Sunday, November 9, 2008

"The Yachts" by William Carlos Williams: Class War in America and the Ongoing War on the Poor

"The Yachts" by William Carlos Williams: Class War in America and the Ongoing War on the Poor

“It’s a Class War, Stupid,” Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi loudly proclaimed in his brilliant and shocking July 15, 2008 column. To back up his claim, he recounted a recent informal survey taken by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders:

He sent out a notice on his e-mail list asking Vermont residents to "tell me what was going on in their lives economically." He expected a few dozen letters at best — but got, instead, more than 700 in the first week alone. Some, like the excerpt posted above, sounded like typical tales of life for struggling single-parent families below the poverty line. More unnerving, however, were the stories Sanders received from people who held one or two or even three jobs, from families in which both spouses held at least one regular job — in other words, from people one would normally describe as middle-class…..

Sanders got letters from working people who have been reduced to eating "cereal and toast" for dinner, from a 71-year-old man who has been forced to go back to work to pay for heating oil and property taxes, from a worker in an oncology department of a hospital who reports that clinically ill patients are foregoing cancer treatments because the cost of gas makes it too expensive to reach the hospital. [emphasis mine] The recurring theme is that employment, even dual employment, is no longer any kind of barrier against poverty. Not economic discomfort, mind you, but actual poverty. Meaning, having less than you need to eat and live in heated shelter — forgetting entirely about health care and dentistry, which has long ceased to be considered an automatic component of American middle-class life. The key factors in almost all of the Sanders letters are exploding gas and heating oil costs, reduced salaries and benefits, and sharply increased property taxes (a phenomenon I hear about all across the country at campaign trail stops, something that seems to me to be directly tied to the Bush tax cuts and the consequent reduced federal aid to states). And it all adds up to one thing.

"The middle class is disappearing," says Sanders. "In real ways we're becoming more like a third-world country."

And please be reminded, gentle reader, that this hideous tale of horror was penned before the recent international economic collapse, thanks to the failure of the ethically-challenged Lehman Brothers. What do you think people are going through now?

William Carlos Williams, the great American modernist poet and author of "The Yachts," would understand the devastation of today’s economic warfare well, and we know where his sympathies lie. "The Yachts" is about class war in America and the war on the poor. He wrote the poem in 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, and it’s as true today as it was back then.

* * * * * *

The Yachts

contend in a sea which the land partly encloses
shielding them from the too-heavy blows
of an ungoverned ocean which when it chooses

tortures the biggest hulls, the best man knows
to pit against its beatings, and sinks them pitilessly.
Mothlike in mists, scintillant in the minute

brilliance of cloudless days, with broad bellying sails
they glide to the wind tossing green water
from their sharp prows while over them the crew crawls

ant-like, solicitously grooming them, releasing,
making fast as they turn, lean far over and having
caught the wind again, side by side, head for the mark.

In a well guarded arena of open water surrounded by
lesser and greater craft which, sycophant, lumbering
and flittering follow them, they appear youthful, rare

as the light of a happy eye, live with the grace
of all that in the mind is feckless, free and
naturally to be desired. Now the sea which holds them

is moody, lapping their glossy sides, as if feeling
for some slightest flaw but fails completely.
Today no race. Then the wind comes again. The yachts

move, jockeying for a start, the signal is set and they
are off. Now the waves strike at them but they are too
well made, they slip through, though they take in canvas.

Arms with hands grasping seek to clutch at the prows.
Bodies thrown recklessly in the way are cut aside.
It is a sea of faces about them in agony, in despair

until the horror of the race dawns staggering the mind;
the whole sea become an entanglement of watery bodies
lost to the world bearing what they cannot hold. Broken,

beaten, desolate, reaching from the dead to be taken up
they cry out, failing, failing! their cries rising
in waves still as the skillful yachts pass over.

"The Yachts" by William Carlos Williams: Class War in America and the Ongoing War on the Poor

William Carlos Williams' poem "The Yachts" is a stellar example of how a great artist can deal with a central social theme—the horror of class war in America—and avoid producing propaganda, but instead yield art.

Brughel's Hunters in the Snow: subsistence living

To achieve his end, Williams uses two of the oldest tools in the poet’s workshop, symbols and the artful use of language. The yachts, owned by the rich, represent the plutocracy. The "sea which the land partly encloses" (line 1), the "well guarded arena of open water," (line 13) in which they contend, is their sheltered lifestyle that their wealth provides for them. The "ungoverned ocean" (line 3) beyond is the chaos of the rest of the world. The crew that "crawls/ant-like, solicitously grooming them" (lines 9-10) is the class of their servants, tending to the yachts.

The "sychophant" (line 14) "lesser and greater craft" (line 14) that follow the yachts and make them look good in comparison could well be the upper middle classes that can afford some luxury items, such as small craft, but not yachts. The race they are engaged in is the game of status played by the social and economic elite.

Pop star Beyonce relaxing aboard a yacht

And finally, the "sea of faces'' (l. 27) belonging to the "watery bodies/lost to the world bearing what they cannot hold," which the poet recognizes in the last three stanzas, is the mass of people whose bodies the yacht-owners have used and run over to attain their status—the dead poor; "what they cannot hold" (which kills them) is the burden of supporting the yacht-owners.

A gentleman relaxing aboard a yacht with Paris Hilton. Talcum powder, of course

His choice of words communicates his emphasis. Over and over, he stresses that the yacht race is held in a protected environment sheltered from the outside. At the outset, he declares that the yachts "contend" (line1); they do not fight; and they do so "in a sea which the land partly encloses/shielding them from the too-heavy blows/of an ungoverned ocean" (lines 1-3). They are shielded from destructive chaos, so that they can contend "in a well guarded arena of open water" (line 13).

Of an almost ethereal enchantment, they are precious, even fragile ("Mothlike in mists," line 6) and yet glamorous in a way that F. Scott Fitzgerald would have appreciated; "scintillant in the minute/brilliance of cloudless days" (lines 6-7), "they appear youthful, rare/as the light of a happy eye, live with the grace/of all that in the mind is feckless, free and/naturally to be desired" (lines 15-18). Also mentioned are "their glossy sides" (line 19). In their universe, they are worshipped and looked up to. If their elegance is "mothlike in mists," then "over them the crew/crawls ant-like" (lines 9-10). They are "surrounded by/lesser and greater craft which, sychophant, lumbering/and flittering follow them" (line 13-15).

The narrative line runs like this: in the first stanza, the poet establishes the tranquil scene; in the second, he introduces the element of chaos, to which the yachts are impervious, ending the stanza with an idyllic description of the yachts sailing, as if to dispel the fear of chaos. The third develops this mise-en-scene, the swollen sound of "broad bellying sails" (line 7), enhancing the image it describes. The fourth details the duties of the crew, the swift succession of particples communicating their antlike scurrying.

Self-portrait by a young William Carlos Williams: as Herman Melville said, be true to the dreams of thy youth

The capital letter beginning the fifth stanza (“In”) sets it off from the previous four, which have all begun with lower-case letters, signifying the start of a new section of the poem. Where the first section, composed of stanzas 1-4, set the milieu, the second section, stanzas 5-0, introduces the race and describes its beginning. Stanza five elaborates on the superior status the yachts hold among the other boats; stanza six tells of the state of grace the yachts enjoy.

Stanzas seven and eight stress the perfection of the yachts—"[the sea] is moody, lapping at their glossy sides, as if feeling/for some slightest flaw but fails completely” (lines 19-20). "Now the waves strike at them but they are too/well made" (lines 23-24). In stanza seven, where the yachts are standing still, the rhythm of the first two lines mirrors the quiet mood of the sea, as the short sentences of the third line mirror the sudden change in mood when the wind comes. The quick rhythm of the language of the eighth stanza follows the progress of the race with all the tense excitement of a racetrack announcer.

The doctor is in: pediatrician Williams in his office in Paterson, NJ

Abruptly initiating the third section of the poem, the ninth stanza describes with blunt, brutal phrases cut short by periods the mass of have-nots, literally "a sea of faces,” which the poet sees the yachts running over in the progress of the race. In the tenth stanza, the poet expands his focus from the yachts to the surrounding sea, in a rush a words swamping the reader with the scene. Stanza eleven ends the poem with a blast of words devastating in their finality; the string of adjectives begun at the end of the previous stanza is carried over, swelling, until the second line of the stanza, where the poem reproduces the futile cries of the lost ("they cry out, failing, failing!” line 32), which rise in waves—the waves holding the yachts buoyant—"as the skillful yachts pass over," (line 33) skillful for having remained afloat so long, ending the poem on a depressing note. In the end, Williams sees the haves ignoring the have-nots even as their yachts pass over the sea of faces.

If viewed against the body of Williams' work, "The Yachts" is a continuation of his concern with the forces he saw shaping America, the theme of which he dealt with at length in Paterson. It reflects an awakened social consciousness that, through the art of poetry, brings to our attention the daily situation of the world's silent majority of sufferers, which we—or at least I—all too often forget.

In his attitude toward class war in America, Williams takes a position between two other American writers. Poe, writing "The Masque of the Red Death" from a moral standpoint of a century before Williams, saw to it that the aristocratic revelers who sealed themselves off from the world while it was wracked with plague received due punishment, even if it had to come from a supernatural source. F. Scott Fitzgerald, writing in his fiction from his standpoint abetted by a Princeton education, viewed the rich as a class of beings set above the rest of humanity. Even though he exposed their viciousness, emptiness, and uncaring destructiveness in The Great Gatsby, he remained enamored of them to the end.

The young WCW

Williams wrote "The Yachts," significantly, in 1935, when the American intellectual's social consciousness was waking up. At the beginning of the poem, in the first section, we view the lifestyle of the rich as the official culture wishes us to, idyllic and glamorous. By the end, when we see their crushing ascendancy over the masses, we are bristling with horror, disgust, and indignation.

A burning yacht
A sinking yacht

One may ask why Williams bothered to write the poem as a work of art, and not as a piece of propaganda, if he believed that injustice would triumph. I think he wrote it merely to bring the situation to our attention. From there, it's up to us to finish the poem.

* * * * * *

Afterword: William Carlos Williams on "The Yachts"

"I wrote the whole damn thing with a change," Williams noted later. "I was thinking of terza rima, but gave up rime—the very vague imitation of Dante. I was quickly carried away by my own feelings." So Williams told John Thirwell.

From notes Williams filed in a folder with his letter to Henry W. Wells dated July 27, 1955 (now among the manuscripts held in Columbia University's rare book and manuscript library): " . . . the yachts do not sink but go on with the race while only in the imagination are they seen to founder. It is a false situation which the yachts typify with the beauty of their movements while the real situation (of the poor) is desperate while 'the skillful yachts pass over.'"

A University of Pennsylvania English professor has created a fascinating Webpage, The Reaction Against" Modernism: The Radical Thirties, that demonstrates how the Great Depression transformed the avant-garde literary experimentalists of the Twenties into fiery left-wing social activists. “The Yachts” is offered as a prime example, and a host of other brilliant poems are showcased as well. In fact, several of them are so brilliant that I can’t help but reproduce them in full here, to share with you.

If you saw Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman in the hit 1987 Washington, D.C. political thriller No Way Out, then you’ve been exposed to the work of Kenneth Fearing. No Way Out was based on poet Kenneth Fearing’s famed 1946 thriller The Big Clock.

Kenneth Fearing’s poem “Green Light” is confusing. It’s meant to be. I didn’t understand it when I first read it—the subject of the poem keeps changing, and its identity is always especially vague. Fearing was trying to capture the frenetic fragmentation of twentieth century life, its lack of differentiation, its ephemerality—and thereby dramatize our alienation.

Or maybe the poem’s subject is not protean, but instead unchanging. Maybe the subject is Reality—and how it smacked you in the face in the Thirties.

Kenneth Fearing, "Green Light" (from Angel Arms)

Bought at the drug store, very cheap; and later pawned.
After a while, heard on the street; seen in the park.
Familiar, but not quite recognized.
Followed and taken home and slept with.
Traded or sold. Or lost.

Bought again at the corner drug store,
At the green light, at the patient’s demand, at nine o’clock.
Re-read and memorized and re-wound.
Found unsuitable.
Smashed, put together, and pawned.

Heard on the street, seen in a dream, heard in the park, seen
by the light of day;
Carefully observed one night by a secret agent of the Greek
Hydraulic Mining Commission, in plain clothes, off
The agent, in broken English, took copious notes. Which he
Strange, and yet not extraordinary.
Sad, but true.

True, or exaggerated, or true;
As it is true that the people laugh and the sparrows fly;
As it is exaggerated that the people change, and the sea stays;
As it is that the people go;
As the lights go on and it is night and it is serious, and just
the same;
As some one dies and it is serious, and the same;
As a girl knows and it is small, and true;
As the corner hardware clerk might know and it is true, and
As an old man knows and it is grotesque, but true;
As the people laugh, as the people think, as the people
It is serious and the same, exaggerated or true.

Bought at the drug store down the street
Where the wind blows and the motors go by and it is always
night, or day;
Bought to use as a last resort,
Bought to impress the statuary in the park.
Bought at a cut rate, at the green light, at nine o’clock.
Borrowed or bought. To look well. To ennoble. To prevent
disease. To entertain. To have.
Broken or sold. Or given away. Or used and forgotten. Or

And now for another dose of reality. You get the uncomfortable feeling the poet was writing from experience. A shoutout for Sarah Palin!

Ruth Lechlitner, "Lines for an Abortionist's Office" (c. 1936)

Close here thine eyes, O State:
These are thy guests who bring
To gods with appetites grown great
A votive offering.
Know that they dare defy
The words of law and priest---
(Better to let the unborn die
Than starve while others feast.)
The stricken flesh may be
Outraged, and heal; but mind
Pain-sharpened, may yet learn to see
Thee plain, O State. Be blind:
Accept love's fruit: be sleek
Fat and lip-sealed. (Forget
That Life, avenging pain, will speak!)
Thrust deep the long curette!

Lastly, a view of the Korean War, the beginning of the postwar Endless War that Orwell envisioned in 1984, in which the U.S., Russia and China would forever be contending. Hint: the “piano-movers” are American bombers dropping napalm on Korean civilians. See Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park (1955); the narrator Sergius O’Shaughnessy, Korean War hero and ex-U.S. Air Force pilot, is haunted by the fact that he was “an orphan burning orphans.” In the poem, “Pak Yip” is a Korean.

George Hitchcock, "War" (1952)

The piano-movers come in the morning
the piano-movers come in the afternoon
the piano-movers come to the house of Pak Yip
their bellies filled with roses.

In his gloss dome, over his comic book
sits my insouciant brother.

The sky fills with teacups
and doorknobs
the tibia of children
with ashes
with needles
& floral rembrances

What do you think, my brother?
Awaking at four sweating, the sudden erection?
The fat man at the hamburger stand?
The death of Mickey Mouse?

The sky fills with spoonhandles
Fire engines scream in the forest.

In the house of Pak Yip my sister lies,
flaming rosebuds in her loins.

from George Hitchcock, The Wound Alphabet: Poems Collected & New, 1953-1983 (Santa Cruz, CA: Jazz Press, 1984), p. 4.


Williams, William Carlos. "The Yachts," American Poetry, ed. Gay Wilson Allen, Walter B. Rideout, and James K. Robinson. New York, 1965.

Note: I originally wrote an earlier version of this essay as a sophomore at Princeton in November 1974 for an English class in American Poetry taught by Prof. Richard Ludwig.

Number 5 in Gold, a very famous abstract portrait of Williams by Charles Demuth (1883-1935), inspired by a Williams poem about a red firetruck, "The Great Figure"

1 comment:

Kenneth Dowst said...

Very nice *explication* of "The Yachts" with super photo illustrations. I came across it while doing a Google search, just trying to find the year the poem was written. One very small suggestion: a photo of a REGATTA wouldn't be out of place here.

The other poems you append look very interesting too: I'll read them soon.

Best regards,
Kenneth Dowst (Ph.D., English, 1979)