Thursday, April 24, 2008

"Just Sayin'"

This Is Just To Say**
by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast.

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold.

This "found" poem, originally a note Williams stuck on the fridge for his wife--is both charmingly clear and provocatively ambiguous, much like Barack Obama on the stump.

On the surface, this poem is just a "Toots, don't even bother looking for those plums, as they are coursing through my personal digestive plumbing this very minute" communique.

More intrepid readers might take their explication in the direction of sex--to the ripe sensuality of those cold plums that creates a desire to plumb through the juice and burrow right down to the pit. In fact, I'm pretty sure Jay-Z married Beyonce the other week just so he could devour the fruit jiggling around in her icebox without ever venturing off-site.

Perhaps equally interesting is the tack of looking at this poem as an apology, specifically as a pro forma apology. Pro-forma apologies go through the motions and creak out the right words, but, because they are rote expressions and lack genuine sentiment, they ring hollow. Famous examples of the pro-forma would be Don Imus' forced public regret after demeaning the Rutgers' women's basketball team and a host of presidents, from Nixon to Reagan to Clinton to Current Guy, conceding "mistakes were made."

Personally, I get a bang out of how unapologetic "This Is Just To Say" is. It's pro forma beauty. Williams isn't sincerely asking for his wife's forgiveness; rather, he commands "Forgive me" as he wipes his chin with the napkin. He minimizes her excitement about eating the plums, chuffing that she was "probably" saving them for breakfast.

Now, WCW, I think you and your wife both remember how you stood idly by as she cut off her hair and sold it at a beauty parlor down the avenue, just to earn enough money to buy those plums. Then, when you took the car keys and wouldn't drive her to the store to get the fruit, she walked five miles, each direction, to the Rainbow Foods. At the store, of course they were out of bags, so Wifey then had to trudge all those miles home with the plums stuffed into her arm pits, staving off coughs and sneezes and all fruit-bruising bodily contortions for the entire hour and a half it took her to get back. Naturally, once she arrived home and opened the icebox, she discovered the thing was stuffed with squirrel cadavers that you were "keeping cool" until your next taxidermy session down in the wood-paneled basement. No room for plums in there, you told her. But she was tenacious. That night, after you went to bed, she crept in to the kitchen and took out one, ONE, of your seventeen squirrels and put it in your beer cooler, just so she could tuck her gorgeous plums into the fridge for even a few hours. All she ever wanted was a cold plum for breakfast the next morning, a plum that would take her back to the summer of '35, when she and her mother shared the perfect plum on a picnic blanket one afternoon at the zoo, three days before her mom suffered the aneurysm that cut her life short. These plums were closure, William Williams. There was no "probably" about them.

But then you cavorted into the kitchen that morning, your face freshly-shaven, knowing your wife was upstairs ironing your shirt and wouldn't be down for ten more minutes...and you. et. her. hard-won. plums.

That measly note, you know, the one that stressed how delicious were the plums she would never taste, well it screamed past pro forma tacky and plummeted directly into Right Bastard.

You didn't mean a word of apology, you power-tripping ogre.

Or maybe you'd bought the plums a week before, and they were about to go off, and since your wife had the flu and couldn't keep any food down, you went ahead and ate them.

Whatever the circumstances behind its writing, the template of this poem and the dismissive logic of its undercut apology have become widely known and spoofed.

For example:

Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams
by Kenneth Koch

I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.

We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.

I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.

Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!


Sorry But it was Beautiful
by Andrew Vecchione (6th Grade)

Sorry I took your money and burned it
but it looked like the world falling
apart when it crackled and burned.
So I think it was worth it after all
you can't see the world fall apart
every day.

OR, as someone monikered "Anonymous" wrote to J.K. Rowling:

This Is Just To Say

I have killed
the wizard
who was in
your novels

and whose death
you were probably
for book seven

Forgive me
he had it coming
so beardy
and so old


This is Just to Say
by Jason Nicholas

I have pulled the
Pin from that grenade
On the desk.

Forgive me.
I thought it was
My keyring,

My drawn-out go at this poem is inspired by fellow blogger Minnesota Matron, whose recent post about an arse-paining student gave me great comfort, in a week when I've been wrangling again with the alcoholic student in one of my classes who caused me to lose much sleep a few months back.

This is Just to Say
by Jocelyn Teacher

I'm sorry you went off your meds
in the '90s
and started to drink constantly

and lie more frequently than you drink
which you probably are unaware of
even as you email me every day that you've
missed class because you were bed-ridden and
your grandmother died repeatedly and your friends
all died, every single one of them.

Forgive me for being a poor teacher, as you
told the dean last week when you appealed the
Failure for Non-Attendance grade I'd assigned.
In your version, my lack of teaching is somehow related to
your having diahrrea for seven weeks which meant you couldn't
come to class.

I'm sorry your absences weren't at all alcohol related.
The dean, and then the registrar, and then the Vice President
might have had some sympathy for that.

A delicious and sweet and cold martini will be great solace to you
during your academic probation
for which you must forgive me.

**shout out to National Public Radio's "This American Life" program, which planted much of this in my mind


lime said...

you know, one of my new readers recently told me there is a fine line between madness and genius. i do believe this post dances on that line ever so blithely as you provide yourself satirical literary therapy which nudges you gently into genius even as you pirouette over the madness.

only a real lit geek (and a psychic sister of mine) would bring herself sanity by skewering a drunk in a spoof of WCW.

This is just to say (by isaac, son of lime)

I have taken the 12 dollar check you gave me for the book fair
and given it to the cafeteria ladies instead, even though i told you i threw it away because i was mistaken about the book fair date.

forgive me.
your peanut butter sandwiches were so dry.
the calzones on fridays were so greasy and full of cheesy delight.

yes, this is a true story that only came to light when we balanced the checkbook this week and there was $12 unaccounted for....

lime said...

and i am sorry about having to endure this besotted student. does he fancy himself some sort of raymond carver or something?

hang in there.

flutter said...

I love you. It is absurd how much

lime said...

hopes the 7 week case of the skitters has not led to a serious shortage of soft, absorbent, disposable paper products in the greater duluth area....snarls and grabs a napkin, or a tissue, or the last roll of TP from the unrepentant WCW and RC wannabe and dabs jocelyn's eyes tenderly. you're welcome.

mountainlime(at)gmail(dot)com tuck it away safely. let me know if you want to find a way to drive him mad in a house of usher sort of way.

Her Grace said...

I'm with flutter.

david mcmahon said...

Enjoyed the image. Enjoyed the concept. Enjoyed the post.

And, I have to confess ....

I enjoyed the plums!!!

oreneta said...

I must say that it is one of my favourite is quite ambiguous at the end there, but I could forgive him because he enjoyed them so much. Probably. I would forgive him for the poem...fair trade.

SQT said...

I love your genius in providing a backstory for the beleaguered wife. I'm sure that story is true.

And you are a mad genius.

AmyTree said...


Now I want plums...

Glamourpuss said...

1. I have The Red Wheelbarrow on my desk, and when things get too much, I take comfort in its simplicity and the fact that my boss just doesn't get it.

2. Parodies are wonderful.

3. A few weeks back, I remarked to a friend that one of the things abotu teaching is that unlike other professions where the type of people you encounter are self-selecting, in teaching, you are exposed to the whole spectrum of humanity and regardless of how you feel about them, you gotta teach the little shits.

I feel your pain.


Jazz said...

How do I love thee,
Let me count the ways...

Moi said...

I'm sorry
I will now be
your blog stalker

But you are so good
at making me think

Forgive me
for loving you
Your words
amaze me

Say It said...

wonderful wonderful wonderful. I'm with flutter too.

Chantal said...

This is my attempt:

I read blogs
when I should
be working.

You probably don't
pay me to
chat with online

Forgive me
they are much more
than you are.

Claudia said...

Oh honey, you are a modern miracle, do you know that? How I worship you. I am NOT worthy.

Optimist said...


Tai said...

That's brilliant! And you know, I never looked at that poem in that light before.
I feel quite educated. Thanks!

liv said...

OMFG. This is my biggest and bestest compliment: Your blog is the blog that my blog wants to be when she grows up.

ps--i ate one of your dead squirrels.

pistols at dawn said...

I've always hated this poem and this poet for being unjustly famous, but I liked your version. And not just because it was about my people - those too lazy to follow through on their alcoholism.

Steve said...

Do you know you're my hero?

I'm sorry to have left you
the arduous task of
submitting English Student of the Year while
simultaneously giving her a much needed and deserved pat

It's just that nap time was calling
and there are only three weeks left in this
whip-thin sabbatical

Anonymous said...

I think that Stevo should be punished for writing on his sabbatical. As if summer doesn't follow sabbatical in Minnesota, or Texas, where ever he's biking. Blighter.

Sorry I left you
with the sympathetic dean,
vice president, and crazy people.

But life in California is


heartinsanfrancisco said...

I have known many "writers" who emulated Dylan Thomas by going straight for the alcoholism while bypassing even the attempt to write.

The martinis were cold
and so were the corpses
in due time
or before.

Minnesota Matron said...

The Matron herself here, visiting. Indeed, I heard the same public radio show. Omar is your alcoholic lying student's twin separated at birth.

But when I heard the radio show I thought of another alcoholic, a fated but dear friend who has nothing at age 54. He asked me for $40 for food (this after many other small money gifts) and I said, okey dokey. Then, a kid got sick and I called and left a message saying that I'd have to come the next day and he was FURIOUS.

"I need that money now!!"


cathy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
cathy said...

I have gained
12 pounds
since the day
we were married.

I have
no siliconed breasts
or liposuctioned thighs
to incite your ardour

Forgive me
for becoming
the mother of your children
Instead of
one of those porn queens
you so admire.

Ah that felt good, thanks jocelyn
You are brilliant.

seventh sister said...

to quote another great poet:

'It's about forgiveness
about forgiveness
Even if ,even if
You don't love me any more'

but of course, I loved this post.

Mother Theresa said...

Brilliant as usual! I have a cold and am not feeling at all witty, but I'm not too sick to have enjoyed this post thoroughly. Maybe your student will die of dehydration after the diarrhea and finally leave you alone. ;)

Pendullum said...

Poetry sometimes brings us back to ourselves...
I loved it...

Anonymous said...

I'm so impressed by how much work you put into this!

Yeah, though, it does seem likea pretty flimsy non-apologetic apology.

Anette said...

This is very good!
Your blog is the highlight of my "blog tour" every time!
I love the photo!

geewits said...

I like those take-offs of the poem. Maybe bad student should e-mail this excuse:
It was a dark and stormy night,the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. That's why I was unable to attend class.

HeatherAnn Fragglehead said...

Absolutely wonderful. The behind-the-scenes story to go along with the poem. And all of those other poems.

I also love 'This American Life'. I might very well be in love with Ira Glass.

urban-urchin said...


I love that poem (both the org. and your take on it.)

mrs. tioli said...

This is if I would bother to say

I haven't done a chore
even when you had to ask
for a week
one day in teen years

and which you probably
had to do yourself
once or twice

Forgive me
my life is more important than yours
so busy
and full of my space

August said...

Jocelyn, you've truly outdone yourself here. My head is spinning.

You're so wonderfully draining. I need a drink.