Kevin’s Much-Loved Poems–“Danse Russe”
This is number four in a series of columns that feature a much-loved poem, and a second poem that speaks to, or resonates with, that poem. This week’s poem is “Danse Russe” by William Carlos Williams, written in 1916.
The Poetry Foundation states, “Williams’s deep sense of humanity pervaded both his work in medicine and his writings. ‘He loved being a doctor, making house calls, and talking to people,’ his wife, Flossie, fondly recollected.” Perhaps a less subjective appraisal came from Webster Schott, who defined Williams as “an immensely complicated man: energetic, compassionate, socially conscious, depressive, urbane, provincial, tough, fastidious, capricious, independent, dedicated, completely responsive. . . . He was the complete human being, and all of the qualities of his personality were fused in his writings.” And, as Randall Jarrell pointed out, it is precisely in his written work where Williams demonstrates that “he feels, not just says, that the differences between men are less important than their similarities—that he and you and I, together, are the Little Men.”
I found a video of the poem,
and an audio of the good doctor reading it himself:
William Carlos Williams
If I when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,—
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
“I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!”
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,—
Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?
“Danse Russe” has been widely interpreted. Some even think it’s the guilty poem of a man who’s murdered his wife and children. Why else would they be asleep in the bright sun?
To me, this poem concerns itself with a man’s pride in being the successful patriarch of a family. The setting feels suburban and nostalgic. His patriarch day done, his job finished, he’s alone in his room. With the shades drawn, he inspects and, despite being no body beautiful, he almost worships himself. The poem seduces the reader by referring to the dance, which he obviously likes, as grotesque, and by the narrator’s song being one of loneliness.
The title appears to be related to the Ballets Russes, led by composer Sergei Diaghilev and dancer Waslaw Nijinsky, which was performed in New York the same year the poem was written, 1916. In my interpretation of the poem, he sees himself to be as powerful as those athletic dancers.
The ending fulfills the two requirements of good endings—both startling and, on reflection, inevitable. And, for me, a refreshing combination: funny ha ha and funny peculiar.
* * *
The poem that I find resonates with William Carlos Williams’s poem is also set in a nebulously suburban setting (in reality, Palo Alto, California. rather than Rutherford, New Jersey). Rather than having the rest of the family asleep, in this poem the children have just arisen; the wife is absent. Instead of singing and dancing and feeling like a happy genius, the protagonist is thankful that, thanks to to the generosity of his children, he’s holding it together—albeit by a thin thread.
Daddity without Mommity
“Oddity wan chocolat,”
Kate says, mock-seriously.
“Daddity, him vehy tirsty.”
I harrumph and rip open a
Carnation’s hot chocolate envelope
and zap a cup, with her watching,
then say, mock-serious myself,
“Will Tae bring chocolat to Oddity?”
―Kate waits two beats to tell me I’m pushing it,
then returns to her baby talk,
says, “Oh Tay, Daddity” and takes
the steaming drink back to Scotty,
whom I earlier saw was playing a computer
game. Not used to his older sister’s
ministrations, Scotty says, “Thank you, Kate,”
not just politely, but with an
openness so straightforward that I can
see his face through walls—
here in the kitchen, where
I’m unloading the dishwasher.
Kate rejoins me and helps.
I’m missing the Mommity, of course,
but this other side of me rejoices, says,
This is okay, God I’m doing O. K.
Next week: William Shakespeare’s “All the World’s a Stage.”