Possibly my favorite opening line in any poem ever—though I'm not sure this is a great pick. The imagery is beautiful and striking, but it's also rendered through a weirdly ethnocentric lens. There's a lot of uncontrolled lust in the piece. I don't know much about William Carlos Williams' life, but with a piece like this, I often think the poet is saying more about himself than about his subject.

At any rate, here's Williams reading "To Elsie." Text of the poem after the jump.


To Elsie


The pure products of America

go crazy--

mountain folk from Kentucky


or the ribbed north end of

Jersey

with its isolate lakes and

 

valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves

old names

and promiscuity between

 

devil-may-care men who have taken

to railroading

out of sheer lust of adventure--

 

and young slatterns, bathed

in filth

from Monday to Saturday

 

to be tricked out that night

with gauds

from imaginations which have no

 

peasant traditions to give them

character

but flutter and flaunt

 

sheer rags-succumbing without

emotion

save numbed terror

 

under some hedge of choke-cherry

or viburnum-

which they cannot express--

Unless it be that marriage

perhaps

with a dash of Indian blood

 

will throw up a girl so desolate

so hemmed round

with disease or murder

 

that she'll be rescued by an

agent--

reared by the state and

 

sent out at fifteen to work in

some hard-pressed

house in the suburbs--

 

some doctor's family, some Elsie--

voluptuous water

expressing with broken

 

brain the truth about us--

her great

ungainly hips and flopping breasts

 

addressed to cheap

jewelry

and rich young men with fine eyes

 

as if the earth under our feet

were

an excrement of some sky

 

and we degraded prisoners

destined

to hunger until we eat filth

 

while the imagination strains

after deer

going by fields of goldenrod in

 

the stifling heat of September

Somehow

it seems to destroy us

 

It is only in isolate flecks that

something

is given off

 

No one

to witness

and adjust, no one to drive the car

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