All I know about William Carlos Williams (right now, 5/3/2020) is that he was a doctor and that he spent a lot of time looking out windows. “The Young Housewife” takes a fun spin on window-gazing by placing the author in a car instead of seated in front of the same stagnant window he stared out of every workday. The poem starts innocently enough (sort of):
At ten A.M. the young housewife
moves about in negligee behind
the wooden walls of her husband’s house.
I pass solitary in my car.
Williams spotting this housewife in her negligee at 10am is a little creepy by our standards, but I think this detail is crucial to the domestic scene he’s setting here. The second unsettling and antiquated, but crucial, detail is the fact that he says “her husband’s house.” I think he uses this phrase to cast the housewife as an outcast, even of her own home, which Williams makes clear is not actually hers. Although he’s making an assumption, I tend to believe he isn’t wrong here, legally speaking. I’m not sure exactly when this poem was originally published, but it was some time in the early 20th century, way before it was common for both parties to be listed on the deed.
On reading this for the nth time as I type this, I’ve found a pretty obvious double-entendre that I’m excited to explore. “I pass by solitary in my car.” I first read this with an implied comma, “I pass by, solitary, in my car,” which focused my attention on Williams being alone and borderline creep status. I thought it was a classic example of Williams’ voyeurism. I now read it more literally, like he is passing by Solitary in his car. This housewife is in a certain kind of domestic solitary confinement. This is especially true given the time period this was written in. I think this interpretation is reinforced by “her husband’s house” and the “wooden walls.” I don’t know when the term “solitary confinement” gained widespread use, which may blow this interpretation up, but I think the sentiment is still valid. What happens next?
Then again she comes to the curb
to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands
shy, uncorseted, tucking in,
stray ends of her hair, and I compare her
to a fallen leaf.
Here is where Williams starts to get creepier and graciously lays out the metaphor in about as direct a way as I have ever read in poetry. The fact that he recognizes multiple reasons why the housewife is standing on the curb was disturbing at first, but on multiple readings, I think this is just one morning. “Tucking in” is a telling gem, gets us back to the idea of solitary. The housewife has to put on whenever she’s in public, even right in front of the place that she lives, which in this context is not her house.
I’m having another interpretation of “tucking in” now. Originally, since the tucking in happened right after the lack of corset, I assumed the housewife was tucking in her gut. Now I’m thinking she may be tucking in the stray hair. Either way, I think the sentiment is the same, she’s trying to spruce up before the other men come. We start to feel her unhappiness with only three of four details. Imagism at its best.
Then he lays out his metaphor, and tells us he’s going to do so. “I compare her to a fallen leaf.” It’s a bit of metapolitics. He recognizes himself in this scene. He doesn’t help the housewife, or judge the housewife, or introduce himself to the housewife, he compares her to a fallen leaf – he’s a goddamn poet. He even rhymes “hair” with “compare” to remind us that he’s writing poetry. That’s all he’s good for. Fallen leaves are dead but often beautiful to look at.
The noisless wheels of my car
rushing with a crackling sound over
dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.
What does Williams do after comparing her to a dead leaf? Drive over her, smiling. He even goes out of this way to specify that the crackling sound is not coming from his wheels. His wheels are noiseless. That crackling you’re hearing? The housewife. I can’t help but think he’s crushing her privacy more than anything else. His bow and smile are as routine and fake as her tucking in. I read “The Young Housewife” as a sharp criticism of domesticity, and a dim criticism of voyeurism.