The Three Graces (William Carlos Williams)

January 5, 2009

We have the picture of you in mind,
when you were young, posturing
(for a photographer) in scarves
(if you could have done it) but now,
for none of you is immortal, ninety-
three, the three, ninety and three,
Mary, Ellen and Emily, what
beauty is it clings still about you?
Undying? Magical? For there is still
no answer, why we live or why
you will not live longer than I
or that there should be an answer why
any should live and whatever other
should die. Yet you live. You live
and all that can be said is that
you live, time cannot alter it–
and as I write this Mary has died.

*

Williams is a master of word play within the limits of common speech. His lines are so tight, so perfect, they almost shimmer, the way a new wheelbarrow at the hardware store shimmers. He writes an “elevated” line without using elevated or “poetic” diction, which is part of what makes him so masterful.

A lot could be said about this poem, particularly its play with numerology, its unusual rhyme structure, or its surprising ending, but I’m drawn to the phrase “Yet you live.” Notice how it stands alone, fixed between two seemingly broken sentences; and yet, on second or third reading, one begins to hear and see the descending repetions of “should live” and “should be” and “should die,” followed by three consecutive “you live” beats which serve as responsive echoes, a kind of call and response to these “should” phrases.

Yet you live. Three words, like three women who together comprise a strength of being, an emphatic statement which defies the uncertainties of the previous lines (with their three plus three questions), defying mortality itself. Or almost.

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