Marjorie Perloff: On "The Young Housewife" (2)

The typography is in many ways the poem's substance. Take a poem like "The Young Housewife," a short lyric often praised for what James Breslin has called its "tough colloquial flatness," its "matter of fact" verse, but which, more precisely, uses that flatness for playful purposes:

. . .

Here the three stanzas are parody stanzas, the first, a neat-looking quatrain that has neither rhyme nor meter but slyly designates the young housewife by the same rhythmic group we find in "At ten A.M.":

At ten A. M.                      the young housewife

The second line, with its odd construction "in negligee" on the model of "in furs" or "in silks," is cut after the word "behind," a word that thus gets construed as a noun (her "in negligee behind") rather than as a preposition. The same sexual innuendo occurs in line 7:

shy, uncorseted tucking in

where the separation of the verb from its object ("stray ends of hair") makes us expect a reference to what one usually tucks into a corset. The next line produces even greater surprise:

stray ends of hair, and I compare her

To what, we wonder?

to a fallen leaf.

An absurd comparison, since surely the young housewife--she is constantly doing things, moving about, calling the ice-man or fish-man, tucking in stray ends of hair--is the very opposite of a fallen leaf. Or is she? Never mind the parody period after "leaf": the tercet now brings it all out into the open:

The noiseless wheels of my car

rush with a crackling sound over

dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.

In his erotic fantasy, the poet wants to make this attractive housewife a "fallen leaf" to the "noiseless wheels of his car," to "rush with crackling sound over / her dried leaves." But it is, after all, only a daydream; normal life must continue and so "I bow and pass smiling." The tercet has lines of 7, 8, and 9 syllables (3, 4, and 5 stresses) respectively; the diagonal created by its line endings thus presents an image of one-step-at-a-time accretion, as if to say that, fantasize all we like, we must get on with it. Typography, in a case like this, is destiny.

By Marjorie Perloff. From The dance of the intellect: Studies in the poetry of the Pound tradition. Copyright © 1985 by Cambridge University Press.


Title Marjorie Perloff: On "The Young Housewife" (2) Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Marjorie Perloff Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition
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