The Young Sycamore

Lisa M. Steinman: On "The Young Sycamore"

The poem is based on an aesthetic shared with paintings and photographs by members of the Stieglitz circle; indeed, Bram Dijkstra argues that Williams is literally describing Alfred Stieglitz's photograph,Spring Showers. "Young Sycamore" and other Williams poems like it seem to resist explication, to be purely descriptive, although, as J. Hillis Miller points out, Williams takes a firm stance against "the falseness of attempting to 'copy' nature," desiring "not 'realism' but reality itself.' Miller's argument is that the poem does not represent a tree, but rather as a poem it "is an object which has the same kind of life as the tree." If, as he argues, "Young Sycamore" is not symbolic but an object in its own right, it nonetheless presents an analogy between the growth of a tree and the growth of a poem. The motion described is paradigmatic, familiar to any reader of Kora in Hell, Spring and All, or In the American Grain. The tree's "bodily" rise ending in the near still life of the two twigs is a motion very like Williams's description of imaginative creation. In "How to Write" from 1936, Williams says that poems begin with "the very muscles and bones of the body itself speaking, [although] once the writing is on the paper it becomes an object. . . . an object for the liveliest attention that the full mind can give it." The poem takes its place as another artifact, an object in the world, but also refers to a series of parallel motions: Nature produces the tree, in a fashion very close to the way we have seen the production of inventions described; Williams produces his poem; and the reader is invited to join in the creative process, not by looking through the language to that which it describes, but by paying attention to the poem itself, and, if the paradigm of the poet and nature holds, producing some object of his own.

Even without knowing Williams's theories about poetry, by turning mind and attention to the poem-as-object, the reader is referred to Williams's process of creation in language. Although the poem describes an act of detailed perception, and thus at first recalls Williams's statement that artists teach us to see, a closer examination of "Young Sycamore" shows that it places equal emphasis on speaking and language. The urgency of the first line focuses attention on the poet's voice, while the careful syntax of the main clause and the enjambment suggest that Williams is not showing us a tree or even clearly telling us about one; he is creating a tree of language: "I must tell you / this young tree."

At the same time, it is no accident that the verbs, like the tree, thin out towards the end of the poem, nor that the one simile occurs in the last line, as the flow of language ends. Williams said he disliked similes: "The coining of similes is a pastime of very low order." It has been a commonplace of Williams scholarship to use such statements as evidence of Williams's desire to present poems as objects or as being objective descriptions of discrete, non-symbolic objects in the world. As Henry Sayre argues, however, Williams's similes and metaphors are not lapses by someone who wished to but could not avoid "subjective observation and interpretation"; they serve rather to make the poems work as "the site of the interplay between the mind and reality." The overt figure at the end of "Young Sycamore" deliberately calls attention both to the poet's act of interpretation and to his linguistic creation. It shifts our attention from trees to poems at the same time that it recasts the poem as an emblem or, at least, as a series of figures. Not only is the tree's growth like the poet's creative process, but the waxing and waning of the tree is also echoed more succinctly in the cocoons' simultaneous image of death and potential life, and in the contradictory motions finally abstracted in the stark image of the two knotted twigs.

The central concern of the poem is the process of growth or creation with its inevitable culmination in an object. But objects can yield new realities, new life, like the cocoons or like the emblem of the eccentric twigs. The twigs are eccentric because they are off center, leaning forward, but also because the literal center of the poem images the process of creation yielding both multiplicity and destruction as the trunk's "one undulant / thrust" begins to divide between the third and fourth stanzas, and the poem widens its focus to include the cocoons, which, as a gardener like Williams would have known, spell destruction for trees. The final image is eccentric as well because the twigs remain stubbornly particular, even as they tempt us to align their double nature with the other dualities to which the poem calls our attention--the process behind the product; the cocoons' destruction in creation; the poem as object and figure, physical and intellectual. As Williams says, "nothing is left of it / but two." Delaying the noun by a stanza break and a line of adjectives, Williams makes "two" seem for a moment the object itself. The final duality is formal or structural.

One might say that all of the oppositions suggested in the poem are given their purest expression--not resolved, but expressed--in the image, which is the fruition of the poem, but which is so well "knotted" that nothing remains to be said: "The detail is its own solution." The twigs for example, suggest both an upward movement (top is the final word of the poem) and a return to earth in their horn-like bend. Like the ornament and the steeple or the contrast between a squat edifice and the moon in "To a Solitary Disciple," the image of the two twigs moves Williams's readers in two directions simultaneously. Similarly, the poem both is and is about a unique object even as it suggests that all objects, once subjected to lively attention, can be made to release a creative energy that necessarily transcends the discrete structure of individual objects.

Finally, the result of the creative energy alluded to in the poem is the revelation of a structure. As the life of the poem is parallel to the life of the tree, creativity is itself another version of the structure imaged by the entire movement of the poem from the poet's presence, insisted upon in the first line, which roots the poem in a creative, human, speaker, to the final equation of the formal essence of the poem and the bare architecture of the leafless tree.

Williams often described the force or energy of poems as an essence or rare presence. These images occur quite early in his writing. A 1921 editorial in Contact, discussing Burke's article on Laforgue, describes the search for a "milligram of radium," while the essay on Marianne Moore published in A Novelette and Other Prose speaks of the "white light that is the background of all good work." In the Rasles section of In the American Grain, Williams isolates within himself a "core of nature" analogous to "the strange phosphorus of the life" that he seeks throughout the book. At all stages of his career, Williams refers to an incandescent universal presence that informs and perhaps is in all art and all natural objects, but the status of this essence varies. In "Young Sycamore," at least, it is presented as a structure, and finally as impersonal, and this reading is reinforced by the poem's use of language. That is, the visual regularity of the quatrains and the sparse, unembellished lines and vocabulary, like the imagistic progression of the poem, add to this effect.

Descriptions of such poetry as impersonal, or at least as objective, are commonplace in modernist poetics, and the link between this style of poetry and science is widely noted. Moore identified Louise Bogan's terse pronouncements as being "rendered with laboratory detachment." And Eliot, to choose a poet with whom Williams generally took issue, suggested that it is in "depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science." Williams's own descriptions of the use of language in poems such as "Young Sycamore" similarly invoke science, as when he approvingly says in his 1931 review of Moore's poetry that words are "separated out by science, treated with acid to remove the smudges, washed, dried and placed right side up on a clean surface." Here Williams praises removing the emotional and conventional associations of words, and sees the poet's cleansing activity as akin to the laboratory or assembly line worker's.

Williams thus recognizes that his insistence upon words as objects or structures, central to the style and content of "Young Sycamore," might be linked to science, to technology, and ultimately to the products of technology. The link, indeed, is subtle. The poem not only appeals to a taste for the clean lines and efficiency associated with industrial technology, but it is defined as a discrete structure, a "machine made of words" that does not need to refer outside of itself for its effect since "its movement is intrinsic."

Williams describes the need to reclaim the essence of poems, trees, and other objects "nameless under an old misappellation" with a new, cleaner language to be provided by the poet. What the poet reclaims then, in "Young Sycamore," is not a particular tree, but a method of reclamation and an essential structure that is in one aspect purely formal. In fact, "Young Sycamore" 's reference to the poet's process of creation recasts creativity itself not only within but also as a formal structure.

To force Williams's poetic to one possible conclusion, it is not that poems, more self-consciously than machines, reveal human inventiveness, but that knowledge, language, poems, plants, and men are structurally similar, and their structural essence is best described by analogy to machines or technological products. Indeed, in 1919 Williams wrote in an article for the magazine, Others, with which he was involved: "Poets have written of the big leaves and the little leaves, leaves that are red, green, yellow and the one thing they have never seen about a leaf is that it is a little engine. It is one of the things that make a plant GO." Similarly in "Young Sycamore," the human mind, another example of a biological design, is reenvisioned as a mechanism, analogous to the formal structure of the poem. Williams, however, was not fully comfortable with this view to which his acceptance of a certain style seemed to commit him. In the 1937 dialogue on poetry and architecture, for example, he tries to explain why he rejects the "'back to humanity, back to the soil' business" about the organic production of art while still believing that people are the "origin of every bit of life that can possibly inhabit any structure." His prose reflects his difficulties with the vocabulary he had available to him. People, he continues, "represent, in themselves, the structure which art . . . Put it this way: If we don't cling to the warmth which breathes into a house or a poem alike from human need . . . the whole matter has nothing to hold it together and becomes structurally weak."

The first ellipsis in the above quotation is Williams's, and seems to indicate his unwillingness or inability to say what the structure of art has to do with the structure of people. The logical way to complete the sentence would be to suggest, as "Young Sycamore" suggests, that art also represents, or repeats, the structure found in human beings. Such a conclusion, however, does not locate people as the origin of the life that inhabits structures like plants as well as poems and buildings. And Williams usually wanted to insist, as an essay from around 1926 entitled "What is the Use of Poetry" put it, that poetry "returns authority to man." Hence he stops and proposes instead that all inventions arise from human need. This proposal avoids the more radical implications of adopting a machine aesthetic, but still it does not fully answer the question of how, in the practical American context Williams set for himself, one might show that poetry is important and necessary. Indeed, moments such as this in Williams's prose underline why he felt the need to find a more convincing way of defining poetry and its importance.

In 1944, Williams cautioned that the "arts have a complex relation to society." Exploring one aspect of his attempts to define this relationship illuminates the development of Williams's poetry and poetics. More importantly, in adopting a modern style commonly associated with the rise of technology and in simultaneously attempting an analysis of American modernity generally, Williams reveals the difficulties involved in sustaining a defense of modern poetry or in describing its importance given the values of modern America and the Americans for and to whom Williams wanted his poetry to speak.

From Made in America: Science, Technology, and American Modernist Poets. Copyright © 1987 by Yale University Press.

Peter Schmidt: On "The Young Sycamore"

One poem that does appear to be a literal transcription of a visual experience is "Young Sycamore" (1927). As Dijkstra has shown, it is probably based on a photograph by Stieglitz entitled "Spring Showers." Dijkstra praises the poem as a literal record of the eye's "linear movement" as it takes in the photograph. A second reading, however, will show that the poem is hardly without personification or metaphor, although they are implied rather than stated. Williams hints that Stieglitz' sycamore is also a tree of life, starting with youth's "round and firm trunk" and then "waning" gradually until the branches are "bending forward" like the bodies of the old; Both men and trees have offspring: seed "cocoons" hang from the leafless branches. The eye’s movement thus merges with the inner eye’s vision of time’s passage.

From "Some Versions of Modernist Pastoral: Williams and the Precisionists." Contemporary Literature 21:3 (1980), 383-406.

Bram Dijkstra: On "The Young Sycamore"

The poem has a very precise linear movement which finds its logical conclusion in the description of the tree's top branches. At the same time it remains fixed within the compass of a single object, leaving the object to express its own universal regenerative significance. What makes this poem especially interesting is that it would seem to be a minute description of the tree in Stieglitz's photograph "Spring Showers" (see photo): Williams' description of the tree in its environment of pavement, gutter, and trickling water, as well as his emphasis on its young branches bung with cocoons, and on the trunk which suddenly divides itself at half its height, makes it correspond so minutely to the facts of Stieglitz's photograph that the possibility of coincidence seems highly unlikely.

Williams, in fact, seems to have come to the conclusion that he need not limit his poetry to a description of the incidents fixed by the camera eye of his own imagination, but that he might just as effectively make poems out of the visual records of experience presented in those paintings, drawings, or photographs which caught his fancy. Beginning with the Twenties an ever larger part of his writing began to consist of such materials. His stories and essays are filled with descriptions, often fragmentary, of pictures remembered, and in many of his poems we come across sudden thumbnail sketches of specific works by his favorite painters. Not infrequently, as in "Young Sycamore," he would make a painting the basis for a whole poem. Sometimes he would openly acknowledge such a poem's derivation, or he would give an oblique hint, such as in the title of his poem "Classic Scene," which is based on Sheeler's painting "Classic Landscape"; but usually be would give no indication at all that a poem was based on a painting or photograph, rather than on an incident taken directly from reality.

Williams was "a great gallery-goer" during the Twenties and Thirties. He "saw Stieglitz often and if there was an exhibit of the French masters or any show at the Modern Museum or the Whitney gallery," he was sure to be there. It is therefore very likely that among the many poems which seem based on personal observation of elements in nature or the city, a number are in fact records of what the poet observed in the visual constructions of other artists. For Williams, who, after all, regarded a work of art as a perfectly autonomous, perfectly "real" object, this must have seemed a legitimate practice. . . .

From Cubism, Stieglitz, and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Copyright © 1969 by Princeton University Press.

Peter Halter: On "The Young Sycamore"

A complex iconic use of eye movement is made in "Young Sycamore"/ The poem, which is based on Stieglitz's photograph Spring Showers, as Bram Dijkstra has shown, records the eye's linear movement as it follows the tree from bottom to top. . . .

A peculiar tension in this poem results from the fact that the process of reading takes us down the page while the inward eye is moving upward, so that the iconic dimension comes in via inversion. (The very last word at the bottom of the poem is "top.") This inversion has its deeper justification in the fact that the life force embodied in the tree (with which the speaker's self and we with him empathize: "I must tell you / this young tree") exists in a world of process in which growth and decay, creation and destruction are simultaneous. Thus Peter Schmidt's interpretation indicates that - perhaps unintended but nonetheless present - the movement upward contains its inversion or counterpart:

A second reading ... will show that the poem is hardly without personification or metaphor, although they are implied rather than stated. Williams hints that Stieglitz's sycamore is also a tree of life, starting with youth's "round and firm trunk" and then "waning" gradually until the branches are "bending forward" like the bodies of the old. Both men and trees have offspring: seed "cocoons" hang from the leafless branches. The eye's movement thus merges with the inner eye's vision of time's passage. ("Modernist Pastoral," p. 391)

In such poems as "Young Sycamore," Williams makes a particularly effective use of iconicity. It blends the sequential act of reading with the eye's and the mind's step-by-step appraisal of the object under scrutiny to the point where the linguistic force is coextensive with the life force of the tree and thus brings about an empathetic fusion of self and scene in a space-time continuum. The unfolding or expansion of the poem becomes an icon for the unfolding and expansion of the tree, and thus mirrors the process. Together with the sum total of the other poetic devices, such as the force contained in the many finite and nonfinite verbs ("rises," "undulant / thrust," "dividing and waning," "hung," "thins," "knotted," and "bending") and the words that activate the sense of touch and the sense of hearing ("round and firm trunk," "rises / bodily," "where water / is trickling"), the poem can no longer be said to simply talk about the tree but rather becomes an object that shares or embodies the tree's life. Such a poem is, as Williams says, not opposed to nature but apposed to it. The process of exploration and appropriation (of which the poem is an icon) and the involvement of several senses beyond the distancing sense of sight make of the poem a kinesthetic and synesthetic object in which the self relives or recreates the life of the tree, in a way that fully justifies Williams's dictum, "A thing known passes out of the mind into the muscles."

From The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Copyright © Cambridge University Press.

Hugh Kenner: On "The Young Sycamore"

. . .each phrase reaches forward. From line 3 to line 7 we are drawn past unit after unit of attention by the promise of a verb to fulfill "whose trunk"; then granted that verb but still waiting for the structure initiated by "this young tree" to declare itself, we press on, alerted (by "into the air with") that the dependent clause continues. "And then," a major structural node, undertakes yet a further dependent verb; the poem rushes on--

[Finally there is] No full stop, because no termination for the tree's energies; but the poem, an eye's upward scan, is over. We have been carried through it by essentially narrative devices: from "I must tell you" through suspensions and delays to "and then," past vignettes and episodes ("hung with cocoons") to "till nothing is left of it but"; and the terminal episode still secretes hidden force: "bending forward hornlike at the top." The poem's system is that of a short story.

But the system contains energies left unaccounted, for the main clause it undertook with the words "this young tree" was never completed. Though the whole poem has explicated this young tree, this young tree's syntactic circuit remains open. We may associate this unequilibrated energy with the poet's headlong generosity ("I must tell you . . ."), as though something had nevertheless escaped the telling. Or we may rhyme it with the failure of the trunk's gesture ("dividing and waning," after the integrated thrust that rose "bodily"). For to rise bodily is to levitate. This levitation was an illusion, the trunk's vigor abetted by the poet's enthusiasm. The tree remains, we discover, tied to earth, toward which it bends back divided. The sentence arches, unarticulated, into ideal space.

From The Pound Era. Copyright © 1971 by Hugh Kenner.

Richard Gray: On "The Young Sycamore"

Williams' purpose remains the same: to emphathise or identify with the thing, not just to describe it but to imitate it in words, to allow it to express itself, to give it verbal shape, a voice. And the immediate consequence of this aim is, not surprisingly, a commitment to free verse: rhythms that follow the shape of the object and that respond to the exigencies of a specific occasion. 'I must tell you', begins Williams in 'Young Sycamore': the address is characteristically urgent and intimate, as if the poet were speaking under the pressure of immediate experience. And, having grabbed our attention, he then directs it to the object, whose contours are caught in the curve, pitch and sway of the free verse lines. . . .

The use of tactile references here is characteristic: in a sense, the poet is trying to 'touch' the tree,and make us touch it - to achieve contact (an important word for Williams) and, for a moment, live the life of another thing. And equally characteristic is the pattern of verbs and verbals: Williams, like Whitman, sees life as process, constant motion. As in a painting by Van Gogh, there is a sense of the tree as animate life, thrusting towards the sky and continuing to grow long after the artist's imitation of it is finished.

Not that it is ever definitively finished: like so many of Williams's poems, 'Young Sycamore' does not end, it simply stops short without a full stop or even any punctuation mark. . . .

Excitedly, our attention has been drawn up the tree, from its base to its topmost twigs, and we are left gazing at what will be: alteration, new growth requiring new poems. The sense of possibility with which the poem leaves us is quietly accentuated by the fact that the sentence with which it begins is never completed. All of the poem from the third line on ('whose round and firm trunk.. .') is a subordinate clause; Williams never returns to the main clause of the first two lines; the reader is consequently left (whether he is consciously aware of the reasons for it or not) with feelings of openness and incompleteness utterly appropriate in a world governed by change.

From American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Copyright © 1990 by Longman Group Ltd.