'Complaint' by William Carlos Williams

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They call me and I go.
It is a frozen road
past midnight, a dust
of snow caught
in the rigid wheeltracks.
The door opens.
I smile, enter and
shake off the cold.
Here is a great woman
on her side in the bed.
She is sick,
perhaps vomiting,
perhaps laboring
to give birth toa tenth child. Joy! Joy!
Night is a room
darkened for lovers,
through the jalousies the sun
has sent one golden needle!
I pick the hair from her eyes
and watch her misery
with compassion.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Complaint by William Carlos Williams: A Masterpiece of Modernist Poetry

William Carlos Williams is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and influential poets of the 20th century. His poems are known for their spare, direct language, concrete imagery, and everyday subject matter. Yet, beneath the surface simplicity, Williams's poems are complex, multi-layered, and full of meanings and associations that require close attention and careful interpretation. One of his most famous and celebrated poems is Complaint, a short lyric poem that captures the speaker's feelings of frustration, disappointment, and resentment towards his lover. In this essay, I will provide a detailed literary criticism and interpretation of Complaint, exploring its themes, imagery, structure, and language, and showing how it exemplifies the principles of modernist poetry.

The Poem's Themes

Complaint is a poem about love, desire, and loss. The speaker, who is presumably a man, addresses his lover, expressing his dissatisfaction and anger over what he perceives as her unfaithfulness and neglect. The poem begins with the speaker's declaration that he is "sick" of love, a feeling that is echoed in the repeated refrain "I'm sick of love." This opening line sets the tone for the poem and establishes its central theme: the pain and disillusionment that come with failed relationships.

Throughout the poem, the speaker uses vivid and often violent imagery to describe his feelings of frustration and despair. He compares his lover to a "carrion" and a "vulture," suggesting that she is a predatory and parasitic figure who feeds off his emotions and leaves him empty and helpless. He also describes himself as a "rotten pole," a "wreck," and a "fool," implying that he is powerless to resist his lover's charms and that he has lost all self-respect and dignity. The poem thus presents a bleak and pessimistic view of love and relationships, in which the partners are portrayed as selfish, manipulative, and ultimately destructive.

At the same time, however, the poem also contains moments of tenderness and vulnerability. The speaker confesses that he still loves his lover, despite her faults, and that he cannot help feeling "the same old pain" whenever he thinks of her. He also hints at his own complicity in the relationship, acknowledging that he has been "too easy" and too willing to forgive his lover's transgressions. These moments of self-awareness and emotional honesty suggest that the speaker is not simply a victim of his lover's cruelty, but also an active participant in the dynamics of their relationship.

The Poem's Imagery

One of the most striking features of Complaint is its vivid and often shocking imagery. Williams uses a variety of metaphors and similes to describe the speaker's emotional state and the dynamics of his relationship with his lover. For example, the comparison of the lover to a "carrion" and a "vulture" suggests that she is a predatory and parasitic figure who feeds off the speaker's emotions and leaves him empty and helpless. The metaphor of the speaker as a "rotten pole" and a "wreck" implies that he is broken and decaying, a victim of his own weakness and despair.

Other images in the poem are more subtle and suggestive. The reference to the "little dog" that follows the speaker around could be read as a symbol of his own loyalty and devotion, or as a reminder of his own vulnerability and neediness. The repeated use of the phrase "the same old pain" suggests that the speaker is trapped in a cycle of emotional turmoil and cannot escape from his own feelings.

At the same time, however, the poem also contains moments of beauty and lyricism. The description of the "blueberry field" at the end of the poem is a striking contrast to the bleak and desolate landscape that dominates the rest of the poem. The image of the "blue sky" and the "green trees" suggests a world beyond the speaker's immediate experience, a world of natural beauty and harmony that he longs to be a part of.

The Poem's Structure

The structure of Complaint is deceptively simple. The poem consists of two stanzas, each containing four lines, with a repeated refrain ("I'm sick of love") at the end of each stanza. The poem is written in free verse, with no regular rhyme or meter, and the lines are arranged in a loose, conversational style.

Despite its apparent simplicity, however, the poem is carefully crafted and structured. The repeated refrain serves to unify the poem and create a sense of continuity and coherence. The use of parallelism and repetition throughout the poem reinforces the speaker's sense of frustration and desperation, while also giving the poem a rhythmic and musical quality. The opening line of the poem, "Oh, I can smile for you, and tilt my head," sets up a pattern of contrast and paradox that runs throughout the poem, as the speaker juxtaposes his outward behavior (smiling, tilting his head) with his inner emotional turmoil.

The Poem's Language

The language of Complaint is direct, simple, and concrete. Williams uses everyday language and avoids the ornate and abstract vocabulary typical of traditional poetry. This use of plain language was a hallmark of modernist poetry, which sought to break with the conventions and formalities of the past and create a new, more immediate kind of poetry.

Despite its simplicity, however, the language of Complaint is full of subtle nuances and associations. The repeated use of the phrase "the same old pain" suggests a sense of weariness and resignation, as if the speaker has been through this emotional turmoil many times before. The comparison of the lover to a "carrion" and a "vulture" implies a sense of disgust and revulsion, as if the speaker is repelled by his own desire for her. The use of concrete imagery throughout the poem reinforces its emotional impact, making the speaker's pain and despair feel immediate and tangible.


In conclusion, Complaint is a powerful and poignant poem that captures the complexity of human emotions and relationships. Through its vivid imagery, careful structure, and direct language, the poem expresses the speaker's feelings of frustration, disillusionment, and pain, while also hinting at his capacity for tenderness and vulnerability. The poem exemplifies the principles of modernist poetry, breaking with the conventions and formalities of the past and creating a new, more immediate kind of poetry that speaks directly to the reader's emotions and experiences. Complaint is a masterpiece of modernist poetry, and a testament to the enduring power of William Carlos Williams's work.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

The Poetry Complaint by William Carlos Williams is a classic poem that has been studied and analyzed by literary enthusiasts for decades. This poem is a perfect example of the modernist movement in poetry, which was characterized by a break from traditional forms and a focus on individual experience and perception.

At first glance, the poem appears to be a complaint about the state of poetry in the modern world. Williams begins by stating that "all the poets are dead," which seems like a bleak and pessimistic view of the state of poetry. However, as the poem progresses, it becomes clear that Williams is not lamenting the death of poetry, but rather celebrating its rebirth.

Williams goes on to describe the new form that poetry is taking, which is "the poem of pure reality." This new form of poetry is not concerned with traditional forms or structures, but rather with capturing the essence of the world as it truly is. Williams writes, "The imagination is powerless / against the truth."

This emphasis on reality and truth is a hallmark of modernist poetry. Modernist poets rejected the flowery language and romanticism of the past, instead focusing on the raw, unfiltered experiences of everyday life. Williams' poem is a perfect example of this approach, as he celebrates the beauty of the world as it truly is, rather than trying to impose his own vision onto it.

One of the most striking aspects of The Poetry Complaint is its use of language. Williams' writing is spare and concise, with each word carefully chosen for maximum impact. He uses simple, everyday language to describe complex ideas, which gives the poem a sense of immediacy and accessibility.

For example, Williams writes, "The plum / bruises easily." This simple statement conveys a wealth of meaning, suggesting the fragility of life and the inevitability of decay. Williams' use of concrete, sensory language is another hallmark of modernist poetry, as it allows the reader to experience the world through the poet's eyes.

Another important aspect of The Poetry Complaint is its structure. The poem is divided into three stanzas, each of which contains four lines. This structure gives the poem a sense of balance and symmetry, while also allowing Williams to explore different ideas and themes in each stanza.

In the first stanza, Williams introduces the idea that all the poets are dead, setting up the contrast between the old, traditional form of poetry and the new, modernist form. In the second stanza, he describes the new form of poetry, emphasizing its focus on reality and truth. In the third stanza, Williams brings the poem full circle, returning to the idea that all the poets are dead, but now suggesting that this is a good thing, as it allows for the rebirth of poetry in a new form.

Overall, The Poetry Complaint is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that captures the essence of the modernist movement in poetry. Williams' emphasis on reality and truth, his spare and concise language, and his careful structure all contribute to the poem's impact and lasting relevance. As we continue to grapple with the complexities of the modern world, The Poetry Complaint serves as a reminder of the power of poetry to capture and convey the essence of our experiences.

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