The poetry of William Carlos Williams uses imagery that refers to everyday experiences and concrete images that describe material objects. Goodblatt and Glicksohn propose that comprehending a metaphor is like problem solving, “in its more creative form,” and that this
involves “an act of perceptual and semantic restructuring” (Goodblatt and Glicksohn 428). They also state that a single metaphor “should be understood within a large context” (Goodblatt and Glicksohn 428). Williams, expressed a similar sentiment by saying that there “’are no ideas but in things” (Goodblatt and Glicksohn 428). Considering this perspective, the following analysis focuses on the imagery that Williams uses in “Poem,” which offers a typical example of Williams’s utilization of metaphor and imagery within a short lyric form.
Williams is most renowned for his depiction of life in his hometown of Rutherford, New Jersey, where he gained fame as one of America’s most distinguished poets, and also practiced as a family doctor for 40 years. Unlike many of his peers, Williams never employed “complex symbols or rarefied literary allusions,” but rather tended to focus on subjects that surrounded him, that is, his hometown, “its landscapes and its people” (William” 9). It may have been the scientist in Williams that inclined him toward the use of “concise concrete images” and the utilization of “homely words of everyday speech,” but there is no denying that this characterizes his poetic style” (William 9).
Considering this, the first question that the reader asks on reading “Poem” is what, precisely is Williams trying to say. The image is concrete; the text of the poem is concise:
As the cat
The top of
First the right
Carefully then the hind
Into the pit of
This poem works as an extended metaphor. The cat is carefully climbing over the jamcloset, placing each foot precisely. The reader’s first task at problem-solving is to determine the meaning of “jamcloset,” which is familiar or readily defined. This word does not appear in Webster’s or other dictionaries. This suggests that Williams intended for this work to conjure an image. “Jam packed” is defined as something that is crammed with things to the point that nothing can be added. Perhaps Williams means for this word to conjure an image of a closet jammed with things, with a cat carefully negotiating the top. On the other hand, the word “jam” could refer to a fruit spread used on toast, in which case, the word “jamcloset” suggests a pantry and there is the suggestion that the cat is after a taste of jam. In either case, the emphasis of the poem is on the cat’s eventual destination.
The reader can see the cat stepping so carefully, first one foot and then the other. The short lines and smooth flow of words mirror the careful and feline movements of the car. Only in the last stanza does the reader realize that the cat has moved so carefully into the “pit of an empty flowerpot.” This turns the image of the precise and careful cat into something comical. The first assumption of the reader is that the cat is moving precisely to obtain a specific purpose; something that the reader would judge as a useful intention from a human perspective. This, however, is not the case, as the cat ends up squashed into the flower pot, which Williams makes clear was the animal’s intention all along.
As this suggests, this imagery says more about the human reader that it does about the cat. Human beings are goal oriented. The deliberate, purposeful movement that Williams describes naturally conjures a feeling in the reader that the cat must have a specific goal, whether this is capturing a mouse or pursuing some other goal that makes sense within the feline perspective.
What Williams appears to be telling his readers is that the world obeys its own rules. The cat is fascinated by and wants to sit in the flower pot. It does not make sense from a human point of view, but there it is and that is the reality of this situation. Implied within the assumed perspective of the reader and image of the flower-potted cat is also the realization that this has meaning and relevancy.
The world does not have to have goals, purpose or meaning from a human perspective in order to be meaningful. It just is. Children understand this, and a child would probably delight in the flower-potted cat and understand the world can look different and interesting from such a perspective. Adults tend to lose their joy in seeing the unexpected and exploring the unknown by trying on viewpoints that are new and different. As this indicates, however, Williams’ use of imagery suggests meaning at multiple levels with concise, brief poetry.
In “Poem,” the poet offers an image that suggests more than is stated implicitly. The cat, so carefully placing first one foot and then the other delicately into the pit of the flowerpot, not only conveys the inquisitive nature of the animal, but also the fact that the cat represents an aspect of existence that adult humans often avoid. By surprising the reader with the cat’s destination, Williams subtly suggests that adults are too predictable. We, like children and cats, should attempt to see the world with fresh eyes, and perhaps try wiggling into new perspectives that may seem alien at first, but afford the viewer with new experiences. Perhaps, we should not smile at the seeming lunacy of the cat until we have sat in a flowerpot atop the “jamcloset” and seen what there is to see from this perspective.
Goodlatt, Chanita & Glicksohn Joseph. “Metaphor comprehension
As problem solving: an online study of the reading
Process.” Style 36 (2002): 428.
“William Carlos Williams: Doctor and Poet.” Literary Cavalcade
57 (8) (2005): 9.
Williams, William Carlos. Poem (As the cat). No date. Accessed
May 9, 2006.