Skip to main content

"To Elsie," Williams' poem about America, reflects the concepts about the nature of life in this country which Hartley, Frank, and Rosenfeld had expounded in their essays, and which Williams was to reiterate in In the American Grain: The reason why "the pure products of America," such as Elsie Borden, "go crazy," is because they are rootless. They have "imaginations which have no / peasant traditions to give them / character." Consequently they have no emotion

save numbed terror


under some hedge of choke-cherry

or viburnum--

which they cannot express--

Williams here left the reference of "which" deliberately ambiguous, so that it becomes clear that not only the numbed terror is inexpressible to them but also the hedge of choke-cherry and the viburnum. They are incapable of seeing, of understanding nature, the organic object. Girls like Elsie, who have a slight, instinctive longing for contact, for an understanding of the objective world, because they were born "perhaps / with a dash of Indian blood," will go insane due to their inability to establish this contact, due to the desolation, disease, and murder with which they are hemmed round. But such an Elsie can, "with broken brain," express the truth about us, showing us how we behave

as if the earth under our feet


an excrement of some sky . . .

These are the things which destroy the American. Until he can force his imagination to take account of, rejoice in, the pure, immediate reality of the earth under his feet, and so establish his contact with his own, local, consciousness, instead of letting himself strain after the otherwhere of "deer / going by fields of goldenrod," until such a time, the American is doomed to go crazy. In the meantime,

It is only in isolate flecks that 


is given off


No one

to witness

and adjust, no one to drive the car

The poem is primarily a diagnosis; its solution is implied. But there are the isolate flecks of understanding which intimate some hope for the future, if only someone can be found to "drive the car." Doubtless Williams considered his poetry a record of the "isolate flecks" and one of the means by which America could be driven to understanding, just as the photographs of Stieglitz and the work of his painters fulfilled that function in their own media.

Clearly Williams by this time had been infected with the photographer's sense of mission and firm belief in the possibility of a new and independently "local" America.


From Cubism, Stieglitz, and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Copyright © 1969 by Princeton University Press.