Sullivan, respectively).

On the other hand, however, if Williams’ gloss solves one problem, it raises (at least) two new ones. First, Williams’ use of the words “false” and “real” is very puzzling; it seems much easier to attach the signifier “real” to Williams’ description of the yachts and the race (a description, Mariani maintains [MAPS], that derives from Williams’ first-hand witnessing of a “real” yacht race in 1935), and similarly easier to consider the scene of the dismembered and entangled mass of “watery bodies” to be “fantastic” - that is, to be “false” in some sense of the word. Williams’ explanation, then, leaves us with the difficulty of sorting out what he means by its two most important words. Secondly, the explanation itself takes on a rather odd form, as a sentence; the oddity of this convoluted statement is amplified by the fact that Williams is a poet who often achieves poetic effects through the economy of his language (as in “The Great Figure” or “The Red Wheelbarrow”). This too, I think, presents an interesting problem for the critic responding to “The Yachts.”\

I want to begin with the second of these problems, which I believe will in relatively short order lead us to the consideration of first. The oddity of Williams’ explanation lies in its apparently needless repetition: he describes the “false situation” embodied in the spectacle of yacht race, then the “real situation (of the poor)” registered by the “Broken / beaten, desolate” bodies in the water (30-31), and then the spectacle of the yacht race again. Williams’ explanation is structured as if three things were happening simultaneously (X “while” Y “while” Z), though in fact, he is describing two simultaneous events in a redundant way (X “while” Y “while” X). Although this strategy makes little sense on the level of meaning, it is comprehensible as a kind of performance; this sentence, we might say, stages the drama of containment (or perhaps, more literally, of circumscription, of writing that produces a boundary around something). Y – “the real situation (of the poor)” – is concealed within, contained on both ends by X – the “false,” though thoroughly distracting, vision of the “skillful yachts.”

“The Yachts” itself enacts a similar circumscription in its opening stanzas: “an ungoverned ocean which when it chooses / tortures the biggest hulls, the best man knows / to pit against its beatings, and sinks them [that is, the yachts] pitilessly” (3-5). The phrase about what “the best man knows” is confusingly interpolated into the middle of a set of words about the savage (“ungoverned,” “pitiless[]”) power of nature. As such, these lines seem to call attention to the fact that even “the best man” is contained (like William’s notes in a folder); the poem enacts this sense in the literal circumscription of the phrase “the best man knows…” by the descriptions of the overwhelming power of the sea, of nature.

Besides these two instances of what I have been calling “circumscription,” Williams employs the more general motif of containment frequently in “The Yachts”: the sea is contained by land (“a sea which the land partly encloses,” 1), the sea is also contained by watchful guardians (“a well guarded arena of open water surrounded by / lesser and greater craft,” 13-14, this phrase is almost another instance of circumscription with “well guarded arena” and “lesser and greater craft” paradoxically enclosing “open water”). The middle part of the poem works hard to cast the yacht race as playing out the victory of man over the brutal force of nature (“the waves strike at them but they [the yachts] are too / well made, they slip through,” 23-24); however, by noticing these multiple layers of containment, the elaborate construction that goes into staging this dramatic triumph, we can see that victory is only possible if man picks his battles very carefully. How then does this small and very expensive victory acquire its significance, it sublimity, for the watcher? This significance arises by way of another instance of containment – that is, because the spectacle takes place “in the mind” of the spectator.

In this poem, Williams demonstrates the power of the mind to produce (through acts of repression, forgetting) some cultural object as pure or natural; the yachts are described as “live with the grace / of all that in the mind is fleckless, free and / naturally to be desired,” (16-18). This majestic vision of the yachts, however, is available only by rather large acts of mental repression; the suffering that permeates much of the social field must be ignored. Roland Barthes, in his discussion of “Wine and Milk” in Mythologies, finds that wine can become an “unalloyedly blissful substance” for the French public only if they “wrongfully forget that it is also the product of an expropriation,” an issue of violent colonial oppression in Algeria (60-61). In very much the same way, the perception of the “skillful yachts” is available only through the “wrongful forgetting” of the capitalist exploitation that underwrites it.

However, Williams not only demonstrates the power of bourgeoise mythology, he also demonstrates the mind’s power to recover, through the action of the imagination, a sense of reality. This sense of reality is reinstated through powerful representations of what has been lost or rendered unavailable through these acts of primary repression. This is what is being performed through the intense language and imagery of the closing stanzas (“Arms with hands grasping seek to clutch at the prows…” 25). In this way, although a direct apprehension of reality is simply not possible because of a repressive filter that has been installed (through ideological apparatuses, etc.) in the individual subject, some approximation of the “real” (a “real” that discovers the apparently real to be “false”) is nonetheless shown to be salvageable through the work of the informed imagination.

Copyright © 2006 by Christian Reed

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Criticism Overview
Title Christian Reed: On "The Yachts" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Christian Reed Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 19 Oct 2015
Publication Status Original Criticism Publication No Data
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