‘Riposte’ was published in Williams’ collection Al Que Quire! A Book of Poems in 1917. The title is a word meaning a reply to an insult or criticism, one that’s usually quickly and cleverly delivered. In the poem, Williams’ speaker is presenting his support of love to his “townspeople.” He makes his position in regards to love’s value quite clear from the first lines onward. Readers will also encounter Williams’ experience with the imagist style in ‘Riposte.’ It is a movement that he, along with his friends, Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, and H.D., are closely associated with.
Summary of Riposte
In the lines of ‘Riposte,’ the speaker addresses “townspeople,” a group he refers to as “my townspeople.” He’s giving these men and women a lesson in love. He tells them that it is the same as water, air, and poetry. Meaning, it clears the air of poisonous gasses and makes life all-around easier to live. Through the poem, the poet also alludes to humanity’s inability to capture and control love, just as they can’t control the Atlantic ocean, air, or poetry.
You can read the full poem here.
Themes in Riposte
In ‘Riposte,’ Williams primarily engages with the theme of love. He uses the short lines of the poem to briefly touch on elements of love that he finds important. These are, as the title informs the reader, a response to an insult of criticism. It’s likely that he considered these lines a way of standing up for love in the face of its degradation. The poet is left to wonder exactly who the speaker is talking to and whether they support the speaker’s arguments in love’s favor or would take a more critical stance if confronted by it.
Structure and Form
‘Riposte’ by William Carlos Williams is an eleven-line poem contained within one stanza of text. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, but they are all quite short. The lack of traditional structure in ‘Riposte’ should not be surprising to anyone with experience with Williams’ other poems and his role as a leading member of the imagist movement. The movement promoted the use of clear, evocative images and the discontinuation of stuffy traditional themes, styles, and structures.
Williams makes use of several literary devices in ‘Riposte.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, similes, and alliteration. The latter is a type of repetition that occurs when the poet uses the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “poetry” and “precious” in lines four and six, as well as “Love” and “like” in line one.
Enjambment is a formal device that’s used quite frequently in the short lines of ‘Riposte.’ It occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between four and five as well as lines six and seven.
Similes are comparisons between two things using “like” or “as.” For example, in the first line, when the poet compares love to water or the air. Later on, he compares it to poetry and the Atlantic.
Analysis of Riposte
Love is like water or the air
It is like poetry too
and for the same reasons.
In the first lines of ‘Riposte,’ the speaker begins by describing “Love” through a simile. He compares it to “water or the air.” This suggests that it is hard to hold on to, pin down, or even understand and study. It’s something that comes and goes in regards to rules that human beings have no control over. He adds to this, saying that it also cleanses and “dissipates evil gases.” Here he’s suggesting that it has the power to improve life, make one feel healthier and happier, and therefore improve everyone’s experience of life.
The poet also makes it clear in these opening lines that he’s talking to “townspeople.” It is likely that there is some context here that is not made clear through the lines of the poem by itself, but readers can assume that he’s trying to speak broadly to a specific group who he thinks needs to hear his words. When the title is taken into consideration, one might propose that he’s trying to defend love against an insult it suffered at the hands of the townspeople.
He goes on to describe love as “poetry” for the “same reasons.” Poetry acts like love does, which acts as air and water do. It cleans one’s mind, clears the air, and makes it easier to get through the day.
Love is so precious
like the air or the Atlantic or
Love, the speaker states quite clearly, is “so precious” he suggests they lock it up. He’s telling them that he knows from experience that love comes and goes quite quickly. It appears, makes its presence known, and then disappears. Locking up love, just like locking up the Atlantic Ocean or air, is impossible to accomplish. He knows this but suggests it anyway, raising questions about how “precious” things are treated and considered. What would someone do to keep love? How would one go about preserving the clean air that love brings with it?
Readers who enjoyed ‘Riposte’ should also consider reading some of Williams’ other best-known poems. For example:
- ‘Winter Trees’ – personifies trees and describes what it looks like to watch them lose their leaves and go to sleep. The poet observes these occurrences and compares them to people getting dressed and undressed.
- ‘Danse Russe’ – is a lighthearted poem in which the poet depicts his speaker dancing naked in front of a mirror.
- ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ – focuses on something that seems insignificant but isn’t. It is one of Williams’ best-known poems and one that epitomizes the imagist movement. It depicts, in very simple language, a red wheelbarrow outside in the rain.
- Some other poems that might be of interest are ‘In a Station at the Metro’ by Ezra Pound and ‘Helen’ by Hilda Doolittle.