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The cluster female-feminine-woman has different meanings to the poets: a woman poet is more likely to find, in the feminine, various problems. Williams’ 1950 statement about "The Young Housewife" indicates some of his long-term investments in the foundational cluster central to poetry: that beautiful women often inspire the poetry that it is men’s task to create. H. D. early modified this issue: some beauty is still important, but it is the dramatic, violent beauty that emerges when femininity as a site is ripped apart. This creation of an "anti-feminine" position is generally not sought by the male poets; judging from Williams, they want a pro-female (possibly pro-feminine) but anti-effeminate position.

Williams suggests that, for male writers, poetry is a reparation to women for their beauty, which is culturally appropriated by men for their poetry via the mechanism of "the gaze" (Mulvey 1989). This polemical concept of gaze, itself the product of the hyperbrave binarist stage of gynocritical thought, may have serious uses for the analysis of lyric poetry in helping to identify elements of the diegetic relations depicted. Mulvey proposes two key moves, both of which have their analogue in many poems in Western culture, voyeuristic investigation/demystification of the female figure, and overvaluation of the figure turned into a fetish. Williams in general demystifies women, a tough-minded, realist strategy, but the possessive and appropriative aspects of "poesy" intermingle with demystification in a poem such as "The Young Housewife" (1916) (Williams 1986, 57).

In this poem, by virtue of his responsibility of compensation, a male speaker is paradoxically both freer and more constrained than the depicted woman. He has the power to resist, yet remark on, the sexual undertext when she, "uncorseted" and "in negligee," "comes to the curb / to call the ice-man, fish-man . . . ." In a sense, she hails these chapmen into their position of (semi-sexualized) service to her, but the speaker-observer then "calls" her into her new calling as housewife. For of the wispy young female, the Williams-speaker states — with great power in his deliberateness and connoisseurship -- "I compare her / to a fallen leaf." The "fallen leaf / fallen woman" image, read via a social philology, indicates social debate. The "fallen leaf" metaphor of use and loss is a poetic post carpe diem allusion, a link of woman to nature, fatalistic in implication. But it also draws upon the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century tendentious comparisons of marriage to "parasitism and prostitution" (in Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Olive Schreiner for instance, and echoed in Mina Loy ‘s "Feminist Manifesto"). This "leaf" metaphor also follows from "the wooden walls of her husband’s house," sympathetic lines suggesting her mild imprisonment and the husband’s clumsy stolidity.

Williams proposes the fate of that one leaf in an implacable image of destruction (corresponding to Mulvey’s findings that one punishes the demystified object), as

The noiseless wheels of my car

rush with a crackling sound over

dead leaves as I bow and pass smiling

The speaker, destroying her for her evocation of sexual desire in him, has the control of two subject places, both the destructive "wheels of my car" and his rueful dismissive nod from within it. The poignancy of traditional gender cluster undergirding poetry has been reaffirmed in this work about the relation of female beauty to male power.


From Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934. Ó 2001 Cambridge University Press.