Thursday, May 09, 2013

Poetry Corner: "Danse Russe" By William Carlos Williams

Yesterday my boss asked if I had ever read William Carlos Williams' poem Danse Russe.* I've never been much of a poetry person, but I've always enjoyed WCW's work, so I took a look:

If when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,—
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
"I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!"
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades—

Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?

The poem has an immediate appeal: the spectacle of a grown man prancing around with gleeful abandon, unknown, as the members of his household sleep, unaware of this ridiculous private moment. It struck me as funny and touching, and even a little brave as the writer, a physician, exposes himself to the readers and then haughtily throws it in their faces as he "turns to the camera" and confronts us with the final two lines. Bravo!

But then, like all great poetry, the deceptively simple words started to expand, to telescope out in my mind.  Just because he is a married man, a scholar, a physician, the poet seems to be saying, don't expect him to behave a certain way. But was Williams really only talking about himself? Somehow I doubt it.

The poem made me think of, for instance, the infamous Star Wars Kid (see photo above) twirling around in his reverie, only to be crushed by mockery and ridicule as his private moment was stolen and made humiliatingly public. It also made me think of all those bullied teenagers in high school, hated by their peers for the crime of not fitting into the roles society has assigned them. It made me think of "slut shaming," of fat shaming. It made me think of the casual cruelty which has become so dominant in this post-privacy era.

So is Williams' Danse Russe really about tolerance and the celebration of diversity? Of how narrowly we define others by their apparent roles in society? Maybe it was and maybe it wasn't at the time, but it stands as a useful and beautiful reminder of those subjects today.

*He was reminded of it by our upcoming show on Russian ballet.


Rosa S. Levy said...

Didn't the entertainer Bob Dylan steal this somehow? Anyway, it's an awesome post to start the day on the other coast, and much appreciated.

dianegsocialist said...

Identity without fear.

Anonymous said...

"Slut Shaming"? Ran into this term for the first time just this morning, reading a [cringe] week-old New Yorker piece about Amanda Knox. Like, Cosmic, man!

Comrade Physioprof said...

I've never been much for poetry, but I really like that poem! Thanks for posting it!