John Lowney: On "To Elsie"

The most famous poem in Spring and All that presents the automobile as a figure of modern American mobility is "To Elsie." In this case, the automobile has no driver, and mobility is portrayed as mindless, aimless nomadism. "To Elsie" dramatically thematizes the trope of articulation to fuse Williams's revisionary poetics of descent with his avant-garde poetics of dissent. More than any Williams poem other than Paterson, "To Elsie" has drawn praise as a formally complex act of social criticism. Louis Zukofsky singled out "To Elsie" in his overview of 1920s American poetry, asserting that it brilliantly demonstrates the "social determinism of American suburbs in the first thirty years of the twentieth century." "To Elsie" exemplifies for Zukofsky that "history is in these pages and in the poems—history defined as the facts about us, their chronological enlivening for the present set down as art as so good for the next age and the next." More recently, the cultural anthropologist James Clifford has read "To Elsie" as an exemplary text of" ethnographic modernity." Williams's standpoint of participant observation in "To Elsie" is ethnographic in that he "finds himself off center among scattered traditions," while modernity is encountered through the poem's complex evocation of lost authenticity. Unlike the patients who are presented with medical-aesthetic distance in other Williams poems, the emblematic figure of "Elsie" is a "troubling-insider" within the doctor-poet's bourgeois domestic space. As Clifford argues, "Elsie" embodies not just a figure of modernity but a "plurality of emergent subjects" whose representation resists any facile symbolic interpretation. Elsie embodies the interpretive problem of the poem: unable to articulate any notion of "contact" with her locale, the poem "strains" to articulate the signs of her inarticulateness. David Frail argues that "To Elsie" successfully diagnoses the failure of modern American culture by demonstrating the gap between social reality and the terms by which the "poet of contact" criticizes it. In other words, the poem succeeds through its recognition of Williams's failure as a poet to restore the promise of American culture. I agree that "To Elsie" acknowledges this problematic gap between the pathology of modernity and the poet's prescription of contact, but the act of articulating this gap itself contradicts the poem's bleak conclusion.

Like "Spring and All," "To Elsie" depicts northern New Jersey as a desolate wasteland of the "pure products of America," with its "deaf-mutes, thieves,"

old names

and promiscuity between

 

devil-may-care men who have taken

to railroading

out of sheer lust of adventure—

 

and young slatterns, bathed 

in filth

from Monday to Saturday

 

to be tricked out that night

with gauds

from imaginations which have no

 

peasant traditions to give them

character.

(CP 1, 217)

From its oxymoronic opening of purity produced through this catalog of aimless and inbred grotesques, "To Elsie" vitriolically indicts a commercialist American culture that substitutes "gauds" for the local gods of "peasant traditions." The possibility for a poetics of "contact" to counteract such a desperate condition of rootlessness does indeed seem to be a delusion. The inarticulateness that results from the lack of any meaningful connection to place is personified in "some Elsie," whose name itself suggests both alienation from the place she inhabits and otherness from the poet's perspective. The "broken / brain" with which she expresses "the truth about us" is suggested by the poem's syntax of one long sequence of progressive subordination, each phrase stated as a present apprehension, "broken" into short lines that frequently stop, unpredictably, to interrupt clauses, creating an effect of reckless speed combined with wandering, incomplete thoughts.

However, if "To Elsie" replicates the psychological effects of the social conditions it critiques, its articulation of its subject's inarticulateness suggests that poetry's close attention to language, whether on the level of the utterance or of the word, still serves the vital social function of producing knowledge. The diction of "To Elsie" is vaguer than in Williams’s more descriptive poems. The description of the "pure products of America" is characterized by clichéd social types who appear to be "pure" because of their ideologically produced naturalness. Elsie, despite the oblique description of her as "voluptuous water / expressing with broken / brain the truth about us" (CP 1, 218), is largely an amalgam of sociological and physiological cliches. However, such vague colloquial diction is not consistent throughout the poem. Most notably, the description of plants is remarkably precise, as exemplified in the Saturday night scenario of the "young slatterns" succumbing without

emotion 

save numbed terror

 

under some hedge of choke-cherry 

or viburnum— 

which they cannot express—.

(CP 1, 217)

The specificity of" choke-cherry / or viburnum" is accentuated by the vagueness of "some hedge." Furthermore, this inability to express, to name, is dramatized by the very selection of trees under which they "succumb." The "choke-cherry" is a North American wild cherry tree with astringent fruit, hence its name, while the "viburnum" is a member of the honeysuckle family whose Latin meaning is "wayfaring tree." The names of the trees thus figure both the "numbed terror . . . which they cannot express" and the nomadism of the "devil-may-care men." The only other plant named in "To Elsie" similarly suggests the psychological, even physiological, effects of the inability to express:

while the imagination strains 

after deer 

going by fields of goldenrod in

 

the stifling heat of September 

Somehow 

it seems to destroy us

 

It is only in isolate flecks that 

 

something 

is given off

 

No one 

to witness 

and adjust, no one to drive the car.

(CP 1, 218-19)

"Goldenrod" is commonly confused with ragweed as an allergenic plant. Such common ignorance would surely discourage the "imagination" from pursuing "deer / going by fields of goldenrod." This ignorance is the result not so much of the inability to articulate a sense of "contact" with the local, but rather of the inability, or refusal, to reflect on the linguistic "grounds" for articulating such contact.

"To Elsie" foregrounds the significance of language not just in the "isolate flecks . . . given off" by its precise naming of plants but in its mixture of discourses that initiates reflection on the social roots and effects of clichéd terms and phrases. The poem certainly demonstrates and defends the poet's social function of naming. The phrase "the imagination strains" itself suggests a physical act of hunting, "strain" being derived from the Latin stringere, to "draw tight," as a bow, which "gives off" the "isolate flecks," evoking the French for "arrow," fleche. However, to "strain after" such a self-reflexive meaning is not the "point" of "To Elsie." Like its syntax, its patterns of sound accentuate the significance of close attention to everyday language, whether through alliteration or through the repetition of larger semantic units like "isolate . . . desolate . . . isolate." The "isolate flecks" of precise description not only reveal the poet’s ability to name: they highlight the reader's responsibility for interpreting and transforming the quotidian terms which evoke our inability to articulate social relations. The poem's final stanza expresses the despair of modernity in the figure of a driverless car, but "no one / to witness / and adjust" can also be read against the colloquial grain as "no one / to witness / and adjust." If the poet relinquishes the role of the "one" who drives the car, "To Elsie" acknowledges its readers' productive role "to witness / and adjust," to not only "witness the words being born" but to adjust the terms by which such words are conventionally understood.

From The American Avant-Garde Tradition: William Carlos Williams, Postmodern Poetry, and the Politics of Cultural Memory. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Associated University Presses.

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Criticism Overview
Title John Lowney: On "To Elsie" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author John Lowney Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The American Avant-Garde Tradition: William Carlos Williams, Postmodern Poetry, and the Politics of Cultural Memory
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