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What focuses the poem, and later Demuth's painting, is "the figure 5." It organizes the chaotic world around itself. . . .

The urban landscape of the poem is blurred in the refracted light of a night rain, deafened by the cacophony of clangs and howls, and made to seem altogether unstable and tumultuous by its central image of tension, speed, and change, which Williams emphasizes both by placing the lines "moving/ tense" at the poem's heart and by moving us in short, tension-ridden, one word lines through that center. Juxtaposed to this world is the figure 5. The clarity of its vision opposes itself to an almost completely confusing (and, in the context of a fire, destructive) moment, even as the brightness of its gold color opposes itself to the "dark city." The numerical figure, as Demuth's painting makes clear an Jasper Johns's later reworking of it in The Black Figure 5 (1960) makes even clearer, is simply an abstraction, a design. If the figure is "unheeded," that is because it has so little to do with the world from which it has been lifted.


Henry M. Sayre. From The Visual Text of William Carlos Williams. Copyright © 1983 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.