The Dance

July 6, 2006 at 2:23 pm 8 comments

William Carlos Williams


In Brueghel’s great picture, The Kermess,
the dancers go round, they go round and
around, the squeal and the blare and the
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
tipping their bellies (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound)
their hips and their bellies off balance
to turn them. Kicking and rolling about
the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those
shanks must be sound to bear up under such
rollicking measures, prance as they dance
in Breughel’s great picture, The Kermess.

The last poem (I think) in the Art and Painting theme. It’s hard to imagine any collection of poems about painting that didn’t include William Carlos Williams, and his brilliant collection of poems – Pictures from Brueghel (1962). Williams is, in many ways, the perfect poet for Brueghel because he’s the master of taking some casual, everyday scene, describing it in loving detail, and making you see the profound beauty of the mundane, its implied significance.

The Dance, though predating Pictures from Brueghel, is my favourite example of just how well Williams does this. There are many reasons why this is an incredible poem. There’s the sheer sound of it, to begin with, the rollicking, foot-thumping beat of the words, the sly, skipping rhythm, the repeated -ound and the sudden turn of heel that rhymes prance with dance, the repetition of that first line that brings the poem full circle. Then there’s vividness of the image, the deeply physical, table-jostling sense of the celebration, a picture of ruddy-cheeked frolick if there ever was one. And finally, there’s that undefined but tangible sense of the idyll, of an age big-bellied with happiness, of a great and spreading calm that underlies all the frenetic activity in the poem itself. How Williams manages to convey that impression is beyond me – but the fact that he can is what makes him one of my favourite poets.

(Incidentally, I just realised to my horror that we’ve never run Williams before either. What have I been thinking?)



Entry filed under: Art and Painting, English, Falstaff, William Carlos Williams.

My Last Duchess Fra Lippo Lippi

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. blackmamba  |  July 6, 2006 at 11:48 pm

    “A picture is worth a thousand words” – unless of course, the wordsmith in question, can do away with even the 917 more that are rightfully his.

    A Brueghel’s charm lies in the details.You could make a zigsaw puzzle of any of his paintings and each piece would be so entrancingly complete, that getting the whole frame together could not matter less. To be able to describe so many intricacies, the festivity and yet give a sense of the whole in so few words is surely amazing. Very well done, indeed.

    A Brueghel (rather Uderzo’s version) was one of the earliest influences I had as an artist :) As a 10-year-old I was inspired to recreate his magic every chance I got. The result – my pictures would always standout in any contest. About 45 people ( oh, also dogs, cats and peacocks when the situation demanded) involved in every possible thing my imagination would have them do, while all other contestants lovingly created their images peopled by just a handful of characters focusing on a single task. This would always impress the judges and invariably get me a prize. ;)

    Thanks for adding this one to the series!

  • 2. Falstaff  |  July 7, 2006 at 3:34 am

    BM: Ah, Asterix in Belgium. Some gorgeous work there. And yes, I’m pretty sure you would have been the only 10 year old in those contests who was inspired by Brueghel.

    You do realise, of course, that “About 45 people ( oh, also dogs, cats and peacocks when the situation demanded) involved in every possible thing my imagination would have them do” sounds suspiciously like an orgy? What a precocious 10 year old you must have been.

  • 3. Veena  |  July 7, 2006 at 4:25 am

    Hey BM: I thought you were influenced by Children’s Games. What’s this about Asterix now? :)

  • 4. blackmamba  |  July 7, 2006 at 8:37 pm

    Falstaff: heh, If only I had been precocious enough… given that after each such contest our Art teacher would call us over and do a critical analysis of our work – an orgy would have surely been a lot more interesting to talk about than ‘light and shadow’ and ‘perspective’. sigh.

    Veena: Children’s Games on your kitchen wall is what inspires(?) you to make all the yummy malabar fish and chicken briyani, dear. My humble origins made sure I had never seen a Brueghel original until I was 22. :) So Asterix it had to be.

  • 5. Veena  |  July 8, 2006 at 1:20 am

    BM: I am super impressed. You actually noticed the Brueghel above my kitchen table?!

    Ya ya, we all know you didn’t see a Brueghel original until you were 22. Maybe thanks are in order to certain people who dragged you to Vienna to make sure you saw it when you were 22. (Cash accepted).

    And oh, I thought you gave us some hazaar gyan abt Children’s Games when we were in Vienna which is why I figured it might have influenced the artist in you way back.

  • 6. The Red Wheelbarrow « pō’ĭ-trē  |  October 28, 2006 at 9:18 am

    […] The mundane nature of the scene and clear, simple language Carlos Williams has used to create this image reminds me of van der Rohe (and of course, as he puts it, “God is in the details”) .  Incidentally the only other Carlos Williams poem we ran was also about an image, a painting – The Dance. […]

  • 7. Mario P.  |  October 21, 2009 at 3:24 am

    Williams is quite successful in making the words and sentence rhythms echo the visual rhythms in Breughel’s painting. Just as the rhythms of the words and sentences in the poem establish the notion of overwhelming festivities of a community in the Fair Grounds. the painting uses lines that create motion and vibrant colors to portray the people at the Fair Grounds as happy, vibrant, and active. Open form is most appropriate to the images of the poem because just like the painting has no rules in describing such a festive moment, the poem holds to no rules as well in wording the festive experience, and with closed-verse too many rules exist.

  • 8. Willy  |  April 21, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    When you scan the lines of “The Dance,” you discover that the dominant foot is anapestic. Just fer yucks, if you scan backwards, the dactyl predominates. Informally, iambs and trochees are known as “marching” feet, while anapests and dactyls are known as “dancing” feet. Was Williams really THAT good? I think so.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed



%d bloggers like this: