R. Peter Stoicheff: On "Portrait of a Lady"

Williams' desire to take words as they are found, "Without distortion which would mar their exact significance," for example, seems to assume that words have an "exact significance" and, further, that such precision can be kept intact through the inevitable process of interpretation that one's "perceptions and ardors" into "an intense expression" contains problems similar to those embedded in Ezra Pound's claim that his "In A Station of the Metro" records "the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective." Each statement nonchalantly waves off the tremendous difficulties inherent in the act of translating the world into words.

[....]

Consider the flamboyant frustration that makes the poem "Portrait of a Lady"—it is born of the inability to find univocal words that do not confusingly point to a host of possible signifieds. Although it begins confidently enough:

Your thighs are appletrees 

whose blossoms touch the sky.

by the third line the poem becomes a recognition of its own failure to differentiate its language and clarify its intention—". . . sky / Which sky?" How to distinguish for the reader or, indeed, for himself, the very "sky" Williams envisions from all other "skies"? And how thereby to focus this sky, which is touched by the blossoms of an appletree, for the reader? Ultimately, such a distinction can only be partially accomplished; it is not the sky, for instance, of a Reubens or a Rembrandt, but the sky "where Watteau hung a lady's / slipper." (This, as we know, is in itself a blurring of distinctions, for Watteau never hung a slipper in it—Fragonnard did.) But, by its own admission, that sky cannot exist for the reader in isolation from the slipper which places it in relief, nor from its artistic interpretation into paint. And so the problem of verbal clarity or differentiation multiplies exponentially,

the tall grass of your ankles 

flickers upon the shore—

Which Shore?—

until the poem sputters in frustration, stumbles between question and declaration, and stalls:

Agh, petals maybe. How 

should I know? 

Which shore? Which shore? 

I said petals from an appletree.

The poem begins with a hyperbolic metaphor ("Your thighs are appletrees") in order to illuminate an error—that of attempting to create identity instead of difference. This error is an example of what Williams terms "an easy lateral sliding" in "Prologue to Kora in Hell" in 1920: "The true value is that peculiarity which gives an object a character by itself. The associational or sentimental value is the false. Its imposition is due to lack of imagination, to an easy lateral sliding." The quotation implies the imagistic characteristics of Williams' interests, and illuminates how keenly he perceived poetry in terms of focusing. Instead of the blurring of metaphor which identifies two things—the clarity of differentiating them. And instead or a "lateral sliding"—a focusing of perception. It is in this way that "Portrait of a Lady" is a parodic indictment of T. S. Eliot’s symbolism which, Williams believed, created the blurred impressionism of his 1915 poem of the same title.

Williams "Portrait of a Lady" is a parodic recognition of the failure of metafor to do what he wants a poem's language to do: create a verbal grid in which marring, blending, distortion do not occur.

From "Against 'An Easy Lateral Sliding': William Carlos Williams' Early Poetry of Differentiation." American Poetry 5:3 (Spring 1988): 14-23

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Criticism Overview
Title R. Peter Stoicheff: On "Portrait of a Lady" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author R. Peter Stoicheff Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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