07 July 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/28

The Lonely Street

School is over. It is too hot
to walk at ease. At ease
in light frocks they walk the streets
to while the time away.
They have grown tall. They hold
pink flames in their right hands.
In white from head to foot,
with sidelong, idle look –
in yellow, floating stuff,
black sash and stockings –
touching their avid mouths
with pink sugar on a stick –
like a carnation each holds in her hand –
they mount the lonely street.

William Carlos Williams

Here is a poem of summertime, though the living isn't all that easy. Much is suggested indirectly. The speaker, presumably a man, is watching a group of young women. He doesn't seem to know them; he doesn't mention names or family connections or personal histories, but he notices that "they have grown tall." He knows them by sight, and sees that they are maturing, entering or well into their adolescence. Youth is suggested by the opening words: "School is over," though it's possible only the girls are school-age and the speaker is older and merely realizing that that is why the girls are out idly strolling. We can tell it's summer because "it is too hot / to walk at ease." There is an immediate separation between the speaker and the girls, and a distinction made, in the second line: "It is too hot / to walk at ease. At ease / in light frocks . . .". (Obviously the frocks are what tip us off that he's watching a group of girls.) It is too hot for him to walk at ease, but that is exactly what they are doing, whiling the time away, and giving sidelong, idle looks. How conscious are they of the effect they're making on at least one observer? We don't know; we see the effect on him, but the girls are as mysterious and as separate from the reader as they are from the speaker. (I am reminded of the narrator of In Search of Lost Time when he first observes Albertine and her little band of girls on the beach at Balbec.)

The girls almost seem for a moment like priestesses in procession, dressed in white and holding "pink flames in their right hands." We can deduce from the later mention of "pink sugar on a stick" that the "flames" are actually the swirls of cotton candy, another sign of summer. The description of the band of girls is indirect (we don't even know how many there are, but the plural is used so there must be more than one): they are in light colors, "floating stuff," which reinforces the earlier description of them as "at ease": the girls themselves seem to be floating. The only description of their bodies, apart from the mention of the hands holding the cotton candy, is of their "avid mouths" which are just touching the spun sugar, which is then described as being like carnations. The description of the cotton candy (sweet, summery, evanescent) shifts from pink flames to sugar on a stick to carnations, just as the vision of the girls (perhaps also sweet, summery, and evanescent) shifts from their "light frocks" (light: the girls seem to be weightless, floating, and glowing with the summer's sunshine), "in white from head to foot" to "yellow, floating stuff" to the accents of their black sashes and shoes and then to their avid mouths, part of the intensification of erotic language towards the end of the poem: their avid mouths, the pink sugar, the "mounting" of the street (instead of ascending or strolling or walking or anything else). It is an evocation of an erotic feeling that will not be satisfied. We are reminded at the end (as we were notified at the very beginning, with the title) that this is a lonely street. Perhaps it only feels lonely when the unknown but desirable girls appear on it. Is the speaker older than the girls, old enough so that he can't appropriately approach them? Is his social background too different? Is he just too shy? We don't know, just as we don't know if the girls even notice that they are being observed with longing. We have the summertime heat, and longing desire, and separation and loneliness.

I took this poem from American Poetry, The Twentieth Century: Volume One: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker in the Library of America.

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