On Call and Response: Poems #12 & #13

I like  “call and response” poems.  These are groups of poems that contain an earlier  poem, the “call”, and one or more poems written in either  “response”  to or as variations of the earlier poem. Hence, all the poems in the group would be written by different poets.  My all-time favorite “call and response” group includes the call, A Passionate Shepherd to His Love (1599) by Christopher Marlowe, and two responses, The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd (1600) by Walter Raleigh and Song (1935) by C.Day Lewis. Today, I present the call poem: This is Just to Say by the American poet and doctor Williams Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963):

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

And here is its reponse, written by Kenneth Koch(1925 – 2002):

Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams

1
I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.

2
We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.

3
I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.

4
Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!

Everytime I read This is Just to Say, I think what’s to forgive,  the plums as described must have been really tempting, so you go on with your bad self (whoever you are) but just don’t do it again!  But then one wonders, is the poet really talking about plums?  This image of something desired that is suddenly taken away. I wickedly think of a suitor chasing after his girl’s virginity only for her to give it up to another man 😉 oops sorry! Is the speaker sincerely asking for forgiveness? What does one make of its taunting tone?  Is this a note between lovers? So many questions come up after reading this short poem and all from the tantalizing image of the plums against that absurd apology.  The poet Kenneth Koch believed that poems should be just plain fun, as demonstrated by his parody of This is Just to Say.  In Variations… , Koch imitates the flavor of and maintains the theme of the Williams’ poem.  However, he uses four topics to illustrate the theme. Koch, unlike Williams, does not rely on one powerful image. Variations.. relies on the evocation of feelings to convey the same message and therefore is more exuberant and a bit extreme.  Also, it reads as retialiation by Koch, against Williams, for the earlier infringement in This is Just to Say.  Which is the best or more enjoyable?  I really like This is Just to Say.  I’m amazed that such clear, simple language coupled with one powerful image can evoke so much.  On the other hand, Variations of a Theme … is just plain fun and wicked.  Both are good examples of accessible and enjoyable poetry.  What more can one asks for?

Which poem most appeals to you?  Do you like call and response poems?

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5 comments

  1. Tee hee. I love ‘This is Just to Say’, but ‘Variations on a Theme’ is just too funny. I can imagine some cranky person saying that in response to the first one!

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  2. I think as a poem I like “This is Just to Say” best. I agree with you that it is seemingly innocent, but could mean a lot more.

    I ahve to admit though that as a response and after reading “This is Just to Say”, “Variations on a Theme” made me laugh. If Williams was indeed talking of something less innocent than plums, than Koch did a great job illustrating it with the first section.

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