by William Carlos Williams
Sweep the house clean,
hang fresh curtains
in the windows
put on a new dress
and come with me!
The elm is scattering
its little loaves
of sweet smells
from a white sky!
Who shall hear of us
in the time to come?
Let him say there was
a burst of fragrance
from black branches.
Funny kind of a love song that begins with a list of chores to be done. Surely the woman William Carlos Williams addresses would be too tired from all the household tasks he demands and too irritated by his presumption in dictating her schedule to share nary a kiss. And what kind of lunkhead thinks it’s a good idea to put on a new dress before rolling around in the hay?
Keep your trousers on, Ricky Ricardo, and sweep the dang floor yourself.
Yet I’m quite sure William Carlos Williams had his romp under the elm after all. Whatever fragrance was bursting forth from under the canopy of branches, it wasn’t toilet bowl cleaner. The energy and imagery of this poem all work in his favor. The energy comes from his use of the imperative, the accompanying exclamation points, and the short lines. Come with me! is hard to resist.
But it’s the imagery I found most seductive. I picture linen curtains billowing in a breeze, a woman in a white dress racing through a spring meadow and resting under a big tree. And then the erotic pow of the poem: the burst of fragrance from black branches.
Perhaps I respond to this poem so keenly because I’m tired to death of the hot hot sexy sex we’re all supposed to be having. In “Love Song,” everything is fresh, robust and healthy: the dress and curtains are new, the floor is swept clean, the very air outside is charged with new smells. But in the media that infiltrates every part of our lives, the language of sex has been overrun by the language of consumerism. Having sex is not an act of love between two people but an act of consumption between two desirable objects. Sex is about getting it. Get it, take it, push it, want it, gimme it, give it up. (And don’t get me started on freak dancing in which men can’t even bear to look in the face of a woman because they’ve turned her into rubbing post.)
That bothersome to-do list at the beginning does two things. First it sets the tone of freshness and newness, and second it draws a line between the routinized world of the house and the lusty world outside.
William Carlos Williams straddled two worlds himself. By day he was a doctor in suburban New Jersey with a wife named Flossie of all things and two sons. By night he was a poet. He spent his weekends in Greenwich Village hanging out with other artists–Man Ray, Marcel DuChamp, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens. I imagine he must have always felt the pull between convention and bohemia.
This poem reflects that. The tension between spontaneity and routine is built right into the poem. He asks his love to put aside daily tasks, and in the great tradition of lovers, to seize the day.
I once knew a mother at my kids’ school who was also an actress. I’ve never forgotten her description of her daily life. First, she said, she clears her mind of mental clutter—which to her meant getting chores done—and then and only then she is able to be creative.
It’s a balance we all need to find. And so on the first beautiful day of summer I taped this poem to a tree in the woods near a playground. The playground was full of young mothers and children. The woods were quiet but every bit as alive. Oh I hope one of those mothers took a walk!
(For another look at sex in the modern age, read Camille Paglia’s piece in Sunday’s New York Times.)