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On "The Yachts"

Elisabeth Schneider

No reader of Modern Painters is likely to forget the description and the accompanying illustration of the painting that Ruskin considered J. M. W. Turner's greatest (hence, in Ruskin's view, perhaps the greatest of all paintings), that called "The Slave Ship." Though my own reading of Modern Painters preceded my first encounter with William Carlos Williams' poetry by some dozen or more years, still "The Yachts" on a first reading at once recalled the picture and the passage in Ruskin. It seems probable that this association does in fact underlie the poem, and, if so, it provides a natural associative link for what strikes many readers as a wrenched and arbitrary conclusion.

The problem of interpreting "The Yachts" arises with the shift, in the last three stanzas, from objective description to a fantastic picture of the stormy waves as either consisting of or filled with human bodies in agony. This shift is abrupt even though the sea's destructive power has been introduced into the opening lines. The wild symbolic picture at the end must represent human suffering that is felt to underlie the perfection and luxury symbolized by the yachts. The strangeness of the passage lies in its composite visual image of sea resembling bodies and bodies resembling sea.

The Turner-Ruskin association provides for the poem both the humanitarian concern and the visual image in which angular, fantastic waves both contain and resemble agonized human bodies. In Ruskin's passage, which forms part of the section devoted to "truth of water" in the first volume of Modern Painters (Works, ed. Cook and Wedderburn, London, 1903, III, 571-573, and see also the preceding observations on waves), the painting is said to represent "a sunset on the Atlantic, after prolonged storm." In the middle distance the vessel, with grace and delicacy in the outline of hull and masts, rides out the storm. "She is a slaver," Ruskin says, "throwing her slaves overboard. The near sea is encumbered with corpses." The foreground shows ridges of "enormous swell . . . after the torture of the storm . . . the tossing waves by which the swell of the sea is restlessly divided, lift themselves in dark, indefinite, fantastic forms, each casting a faint and ghastly shadow behind it." "The burning clouds," he continues, "give to the reckless waves the added motion of their own fiery flying" as night advances "like the shadow of death upon the guilty ship." In the painting itself, and in the photogravure of it in the 1903 edition of Ruskin's works, bodies or fragments of distorted bodies float, scarcely distinguishable from the torn and chaotic waves.

Williams admired the work of Turner. I have not seen any printed reference by him to Modern Painters, but at least two passages in the pubblished selection of his letters describe sky and sea in strongly Ruskinese terms. During the first quarter of this century the work was read and admired by almost everyone interested in art; and Williams' early attempts to paint, as well as hi mother’s years as an art student in Paris and her continued interest in painting, make it improbable that he would have missed reading at least the first volume. A number of descriptive words in Ruskin's account of waves appear also in "The Yachts"—"tortured," "tossing," "entangled," "reckless," "horror."

Though a link with Ruskin and "The Slave Ship" is not essential to a literal interpretation of "The Yachts," it does, by bridging a gap, make evident in the poem a degree of coherence and harmony, within which the violent symbolic close may be felt to be less arbitrary or forced than it often appears. Ruskin and Turner may also perhaps share credit for having stimulated Williams to a more than usually imaginative handling of a subject.

from The Explicator 25: 5, Item # 40, January 1967.

 Thomas B. Whitaker

"The Yachts," which has been much anthologized, combines a relaxed narrative mode with a sudden nightmare shift of image to render the mind's discovery of the relentless tyranny exercised by its own beautiful instruments--whether they be economic institutions, conquests over nature, or other images of ideal competence. The poem seems limited, however, by the very lack of preparation (and hence justification) for that sudden shift; we assent to it as a paradigm of something known outside the poem rather than find it inherently revelatory. The style also involves some redundancy, though it is powerful in its ominous leisureliness and its sometimes breathtaking swiftness (as in the last three lines).

From William Carlos Williams. Copyright 1968 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.

Janet Sullivan

In Williams' 1935 "The Yachts" (Selected Poems 71-72), he uses what can be perceived as another variety of tactical difficulty to create an even more intense confusion for the reader when he breaks his poem into two pieces of visual description that appear at first to be based on two entirely different views of reality. Here his subjects and use of pronouns are steady and unambiguous except on the far side of the break, but the very violence of the break and our inability to put the pieces together based on our experience of seeing in the real world—an experience encouraged by the vivid detail of the first part—force us to seek an explanation in symbolism. But here again, the poet encourages our assumption that a feeling "I" is masterminding our experience, in this case by means of a rather Blakean maneuver. In fact, the speaker refers to that controlling mind, however obliquely, throughout, but especially in the second-to-last stanza. Our problems in seeing a magnificent yacht race described in lavish and pleasurable detail in the first eight stanzas turn into a hideous scene of mass drowning in the last three are finally resolved when the speaker explains:

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 (11.27-30)

from "Encountering the Unicorn: William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore." Sagetrieb, Vol 6, No. 3.

Paul Mariani

The Yachts," that often anthologized, uncharacteristic effort of Williams, which Williams liked though he knew its technique was imitative. He had begun it with Dante's terza rima since he was borrowing the scene from the Inferno where Dante and Virgil must cut through the arms and hands of the damned floating beneath them who try to sink their small boat. Williams was remembering the magnificent America's Cup yacht races he had seen off Newport, Rhode island, and the ambivalence he had felt watching all that aristocratic skill while knowing that it was a nation of poor people who in reality supported this small privileged class. In a letter he wrote in late August of that year to Pound, after "The Yachts" had already been printed in the New Republic, Williams provided an extraordinary gloss on the sentiments expressed in that poem. The letter was written from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where Williams had taken Floss and Paul to visit young Bill, who was working in marine biology at the laboratories there for the summer.

Williams had just finished reading Pound's latest book, Jefferson and/or Mussolini, and had enjoyed it because Pound had persisted "in finding a local solution pertinent to the present world situation." But Italy was not America, and Williams believed now that the revolution in America was further off than ever. At that moment the trouble with Americans getting anything like justice served to them, as far as Williams was concerned, was "the organized opposition by the wealthy Republicans to everything Roosevelt is trying to do. It's a race: he'll do it his way, putting over the rudiments of an idea, or they'll get the whip hand back and kill the idea." And if the moneyed Republicans did get power, any chance of a revolution would be dead. Williams had called it a race: a political race between Democrats and Republicans like those yachts racing for the America's Cup in the summer of '35. One or the other side would win--probably the special interests once again--and the sansou, the poor, the disenfranchised, would be cut aside relentlessly as they clawed against the boats struggling simply to stay afloat.

From William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. Copyright 1981 by Paul Mariani.

Christian Reed

In 1955, Williams folded into a file a set of notes containing the following gloss of “The Yachts”: “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.’” On one hand, this information helps readers tremendously; it supplies them with a rubric for understanding the relationship between the two very different scenes depicted in this poem (one is “false,” one is “real”). This is useful: the problem presented by these two seemingly irreconcilable scenes is an obsession in the criticism surrounding this poem – it is “the problem with interpreting ‘The Yachts,’” “a tactical difficulty” that produces “intense confusion for the reader” (MAPS: Schneider and Sullivan, respectively).

On the other hand, however, if Williams’ gloss solves one problem, it raises (at least) two new ones. First, Williams’ use of the words “false” and “real” is very puzzling; it seems much easier to attach the signifier “real” to Williams’ description of the yachts and the race (a description, Mariani maintains [MAPS], that derives from Williams’ first-hand witnessing of a “real” yacht race in 1935), and similarly easier to consider the scene of the dismembered and entangled mass of “watery bodies” to be “fantastic” - that is, to be “false” in some sense of the word. Williams’ explanation, then, leaves us with the difficulty of sorting out what he means by its two most important words. Secondly, the explanation itself takes on a rather odd form, as a sentence; the oddity of this convoluted statement is amplified by the fact that Williams is a poet who often achieves poetic effects through the economy of his language (as in “The Great Figure” or “The Red Wheelbarrow”). This too, I think, presents an interesting problem for the critic responding to “The Yachts.”\

I want to begin with the second of these problems, which I believe will in relatively short order lead us to the consideration of first. The oddity of Williams’ explanation lies in its apparently needless repetition: he describes the “false situation” embodied in the spectacle of yacht race, then the “real situation (of the poor)” registered by the “Broken / beaten, desolate” bodies in the water (30-31), and then the spectacle of the yacht race again. Williams’ explanation is structured as if three things were happening simultaneously (X “while” Y “while” Z), though in fact, he is describing two simultaneous events in a redundant way (X “while” Y “while” X). Although this strategy makes little sense on the level of meaning, it is comprehensible as a kind of performance; this sentence, we might say, stages the drama of containment (or perhaps, more literally, of circumscription, of writing that produces a boundary around something). Y – “the real situation (of the poor)” – is concealed within, contained on both ends by X – the “false,” though thoroughly distracting, vision of the “skillful yachts.”

“The Yachts” itself enacts a similar circumscription in its opening stanzas: “an ungoverned ocean which when it chooses / tortures the biggest hulls, the best man knows / to pit against its beatings, and sinks them [that is, the yachts] pitilessly” (3-5). The phrase about what “the best man knows” is confusingly interpolated into the middle of a set of words about the savage (“ungoverned,” “pitiless[]”) power of nature. As such, these lines seem to call attention to the fact that even “the best man” is contained (like William’s notes in a folder); the poem enacts this sense in the literal circumscription of the phrase “the best man knows…” by the descriptions of the overwhelming power of the sea, of nature.

Besides these two instances of what I have been calling “circumscription,” Williams employs the more general motif of containment frequently in “The Yachts”: the sea is contained by land (“a sea which the land partly encloses,” 1), the sea is also contained by watchful guardians (“a well guarded arena of open water surrounded by / lesser and greater craft,” 13-14, this phrase is almost another instance of circumscription with “well guarded arena” and “lesser and greater craft” paradoxically enclosing “open water”). The middle part of the poem works hard to cast the yacht race as playing out the victory of man over the brutal force of nature (“the waves strike at them but they [the yachts] are too / well made, they slip through,” 23-24); however, by noticing these multiple layers of containment, the elaborate construction that goes into staging this dramatic triumph, we can see that victory is only possible if man picks his battles very carefully. How then does this small and very expensive victory acquire its significance, it sublimity, for the watcher? This significance arises by way of another instance of containment – that is, because the spectacle takes place “in the mind” of the spectator.

In this poem, Williams demonstrates the power of the mind to produce (through acts of repression, forgetting) some cultural object as pure or natural; the yachts are described as “live with the grace / of all that in the mind is fleckless, free and / naturally to be desired,” (16-18). This majestic vision of the yachts, however, is available only by rather large acts of mental repression; the suffering that permeates much of the social field must be ignored. Roland Barthes, in his discussion of “Wine and Milk” in Mythologies, finds that wine can become an “unalloyedly blissful substance” for the French public only if they “wrongfully forget that it is also the product of an expropriation,” an issue of violent colonial oppression in Algeria (60-61). In very much the same way, the perception of the “skillful yachts” is available only through the “wrongful forgetting” of the capitalist exploitation that underwrites it.

However, Williams not only demonstrates the power of bourgeoise mythology, he also demonstrates the mind’s power to recover, through the action of the imagination, a sense of reality. This sense of reality is reinstated through powerful representations of what has been lost or rendered unavailable through these acts of primary repression. This is what is being performed through the intense language and imagery of the closing stanzas (“Arms with hands grasping seek to clutch at the prows…” 25). In this way, although a direct apprehension of reality is simply not possible because of a repressive filter that has been installed (through ideological apparatuses, etc.) in the individual subject, some approximation of the “real” (a “real” that discovers the apparently real to be “false”) is nonetheless shown to be salvageable through the work of the informed imagination.

Copyright © 2006 by Christian Reed

Yi-ling Lin

In this poem, Williams utilizes a yacht race to indicate the lack of class mobility in American society and the wide gulf that exists between upper and lower classes. He presents a picture in which the yachts survive stormy waves and keep on entering races without taking note of the large number of people who fall into the sea and struggle to clutch at the prows of the yachts. The “well made” smooth indestructibility of the yachts suggests how difficult it is to redistribute the social resources between the rich and the poor. The drowning scene further suggests that any attempts at social equality would be futile.

Luxurious yachts are symbolic of the rich at leisure. Williams describes how the yachts are surrounded and followed by both larger and smaller craft, each sycophantic and clumsy by comparison. The rich occupy a similarly sheltered and enviable position in society, their power and wealth insulating them against bad weather.

In contrast to the leisure that the rich enjoy, the crew—representatives of the working class—takes care of these toys of the rich, crawling over them “ant-like, solicitously grooming them” (line 10). In fact, the dockworkers found in any marina and the crew of these yachts are only two representatives of many groups of people in the working class that is referred to as “the biggest hulls” (4). That these people’s lack of wealth and privilege leads to insecurity is suggested by the scene in which the sea that devours even the biggest hulls is unable to harm the yachts. The sea “tortures the biggest hulls,” sinking them “pitilessly / Mothlike in mists” (5-6). But when the waves strike at the yachts, “they are too / well made, [and] they slip through” (23-24). Even if the poor were to seek to seize some resources from the rich, they are doomed to failure: the yachts would relentlessly “cut aside” their bodies (26). Finally, the corporeal fragmentation of the poor in the last three stanzas merely highlights their weakness and their failure to protect themselves or to survive.

Vivienne Koch, who interprets the yachts in this poem as a symbol of beauty or the ideal, believes that the treatment of the yachts and the biggest hulls as representing the rich and the poor respectively would be “misleading” (76). She suggests that reading literary texts produced in the 1930s as having social consciousness may be an overgeneralization; although the economic depressions in the 1930s that widen the financial gap between the rich and the poor make many writers devoted to social issues, it does not necessarily follow that Williams’ “The Yachts” is one of these literary endeavors. However, in his 1981 biography entitled William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked, Paul Mariani bases his exploration on Williams’ correspondence with Ezra Pound and indicates that the problem of class distinction in American society was indeed Williams’ concern when he wrote “The Yachts.” According to Mariani, when Williams saw America’s Cup yacht races in 1935, he was reminded that the privileged class of yacht owners is actually small and that they are supported by a large group of poor people (370). While such historicizing may not be essential when reading literary texts, I contend that in this case it is useful: Mariani’s historical analysis presents solid evidence that counters Koch’s reading. Indeed it is Mariani’s reading which best accounts for the paradoxes in the poem. For instance, the paradox that the sea that destroys even the biggest hulls yet fails to shatter the yachts suggests that the signifiers of the biggest hulls and the yachts have other signifieds than the crafts per se. Interpreting the biggest hulls and the yachts as representing the poor and the rich respectively is, I believe, a valid reading based on the main source of inspiration of the poem: Williams’ reaction to the America’s Cup race in 1935.

Works Cited

Koch, Vivienne. William Carlos Williams. The Makers of Modern Literature. Norfolk: New Directions, 1950.

Mariani, Paul. William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.

Williams, William Carlos. “The Yachts.” Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. 192-93.

Copyright © 2006 Yi-ling Lin



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