The Great FigureAMONG the rain
I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city
William Carlos Williams (1883 - 1963)
What did you think of when you read this title? I thought of a woman standing in a mid western wheat field , probably because the last poem I read by William Carlos Williams was The Red Wheelbarrow. A second thought was maybe a prominent political figure of the day since it was published in 1921 .....maybe World War I, but the author surprised me by deliberately focusing on something from entirely his point of view.
What I saw when I finished reading the poem is the figure 5 in gold, a named number the conception put there by the author, sketched it in full color and organized with the crystalline concrete language of imagery from clamoring chaos. The number 5 decked in gold riding off to save the day in the supervehicle of urban heroes. It became more than an image by opening the door of my imagination just enough I get an introspective glimpse of my own youthful late night summers of reading comic books under the bed covers with a flashlight. The gold 5 is the letter S emblazoned on a red cape crusader.
This poem was originally published in a colletion titled Sour Grapes(1921). Keeping to his familiar idea from his words in Machine Made of Words Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. (--William Carlos Williams, from "Authors Introduction to The Wedge") There is no meaning other than one of a visual perception where one post modern poet appropriately calls Williams work a portrait of 'blueberry America'.
Reflective of some of the basic tenets of Imagism by artfully using line length as key to the reading and rhythm of the poem. The lines become insistent with rhythm, as insistent to attention as is the sound of the fire truck wending its way through the city focused on a single and the important but easily ignored image, a fire truck's identification number. He has set it in a context tremendously well by focusing on simple objects or seemingly common occurrences by attending meaning -- tense- unheeded--to the most unlikely of objects. A most recognizable as well as intriguing aspects of his work. Williams writes about what inspired the piece in the Autobiography:
Once on a hot July day coming back exhausted from the Post Graduate Clinic, I dropped in as I sometimes did at Marsden's studio on Fifteenth Street for a talk, a little drink maybe and to see what he was doing. As I approached his number I heard a great clatter of bells and the roar of a fire engine passing the end of the street down Ninth Avenue. I turned just in time to see a golden figure 5 on a red background flash by. The impression was so sudden and forceful that I took a piece of paper out of my pocket and wrote a short poem about it.
A fire, a fire truck, this poem and some years later came a painting "I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold" (1927) all because Williams watched an unheeded fire truck clanging and howling by on a rainy night in Manhattan.
Scan of artwork by Charles Demuth
It became the title of a painting by Williams' friend Charles Demuth, painter and member of the Precisionist School calling it "the most distinguished American painting that I have seen in years." by setting the great figure five in the midst of the abstract of a tense and moving urban landscape, frenzied gold howls against against red. In an unpublished letter to Henry Wells in 1955 Williams pointed to this larger meaning, explaining:
" In the case of The Great Figure I think you missed the irony of the word great, the contemptuous feeling I had at that moment for all 'frear figures' (sic) in public life compared with that figure 5 riding in state with full panoply down the streets of the city ignored by everyone but the artist."
By making a simple object into something greater in nature this is perhaps one of the greatest challenges of poetry in deciding what makes a poem truly great.
Charles On The Great Figure
Public domain text taken from The Poets' Corner