The poem uses short lines and direct language in order to explore the image of a poor woman who is eating from a bag of plums. The speaker knows she’s enjoying the experience and by focusing in on it alone, he’s presenting it in a powerful way. The simple pleasure of eating ripe fruit is celebrated in his verse in a way that one might normally reserve for a more dramatic experience.
Explore To a Poor Old Woman
‘To a Poor Old Woman’ by William Carlos Williams is a short and powerful poem about an old woman’s pleasure when eating plums.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by describing an old woman eating plums. She has a bag of them and is eating them one at a time, enjoying every moment of the experience. She’s poor, meaning that she is likely more accustomed to encountering troubles in her everyday life than another person of greater economic means. This makes the experience all the more powerful. She’s completely engaged with the moment and enjoying the taste of the ripe fruit.
You can read the full poem here.
Stanzas One and Two
munching a plum on
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her
In the first stanzas of ‘To a Poor Old Woman,’ the speaker begins by describing the old woman’s actions. Without the title, readers wouldn’t know who the speaker is talking about. This is a great example of why it’s important to always take it into consideration. The woman is eating a plum from a paper bag in her hand. The second stanza is filled with repetition. The phrase “They taste good to her” is used three times in a row with different examples of enjambment.
At this moment, the taste of the plums is the only thing that matters to the woman. The next stanzas emphasize this point.
Stanzas Three and Four
You can see it by
the way she gives herself
a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her
The next stanza describes how the woman gives herself entirely to the experience of eating the plums. There is a whole world around her, but at this moment as the speaker observes her, she’s entirely focused on the plums in her hands. This simple and beautiful image is characteristic of Williams’ verse. He is known for focusing on and emphasizing the beauty of mundane moments.
The final stanza reveals to the reader that the woman receives some kind of comfort from the experience. She’s “comforted” when she gives herself to the “solace of ripe plums.” It’s a simple pleasure, one that takes her ver entirely and fills the air around her. The refrain, “they taste good to her” is used one more time at the end of the poem.
Structure and Form
‘To a Poor Old Woman’ by William Carlos Williams is a four-stanza poem that is separated out into sets of three or four lines. The first stanza is a tercet and the following three stanzas are quatrains. The poem is written in free verse. This means that the lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This was common with William Carlos Williams’ verse.
Readers should also take note of the fact that the lines do not use any punctuation. The poet made this choice so that each line and stanza would flow into the next. Through the lines, he’s able to channel a very specific moment and experience. It’s fleeting and tied together in what comes across as an almost stream-of-consciousness narrative.
Throughout this piece, the poet engages with several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “plum” and “paper” in stanza one and “solace” and “seeming” in stanza four.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between all the lines in the first and second stanzas.
- Repetition: occurs when the poet repeats the same word, phrase, image, structure, or other poetic element. In this case, the poet repeats “taste good” in the second stanza.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example: “munching a plum on / the street a paper bag.”
The tone is engaged and reverential. The speaker describes the woman’s actions and how she seems engaged with the plums in a clear and interesting way. It’s clear he feels an affinity with this woman and appreciates/celebrates the joy she gets from this simple pleasure.
The purpose is to show the beauty of simple things. The old woman is poor, and the experience of eating these ripe fruits is a powerful and moving one. She’s enjoying the experience in a way that someone with a great deal of money would not.
The themes are wealth and happiness. The speaker brings these two together as he explores the joy the woman gets from the simple pleasure of eating the plums. She enjoys the taste and is only existing at that moment.
The speaker is someone who is very aware of his surroundings. He also understands the simplicity of joy in moments such as the one he describes in the lines of this poem. He’s insightful and interested in what’s going on around him.
Readers who enjoyed ‘To a Poor Old Woman’ should also consider reading other William Carlos Williams poems. For example:
- ‘Winter Trees’ – explores the gaining and losing of leaves, watching trees as they enter their yearly slumber.
- ‘Pastoral’ – a short, curious poem in which the poet describes everyday scenes on an American street.
- ‘Blizzard’ – a picturesque poem that centers on the progression of history and time. Through this piece, the poet also shares his personal experiences.