Yi-ling Lin

Yi-ling Lin: On "The Paper Nautilus"

Joanne Feit Diehl thinks that this poem presents two antithetic aspects of maternal affection: it can be “both a refuge and a risk” (88). Since the paper nautilus is a cephalopod like the octopus whose embrace kills, Diehl suggests that the paper nautilus “will crush what she strives to protect” (86). However, I believe that this poem eulogizes maternal love; the arms of the paper nautilus are not a strangling force, but a protective power.

Through the depiction of a female-gendered paper nautilus and her hatching habits, the poet glorifies the selflessness of maternal affection. Her delicate shelled beauty is not meant as decoration for authorities “whose hopes / are shaped by mercenaries” (lines 1-2) or for writers who are “entrapped by / teatime fame and by / commuters’ comforts” (3-5), but rather for the protection of her young. She is a watchful guard that never diverts her attention from her eggs; she “scarcely / eats until the eggs are hatched” (14-15).

The comparison of the paper nautilus to an octopus shows that she will exercise her defensive power to protect her eggs when being attacked. The poet’s deliberate use of the term “devilfish,” another name for the octopus, may lead to a terrifying image of the paper nautilus, but the sudden change of the paper nautilus’ temperament merely indicates a mother’s effort to protect her young. Her defensive power is directed at attackers rather than at her own young, so she will only protect her eggs instead of crushing them: “ . . . her glass ram’shorn-cradled freight / is hid but is not crushed” (19-20). The oxymoronic combination of the fragile glass with the strong and defending ram’shorn best illustrates how greatly the paper nautilus would change in order to defend her eggs.

Although the poet’s utilization of the story of Hercules to describe how strenuously the eggs free themselves from their creator may contribute to the impression that the paper nautilus’ overwatchfulness hinders the eggs from liberating themselves, what cannot be ignored is that when the eggs are freed, they free the shell as well: the paper nautilus is relieved from her significant task of hatching. Nevertheless, her relief is temporary. As indicated in the last stanza, the poet’s comparison of the young of the paper nautilus to the lines in the mane of a Parthenon horse “round which the arms had wound themselves” (32-33) suggests that the paper nautilus’ care for her young is unfailing even after the eggs are hatched.

Works Cited

Diehl, Joanne Feit. Women Poets and the American Sublime. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Moore, Marianne. “The Paper Nautilus.” Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 273-74.

Copyright © 2006 Yi-ling Lin

Yi-ling Lin: On "The Yachts"

In this poem, Williams utilizes a yacht race to indicate the lack of class mobility in American society and the wide gulf that exists between upper and lower classes. He presents a picture in which the yachts survive stormy waves and keep on entering races without taking note of the large number of people who fall into the sea and struggle to clutch at the prows of the yachts. The “well made” smooth indestructibility of the yachts suggests how difficult it is to redistribute the social resources between the rich and the poor. The drowning scene further suggests that any attempts at social equality would be futile.

Luxurious yachts are symbolic of the rich at leisure. Williams describes how the yachts are surrounded and followed by both larger and smaller craft, each sycophantic and clumsy by comparison. The rich occupy a similarly sheltered and enviable position in society, their power and wealth insulating them against bad weather.

In contrast to the leisure that the rich enjoy, the crew—representatives of the working class—takes care of these toys of the rich, crawling over them “ant-like, solicitously grooming them” (line 10). In fact, the dockworkers found in any marina and the crew of these yachts are only two representatives of many groups of people in the working class that is referred to as “the biggest hulls” (4). That these people’s lack of wealth and privilege leads to insecurity is suggested by the scene in which the sea that devours even the biggest hulls is unable to harm the yachts. The sea “tortures the biggest hulls,” sinking them “pitilessly / Mothlike in mists” (5-6). But when the waves strike at the yachts, “they are too / well made, [and] they slip through” (23-24). Even if the poor were to seek to seize some resources from the rich, they are doomed to failure: the yachts would relentlessly “cut aside” their bodies (26). Finally, the corporeal fragmentation of the poor in the last three stanzas merely highlights their weakness and their failure to protect themselves or to survive.

Vivienne Koch, who interprets the yachts in this poem as a symbol of beauty or the ideal, believes that the treatment of the yachts and the biggest hulls as representing the rich and the poor respectively would be “misleading” (76). She suggests that reading literary texts produced in the 1930s as having social consciousness may be an overgeneralization; although the economic depressions in the 1930s that widen the financial gap between the rich and the poor make many writers devoted to social issues, it does not necessarily follow that Williams’ “The Yachts” is one of these literary endeavors. However, in his 1981 biography entitled William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked, Paul Mariani bases his exploration on Williams’ correspondence with Ezra Pound and indicates that the problem of class distinction in American society was indeed Williams’ concern when he wrote “The Yachts.” According to Mariani, when Williams saw America’s Cup yacht races in 1935, he was reminded that the privileged class of yacht owners is actually small and that they are supported by a large group of poor people (370). While such historicizing may not be essential when reading literary texts, I contend that in this case it is useful: Mariani’s historical analysis presents solid evidence that counters Koch’s reading. Indeed it is Mariani’s reading which best accounts for the paradoxes in the poem. For instance, the paradox that the sea that destroys even the biggest hulls yet fails to shatter the yachts suggests that the signifiers of the biggest hulls and the yachts have other signifieds than the crafts per se. Interpreting the biggest hulls and the yachts as representing the poor and the rich respectively is, I believe, a valid reading based on the main source of inspiration of the poem: Williams’ reaction to the America’s Cup race in 1935.

Works Cited

Koch, Vivienne. William Carlos Williams. The Makers of Modern Literature. Norfolk: New Directions, 1950.

Mariani, Paul. William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.

Williams, William Carlos. “The Yachts.” Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. 192-93.

Copyright © 2006 Yi-ling Lin