In this poem, Williams utilizes a yacht race to indicate the lack of class mobility in American society and the wide gulf that exists between upper and lower classes. He presents a picture in which the yachts survive stormy waves and keep on entering races without taking note of the large number of people who fall into the sea and struggle to clutch at the prows of the yachts. The “well made” smooth indestructibility of the yachts suggests how difficult it is to redistribute the social resources between the rich and the poor. The drowning scene further suggests that any attempts at social equality would be futile.
Luxurious yachts are symbolic of the rich at leisure. Williams describes how the yachts are surrounded and followed by both larger and smaller craft, each sycophantic and clumsy by comparison. The rich occupy a similarly sheltered and enviable position in society, their power and wealth insulating them against bad weather.
In contrast to the leisure that the rich enjoy, the crew—representatives of the working class—takes care of these toys of the rich, crawling over them “ant-like, solicitously grooming them” (line 10). In fact, the dockworkers found in any marina and the crew of these yachts are only two representatives of many groups of people in the working class that is referred to as “the biggest hulls” (4). That these people’s lack of wealth and privilege leads to insecurity is suggested by the scene in which the sea that devours even the biggest hulls is unable to harm the yachts. The sea “tortures the biggest hulls,” sinking them “pitilessly / Mothlike in mists” (5-6). But when the waves strike at the yachts, “they are too / well made, [and] they slip through” (23-24). Even if the poor were to seek to seize some resources from the rich, they are doomed to failure: the yachts would relentlessly “cut aside” their bodies (26). Finally, the corporeal fragmentation of the poor in the last three stanzas merely highlights their weakness and their failure to protect themselves or to survive.
Vivienne Koch, who interprets the yachts in this poem as a symbol of beauty or the ideal, believes that the treatment of the yachts and the biggest hulls as representing the rich and the poor respectively would be “misleading” (76). She suggests that reading literary texts produced in the 1930s as having social consciousness may be an overgeneralization; although the economic depressions in the 1930s that widen the financial gap between the rich and the poor make many writers devoted to social issues, it does not necessarily follow that Williams’ “The Yachts” is one of these literary endeavors. However, in his 1981 biography entitled William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked, Paul Mariani bases his exploration on Williams’ correspondence with Ezra Pound and indicates that the problem of class distinction in American society was indeed Williams’ concern when he wrote “The Yachts.” According to Mariani, when Williams saw America’s Cup yacht races in 1935, he was reminded that the privileged class of yacht owners is actually small and that they are supported by a large group of poor people (370). While such historicizing may not be essential when reading literary texts, I contend that in this case it is useful: Mariani’s historical analysis presents solid evidence that counters Koch’s reading. Indeed it is Mariani’s reading which best accounts for the paradoxes in the poem. For instance, the paradox that the sea that destroys even the biggest hulls yet fails to shatter the yachts suggests that the signifiers of the biggest hulls and the yachts have other signifieds than the crafts per se. Interpreting the biggest hulls and the yachts as representing the poor and the rich respectively is, I believe, a valid reading based on the main source of inspiration of the poem: Williams’ reaction to the America’s Cup race in 1935.
Koch, Vivienne. William Carlos Williams. The Makers of Modern Literature. Norfolk: New Directions, 1950.
Mariani, Paul. William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.
Williams, William Carlos. “The Yachts.” Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. 192-93.
Copyright © 2006 Yi-ling Lin