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Comment 3 of 11, added on March 2nd, 2008 at 6:09 PM.
. Imagine, after studying abroad, taking in the world around him, Williams
needs time to reflect, so he sits next to the fireplace in his study one
“icy” December night, deep in thought fueled by the silent embers of the
roaring fire, when everything around him goes numb: The famous are “buried”
and mourned, their works are reviewed and critiqued long after they die,
the “fire” of their imaginations enlightening the “back yard”, younger
generations willing to accept new knowledge, yet eventually every
conceivable means of reflection has run its course and the “fleas,” the
partisans that fed on the mystery behind those great works, are consumed by
the earth. And the “fire dies” for no one is left to kindle it. Immortality
Josh Mickle from United States
Comment 2 of 11, added on November 19th, 2005 at 2:53 PM.
This is an essay that I wrote for my degree course last year. What do you
“Complete Destruction” - A Burlesque
William Carlos Williams’ poem, “Complete Destruction” is often, like much
of Williams’ work, taken at face value and regarded as a simple piece of
work that simply tells the story of its own subject matter. However, like
almost all poetry, the work can be seen in greater depth if analysed in
“Complete Destruction”, incredibly, given that Williams himself died in
1963, appears to refer, prophetically, to the cold war of the 1970’s and
80’s. The poem’s title leads us to recall the idea of mutual destruction
that prevailed during the cold war years. It was widely believed by
governments of the time that the best way to avoid being destroyed by one’s
enemies was to ensure that the enemy understood that if they were to launch
an attack, a counter attack would destroy them also. Each side would be
completely destroyed and there would be no victor. Many people believed
that this notion helped to avert a nuclear disaster during this period.
The first line of the poem “It was an icy day” appears to be the first
specific reference to the cold war, and “icy” certainly appears to be an
accurate description of the mistrust between the Warsaw Pact and NATO at
The second line: “We buried the cat” would not perhaps appear to be related
to the subject, until one considers the Russian national preoccupation with
felines. Moscow is the only capital city in the world to have a museum
dedicated to the cat. The “EKATERINANDEI” opened in 1993 and hosts many
thousands of visitors each year, In recent months, in Russia, cats have
dominated the news, and stories have included a “winged” cat that drowned
by locals in Kursk because they thought it was a devil, a “contract
killing” upon a cat that worked as an detective of illegal caviar, and the
story that the world’s fattest cat, weighing 23 kilos, lives in the city of
Asbest, in central Russia. It does not take a particularly great leap of
imagination, then, for us to see the cat in the poem as an allegory for
Russia itself. Indeed the Cat Museum refers to the animal as “an enigma
which it is impossible to sole completely”. This could easily describe a
western view of Russia.
So what are we to make of the line “We buried the cat”? It would appear to
be an expression of a desire, on the part of NATO, perhaps, to “bury”, or
destroy Russia itself. So perhaps Williams, from his early twentieth
century vantage point, is prophetically advising the USA and her allies to
destroy the Soviets before it is destroyed by them.
Williams goes on to say: “then took her box
and set fire to it
in the back yard.”
This is evidently a further urging, by Williams, for his fellow Americans
and their allies to ensure the complete destruction, not only of the
Russian, but also of their entire country, or “box”. The notion of doing so
“in the back yard” leads us to think of Americans destroying not only the
Soviet people and their country but also to weed out any infiltrators in
the Americans’ own “backyard”. During the cold war a great deal of spying
took place on both sides, so even destroying the people of the Soviet Union
and their country is not sufficient, all these “stragglers” need to be
dealt with too. This is certainly complete destruction.
The final lines of the poem: “Those fleas that escaped
earth and fire
died by the cold”
seem to describe in perhaps slightly distasteful detail, the means of the
deaths of the victims of this destruction. The “earth” that is referred to
(ostensibly referring to the burial of the cat) appears to also refer to
those who die immediately from the nuclear explosion and are, perhaps,
buried by the impact. Just as the next among the fleas to die would do so
in the fire of the cat’s box, so the next people to die would be those who
perish in the fires that would rage for many hundreds of miles around the
site of impact. Those who escape the immediate impact and the resulting
fires would perish in the ensuing nuclear winter, thus ensuring that the
destruction is complete.
It would appear from this reading of the poem that Williams, even from the
standpoint of the early twentieth century long before the cold war, was
able to capture, highly specifically, the biggest issues that would face
the world in the 1970s and 80s. Although he may not have been able to see
into the future, it seems that he was at least able to create a poem that
is timeless in its treatment of the great issues that face mankind.
As a result of writing this burlesque critique of a relatively
straight-forward poem I had expected to learn that it is dangerous and
unwise to read too much into a poem and that one should therefore take care
to avoid getting carried away with one’s analysis. However, I actually feel
that the opposite is true. The idea that the reading is in the eye of the
reader, not in the intention of the writer has become much clearer to me. I
have made a ridiculous parody of a critical analysis of this poem, but I
have written nothing that I have not found or felt from the poem. The fact
that Williams certainly did not intend to put them into the poem does not
alter the fact that I have been able to extract them. Perhaps it is only
through constant re-interpretation that a poem can achieve longevity.
Nick Smart from United Kingdom
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