Roger Gilbert: On "To Elsie"

William Carlos William’s great poem "To Elsie," . . . begins with the famous declaration "The pure products of America / go crazy—" and then immediately starts offering examples of the "products" in question: "mountain folk from Kentucky /or the ribbed north end of / Jersey. . . ." These phrases are wholly generic in their reference, of course, and the poem continues at this level for several stanzas,. speaking of "devil-may-care men" and "young slatterns" without fully individuating them. When Williams finally turns to the particular he does so with a gesture that looks like a qualification of his initial statement:

[Gilbert quotes lines 28-51]

Much of the pathos in this extraordinary passage has to do, I think, with the way Williams stations Elsie just on the border between the particular and the generic. Robert Pinsky has called attention to the insistent use of the word "some" in this poem, a word that, as I hope to show, has a profound significance for American poetry as a whole. Here it serves to locate Elsie, an utterly particular human being, within the societal and discursive contexts that "produce" her. "Some hard-pressed house," "some doctor's family" are conventional phrases that simply point to a specific member of a class; "some Elsie" is devastating, because it identifies individual and class in a way that leaves no room for the saving difference of selfhood. And indeed Williams' portrait brutally physicalizes Elsie, reducing her to a mute symptom of cultural degradation, "expressing" only by her brokenness what has been done to her. We may well conclude that Williams himself does as much to rob Elsie of selfhood as her culture; it is after all his language that transforms her to "voluptuous water" and that dwells on the tawdriness of her desires. Yet it is also Williams, like the state, who has plucked Elsie out of her original context, who has made her an example, a special case, part anomaly and part specimen.

Much hinges on the "Unless" that opens the passage: what does it imply? That Elsie somehow escapes or transcends the misery and the madness that beset the more generic "products" of America, those nameless deaf-mutes, thieves, and slatterns? Does the naming of Elsie itself constitute an act of rescue or merely one of humiliation and display? The poem's subtlety forbids clear-cut answers to any of these questions. What we can say is that the grammar of exemplification in this poem beautifully reproduces the tension between the irreducible singularity of a human being, an Elsie, and the way social and cultural systems can turn such a human being into a generic product, like the car in the poem's closing lines: "No one to witness and adjust, / no one to drive the car." The poem's language frames Elsie as both an exception to and an example of that law that "the pure products of America go crazy," and this grammatical ambiguity is what accounts for her nearly tragic stature. For Williams, exemplification becomes a discursive version of the dehumanizing social forces that turn people into types: hence the poet's refusal to make Elsie just an example, his insistent granting of special powers and qualities to her, can be taken as an effort to "rescue" her from those forces, to give her a life of her own. This effort may be no more successful than that of the state agency, but at least it reminds us of the extent to which language itself always participates in the making and unmaking of selves.

From "Some Parts of a World: Example as Trope in American Poetry." WHR (Summer 1994).

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Criticism Overview
Title Roger Gilbert: On "To Elsie" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Roger Gilbert Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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