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Poetry and Medicine IX: William C Williams

In an earlier column, I introduced William Carlos Williams, often considered the most influential 20th century American poet. Williams was also a GP. His great skill was in observing detail and describing a simple scene in plain language with impact.

The Poor

By constantly tormenting them

with reminders of the lice in

their children’s hair, the

School Physician first

brought their hatred down on him.

But by this familiarity

they grew used to him, and so,

at last,

took him for their friend and adviser.

Williams hooks our attention and curiosity in the first line of this brief poem, with the words, tormenting them, which suggests tension and conflict to follow. Conflict is a powerful bait in any work of creative writing, whether poem or novel, play or film. We wonder how the players will react and whether the tension will be resolved.

Yet we find this is only a doctor tormenting the poor parents of children with persistent head lice. Does he mean to torment them, or is that the unintended consequence of repeated reminders? Who says they are feeling tormented – from whose point of view is this being told?

Knowing that the poet here is a doctor may lead us to assume it is being told from the point of view of the School Physician, but I interpret this poem as speaking from the parents’ perspective. The doctor is likely to have repeated his message about addressing the head lice, much as we find ourselves repeating our advice about making healthy food choices and the benefits of regular exercise, and these parents, like our patients, feel tormented by the repetition. Some of that sense of torment may arise from feelings of guilt or failure in not having adequately dealt with the problem the first time.

The next strike comes in the fifth line, brought their hatred down on him. Poetry often uses imagery such as metaphor to give it colour and force, but in this little poem there is no imagery, just a couple of words carefully selected for their impact. There may have been resentment from these parents, whom Williams calls The Poor in the title, toward the relative affluence of the doctor who is hassling them to take better care of their kids. From today’s perspective, I find the title of this poem rather patronising and judgemental. Perhaps that attitude tainted communication from this doctor.

Over time, however, this School Physician becomes seen as their friend and adviser, through familiarity and the development of trust. Rapport can be built on common ground, the mutual concern for the wellbeing of the children. We all know that telling the truth is not always appreciated initially, but we can think of patients who have come around after initially prickly interactions.

Finally, note the very loose structure of this poem, written a century ago when rhyme and regular metre were the norm. Rhyme and rhythm can make a poem, like the lyrics of many songs, easier to recall and recite, but they can also constrain the choice of words to those that fit the pattern being followed.

By employing a free-flowing structure, Williams is able to create a sharp little line, at last, with commas before and after, to slow the reading and produce a sense of trust emerging over time. If the reader is scanning the poem on the page with the eyes only, this device is easily missed, which is one reason why poetry is best read aloud.

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