“I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold” (1938)
This is one of my favorite poems. I like short, simple poetry that celebrates a depth of experience within the everyday world, the sacred within the mundane, William Blake’s “world in a grain of sand”.
Upon first reading, the lack of context is befuddling. Who is he writing to? What time of day is it? Are they literal plums at all? Generally, it is agreed that the poem is a note left for the poet/doctor’s wife. He has probably woken very early with no time for a proper breakfast. The plums have been interpreted as, for instance, virginity or the forbidden knowledge in Genesis, but these are only associations. The most beautiful interpretation, to me, is straight from the words themselves. Stephen Matterson discusses some of the possible meanings: “The poem could be concerned with the uselessness or self-entrapment of sexual desire, comparable to ‘Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame.’ There’s the potential Oedipal reading, with the boy thwarted in an attempt to comprehend his origin; to learn of it from his mother. Or there’s the reading that would suggest self-referentiality; it is the poem itself that ‘means nothing.'”
“This is Just to Say” was probably written quickly and naturally, as emphasized by the lack of punctuation. As Marjorie Perloff points out, Williams was not exactly aware himself what makes this a poem at all. He says that it is metrically regular, but it is not. “He mistakes sight for sound,” she explains. “It is typography rather than any kind of phonemic recurrence that provides directions for the speaking voice (or for the eye that reads the lines silently) and that teases out the poem’s meanings.”
To me, “This is Just to Say” is a perfect love poem. Williams is sorry he took the plums because it is not what his wife planned to do with them, and because he did not want to experience them alone. The poem attempts to make up for this by sharing the pleasure through words. Though he and the plums are gone when she reads the note, she knows that the marriage is precious to him.
Matterson, Stephen, World, Self, Poem: Essays on Contemporary Poetry from the Jubilation of Poets, ed. Leonard Trawick, Kent State University Press (1990).
Perloff, Marjorie, The dance of the intellect: Studies in the poetry of the Pound tradition, Cambridge University Press (1985).