‘Poem’ is a wonderful example of Williams’ body of work. He is closely associated with the modernist and imagist movement, noted for its separation from traditional modes of poetic writing. Modernists sought new, untapped styles of writing, and imagism was one of the most poignant. In ‘Poem,’ Williams allows the reader to relish in the simple movements of a cat stepping down into a flower pot.
The poem details, in characteristically brief and exacting details, the movements of a cat. It climbs over a jam closet and then down into a flower pot. There is no more, action-wise, to the poem than that. Readers who understand imagist poetry should take pleasure in the brevity and the focus that Williams allows on the simple, graceful details.
You can read the full poem here.
In ‘Poem,’ Williams touches on themes of movement and experience. Both of these are related to the poem’s subject and the feelings they evoke, and the focus of Williams’s writing. He narrowed his view into this brief moment of life, watching the cat move from one stop to another. Its movements, although Williams does not say so, are clearly graceful. The creature moves “carefully,” seeking out its destination with determination. Williams likely wanted to reader to involve themselves in these lines for the brief time that they are reading them and then hopefully meditate on them in the moments that come after.
Structure and Form
‘Poem’ by William Carlos Williams is a four-stanza poem separated into sets of three lines, known of tercets. These lines are concise, stretching to no more than four words each, and do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. As an imagist poet, Williams would’ve believed that moving away from traditional poetic forms, such as those popular in the Victorian period, would’ve been the proper move for him. Imagists, such as Williams, Pound, and Doolittle, believed that poetry should be made new and focus purely on the imagery associated with experiences. This meant removing extraneous language and details that might today be most commonly associated with verse.
Even though‘Poem’ is written in free verse, there are several interesting literary devices that readers should make a note of. These include but are not limited to enjambment, alliteration, and of course, imagery. The latter, as stated above, is one of the most important techniques in his poetry. Imagery is an important device that is concerned with the way a poet paints images for their readers.
These should tap into a variety of senses, encouraging a reader to imagine what things look like and what they sound like, taste like, etc. The best example is at the end of the poem, with the phrase ”stepped down / into the pit of / the empty / flowerpot.” With just these few words, Williams can evoke a particular image and feeling.
Enjambment is a formal device used when the poet cuts off a phrase before its natural stopping point. Every line of ‘Poem’ is enjambed. Some of the best examples are the transitions between lines one and two of the first stanza and one and two of the third stanza.
Alliteration is a type of repetition that’s concerned with using and reusing words that begin with the same consonant sound. For example, “cat” and “climbed” as well as “first” and “forefoot.”
Stanzas One and Two
As the cat
In the first stanza of ‘Poem,’ the speaker begins by describing the movements of a cat. This is the main focus of the entire, concise poem, but each line brings attention to a new and noteworthy feature. The three-line first stanza notes how the cat “climbed over” the top of… something. The third line of the stanza is enjambed, meaning that the reader has to go down to the first line of the second stanza to find out what the speaker will say next. This is one of the best examples of enjambment because there is truly something to find out at the beginning of the next line.
The second stanza is the same length as the first. It starts by describing what the cat was climbing over the top. It’s “jamcloset.” The following lines focus on briefly on the “right/forefoot.” Because each line is so short, with one entire line devoted to “forefoot,” it was likely that Williams wanted the reader to focus on the movements and appreciate them.
Stanzas Three and Four
then the hind
In the third stanza of ‘Poem,’ the speaker uses the word ‘carefully,” seemingly confirming that Williams was purposefully taking his time with these lines, wanting the reader to appreciate everything that was happening. Although the scene he’s describing is simple, it’s quite beautiful when one takes the time to imagine it.
The forefront stepped down and then the “hind.” In the fourth stanza, the cat is revealed to be climbing down into “the pit / of / the empty / flowerpot.” The use of the word “the” before “empty flowerpot” suggests that the speaker was thinking of one specific flowerpot and perhaps even one specific moment in time rather than one that was totally fabricated. The poem ends without any punctuation, allowing the image to linger in the reader’s mind.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Poem’ should also consider reading some of Williams’ other best-known poems. These include ‘Winter Trees,’ ‘Danse Russe,’ and ‘The Red Wheelbarrow.’ The latter is most similar to ‘Poem’ It focuses on something that seems insignificant but isn’t. It depicts, in straightforward language, a red wheelbarrow outside in the rain. Some other related poems are ‘In a Station at the Metro’ by Ezra Pound and ‘Helen’ by Hilda Doolittle, also known as H.D. The former is the most famous imagist poem ever written, and with it being only two lines long.