William Carlos Williams

Tract by William Carlos Williams

‘Tract’ by William Carlos Williams is a unique poem about funeral practices and how Williams’ speaker believed they should be altered to better serve the dead. 

This is certainly not William Carlos Williams’ best-known poem, but it is one that is as interesting and unusual as his greatest verse. ‘Tract’ engages with a wide range of themes (particularly if readers agree with the alternative interpretation described below); these include mortality and tradition. 

The poet also chose to address these themes in a surprising way, criticizing the funeral practices of a specific group of townspeople and implicitly critiquing all funeral practices that engage in anything similar. 

Tract by William Carlos Williams

An Alternative Interpretation 

This is, without a doubt, a complicated poem. It has an unusual subject and a unique way of addressing it that has inspired multiple interpretations. One interpretation of these that diverges from a more direct idea of what the poem is about is that Williams was using this poem as an extended metaphor to speak about what he believed was the right way to write poetry. 

Rather than discussing the ways the living craft funerals with themselves in mind, he may have been thinking about poets and the way they include themselves in their verse. The poet might’ve been saying that writing this way is too self-aggrandizing on the writer’s part and ignores the purpose of poetry (in the same way adding windows to a hearse or paying for expensive flowers turns the focus of a funeral from the dead to the living). 


‘Tract’ by William Carlos Williams is a uniquely multi-layered poem about funeral practices. 

In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by telling “townspeople” that he’s going to teach them how to have a funeral. He has a number of pieces of advice that he wants to convey about how funeral processions should be held and what, or what not, to include in them. The speaker suggests that funerals are far too focused on what the living want to see. They want expensive flowers, windows in the hearse, and a well-dressed driver. These are all things that the poet suggests are unnecessary. 

Structure and Form 

‘Tract’ by William Carlos Williams is a six-stanza poem that is divided into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains six lines, the second: ten, the third: fifteen, the fourth: four, the fifth: eleven, the sixth has eleven, and the seventh: thirteen. 

One of the primary structural techniques Williams used is spacing within the middle of almost every line (it’s also likely the first thing readers will notice about this poem). This is an interesting technique that’s not commonly used in verse writing. It’s a good example of the ways that Williams liked to experiment with form and the broader interest in new poetic forms that were prevalent during the Modernist movement

Literary Devices 

In this poem, Williams uses a few different literary devices. For example: 

  • Caesura: a caesura is a pause in the middle of a line of verse. This is usually created through the use of punctuation. In this case, the poet chose to include large spaces in the middle of his lines. It’s not entirely clear why he chose this structure, but it does make each line feel longer and more dramatic. The pause also adds rhythm to the way a reader will move from line to line. 
  • Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “teach” and “townspeople” in line one. 
  • Simile: a comparison between two things that uses “like” or “as.” For example, “Let it be weathered —          like a farm wagon.” 
  • Sarcasm: there is a good example partway through the poem when the speaker sarcastically suggests that the wagon protects the deceased from snow and rain when they’re about to be buried in the ground. 
  • Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before it’s natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four of stanza one as well as lines six and seven of stanza five. 

Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One

I will teach you          my townspeople


you have the ground sense          necessary.

In the first stanza of this unique poem, the poet begins by having his speaker address some “townspeople.” They are a generalized group that goes undefined throughout the poem but are likely meant to represent those living simple, average lives and who, despite this, put on grand funerals. 

The speaker’s intention is to teach these people what he thinks is a proper funeral. He’s planning on explaining to them what the right way is to go about planning and carrying out a funeral. He feels that what they normally do is far too complicated and too focused on those attending (rather than focusing on the deceased or just getting the job done). 

Stanza Two 

See! the hearse leads.


a rough dray to          drag over the ground.

The poet writes that every bit of the funeral is incorrect. The hearse shouldn’t be black or white and is very poorly designed. Instead, it should be “weathered” as though it’s a farm wagon. This is a curious assertion, one that suggests that the speaker is interested in getting to the heart of the matter and not wasting time on fancy, expensive additions to what should be a straightforward event. The only bit of detail he mentions is the “gilt wheels.” 

They could be slightly more embellished, or, to avoid his “small expense,” he recommends just turning the hearse into a “rough dray” to drag over the ground. Through these lines, readers can interpret that the poet’s speaker is okay with slight embellishments but thinks that any more than that is over the top. The image of dragging the body in a wheelless cart over the ground is an interesting one, it is certainly starkly different than the normal, expensive hearse ferrying a body from place to place. 

Stanza Three 

Knock the glass out!


and small easy wheels          on the bottom —

my townspeople          what are you thinking of?

Still speaking of the hearse, the poet adds that these vehicles need no windows. The dead can’t look out and see the flowers or the rain. Additionally, it doesn’t need a roof. There is no need to protect them from the cold and its various elements. The body is soon to be in the ground, where it’ll be exposed to all the pebbles and dirt possible. There, it won’t find any comfort like windows or roofs, so what’s the point of having them on the hearse? 

The windows are one of the clearest elements the poet cites that relate directly to how the living experience funerals. The addition of windows is only for the sake of the living when the entire proceeding should be focused on the dead. It’s a mistake to consider the living in this equation.


Stanza Four 

A rough          plain hearse then


by its own weight.

The fourth stanza is only four lines long but feels longer due to the poet’s use of pauses in the middle of lines. The speaker depicts his perfect image of a hearse in these lines. It’s plain, with gilt or gold wheels, and no top. This fits all the requirements he mentioned in the previous stanzas

The coffin is sitting on top of the hearse “by its own weight,” suggesting that the coffin is not secured by any means. No doubt, this could, at times, become precarious (something that additional restraints could prevent), but the speaker seems unconcerned about this fact. 

The “weight” of the coffin is also of interest. It includes the weight of the box as well as the weight of the body. This brings the focus to the body of the deceased once again, rather than focusing on the comfort or needs of the living. 

Stanza Five 

                  No wreathes please —


even flowers          if he had come to that.

So much for          the hearse.

The fifth stanza is one of the longest. It follows the same train of thought that the poet has used up until this point. He spends these lines describing what he likes and doesn’t like about additional parts of the funeral and funeral procession. 

He doesn’t want wreathes or hot house flowers (flowers grown in specific conditions, as in a green house). These expensive additions to the funeral are entirely unnecessary, the speaker believes. They represent nothing of the deceased, something that the speaker clearly cares about when he adds that “Some common memento” is better. If one includes “something he [the deceased] prized,” it’s far more meaningful. 

Stanza Six 

For heaven’s sake though          see to the driver!


and inconspicuously          too!

The sixth stanza starts and ends with a discussion of the hearse’s driver. The exclamations in the first two lines are meant to draw readers’ attention to how important making these changes is. 

The driver must, in the speaker’s mind, get rid of the “silk hat,” and, in fact, the speaker adds, the driver should disappear altogether. He’s playing a role that he has no connection to, taking a deceased person down the street with no care at all. The poet uses words like “dragging” and “unceremoniously” in order to emphasize how the driver’s actions lack care.

The man should get off the hearse and walk beside it. If he has to be involved at all, he should hold the reins, and the speaker says, not drive the cart. He’s nothing more than the “undertaker’s understrapper!” a derogatory phrase that’s meant to equate the man to nothing more than another employee of death making money off the deceased. 

He should not have the privileged place of driving the hearse. No one should be looking at him, the speaker thinks. This is, again, another way of reemphasizing how the entire procession should focus on the dead, not the living. 

Stanza Seven 

Then briefly          as to yourselves:


I think you are          ready.

The final stanza is longer than most of those which have come before it. It concludes the poem by addressing the people who are attending the funeral. The speaker tells them that they need to walk behind the hearse or clearly in view while riding along. The speaker cites “curtains” as one of the many ways that the living obscure their grief after someone dies. 

One should sit out in the open, embracing grief openly and clearly. It’s impossible to “shut grief in” as one might shut the curtains on a window. Using this metaphor, the poet continues on, saying that when one sits out in the open with their grief, they’re sharing it “with us” (likely a reference to all those watching). 

If one shares in this way, revealing their emotions openly, they’ll be rewarded. The poet writes that “it will be money / in your pockets,” a curious conclusion to the poem. This is perhaps meant to connect “money” with the emotional reward one will receive if one openly share their grief. 

The poem ends with an address to “you,” telling you to “Go now” and that you are “ready.” The poet’s speaker is sending the listener on their way, telling them that they know everything they need to know in order to correctly experience and hold funerals. 


What is the purpose of ‘Tract?’ 

This is a unique poem that explores traditional funeral practices and critiques the choices people make. Most funeral elements are conceived of as a way to comfort the living, and the poet’s speaker vehemently disagrees with this. 

What kind of poem is ‘Tract?’ 

‘Tract’ is a modernist poem that’s written in free verse. This means that the lines do not follow a rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Free verse is very common in Williams’ poetry and fits with his experimental style

What is the theme of ‘Tract?’ 

The poet engages with themes of death and tradition in this poem. His speaker spends the seven free verse stanzas critiquing traditional funeral practices and suggesting alternative approaches. 

What is William Carlos Williams known for? 

Williams is remembered today as a novelist, playwright, poet, and medical doctor. He was an important member of the Imagist literary movement

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other William Carlos Williams poems. For example: 

  • Blizzard’ – is a chilling poem that describes a blinding snowstorm and its aftermath.
  • Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ – is a dark and beautiful poem about a painting by Pieter Brueghel. 
  • Spring and All’ – a poem that describes a desolate landscape that borders a road and leads to a hospital. 

Discover the Essential Secrets

of Poetry

Sign up to unveil the best kept secrets in poetry,

brought to you by the experts

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The Best-Kept Secrets of Poetry

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry ever straight to your inbox

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry, straight to your inbox

Start Your Perfect Poetry Journey

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap