Snap-shot poetics: January Morning

William Carlos Williams’ poem “January Morning” is a poem that moves. As the reader travels through the poem, the speaker also travels; a flâneur poem of the speaker wandering through New York.

The flâneur trope of the poem glorifies the city. This text is not a pastoral poem; it is a text of the urban environment. The location of the city is of fundamental importance to the poem. Williams is able to see beauty in the city; He also appears to have a fascination with the allure of the urban. The beauty he sees in the city is due to the “strange hours” of the morning that he is travelling in the city. Through the eyes of the speaker the city is demonstrated as a home ground of beauty – only if one knows where and when to seek it.

The speaker is going home; morning, as the title implies, is a strange time to be returning home. He is travelling home in a time that is unusual and unknown to him; all others are moving away from home, to work. In these “strange hours” the poet encounters “the beauties of travel” that is only seen at unusual times. The “beauties of travel” to Williams, are sights that enable the “heart [to be] stirred”, the scenes and objects that are common and mundane are now transformed by the hour of dawn. Williams has changed the hour of travel, and beauty has become available to him.

It is not often one sees the urban being glorified, yet Williams brings us here, to muse on the beauty to be found in concrete and towers.

I
I have discovered that most of
the beauties of travel are due to
the strange hours we keep to see them:

the domes of the Church of
the Paulist Fathers in Weehawken
against a smoky dawn — the heart stirred —
are beautiful as Saint Peters
approached after years of anticipation.

II
Though the operation was postponed
I saw the tall probationers
in their tan uniforms
hurrying to breakfast!

III
— and from basement entries
neatly coiffed, middle aged gentlemen
with orderly moustaches and
well-brushed coats

IV
— and the sun, dipping into the avenues
streaking the tops of
the irregular red houselets,
and
the gay shadows drooping and drooping.

V
— and a young horse with a green bed-quilt
on his withers shaking his head:
bared teeth and nozzle high in the air!

VI
–and a semicircle of dirt-colored men
about a fire bursting from an old
ash can,

VII
— and the worn,
blue car rails (like the sky!)
gleaming among the cobbles!

VIII
— and the rickety ferry-boat “Arden”!
What an object to be called “Arden”
among the great piers, — on the
ever new river!
“Put me a Touchstone
at the wheel, white gulls, and we’ll
follow the ghost of the Half Moon
to the North West Passage — and through!
(at Albany!) for all that!”

IX
Exquisite brown waves — long
circlets of silver moving over you!
enough with crumbling ice crusts among you!
The sky has come down to you,
lighter than tiny bubbles, face to
face with you!
His spirit is
a white gull with delicate pink feet
and a snowy breast for you to
hold to your lips delicately!

X
The young doctor is dancing with happiness
in the sparkling wind, alone
at the prow of the ferry! He notices
the curdy barnacles and broken ice crusts
left at the slip’s base by the low tide
and thinks of summer and green
shell-crusted ledges among
the emerald eel-grass!

XI
Who knows the Palisades as I do
knows the river breaks east from them
above the city — but they continue south
— under the sky — to bear a crest of
little peering houses that brighten
with dawn behind the moody
water-loving giants of Manhattan.

XII
Long yellow rushes bending
above the white snow patches;
purple and gold ribbon
of the distant wood:
what an angle
you make with each other as
you lie there in contemplation.

XIII
Work hard all your young days
and they’ll find you too, some morning
staring up under
your chiffonier at its warped
bass-wood bottom and your soul —
out!
— among the little sparrows
behind the shutter.

XIV
— and the flapping flags are at
half-mast for the dead admiral.

XV
All this —
was for you, old woman.
I wanted to write a poem
that you would understand.
For what good is it to me
if you can’t understand it?
But you got to try hard —
But —
Well, you know how
the young girls run giggling
on Park Avenue after dark
when they ought to be home in bed?
Well,
that’s the way it is with me somehow.

Images by Geoffrey Johnson

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