Friday, 27 July 2012

Review - Candide by Voltaire

You may have heard about the latest book-geek internet sensation: the six-year-old who looks at the covers of classic novels and tells her mother what she thinks the book will be about. It's pretty great. My favourite is Steppenwolf, which is apparently
"about a very very hairy eagle who hangs out with fancy ladies.”
You could have fooled me. As a person who has never read Steppenwolf my own personal synopsis would be: "A man is a wolf, probably on the Russian Steppes".

Let's be honest, though, everyone judges books before they should, on the most random and tenuous information. FOR EXAMPLE! The book I am reviewing today, Candide by Voltaire, has always been in my brain as part of the category of 'long, dull books about chaste women who complain a lot', along with Clarissa, and Pamela, and all of those other eighteenth century novels where the entire plot revolves around whether or not the heroine will end up having sex with the villain. I thought Candide was a woman's name (it's that tricksy French 'e'), and I was obviously not focusing at all on the fact that it was written by Voltaire, a man who did not have a dull bone in his angry little body. I should have known that he could never be involved with a boring book.

And so it turns out that Candide is not what I thought it was at all. Instead, it is a very short, very rollicking, very ridiculous pisstake of the whole eighteenth century world. In fact, the only thing I got right was that it is quite a lot to do with rape.

This is a topic that seems to be coming up in my reading very often lately. The book I read before this, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, was pretty much wall-to-wall sexual abuse of the most random and distasteful kind, full of gross, lame 'jokes' about how much women love to be beaten. Candide, though, reminds me that there's pretty much no topic in the world that can't be dealt with - and even joked about - if you do it the right way. Unlike Chase, who seems to get vast amusement from humiliation, Voltaire isn't laughing at the expense of the victims (who can be men as well as women, Voltaire is realistically even-handed here), but at the sheer crazy horror of the fact that in the supposedly Enlightened world of the eighteenth century, rape is still so widespread and commonplace that two women can have a Pythonesque when-I-was-a-lad slanging match about who's been raped more often. (The older woman wins it by screaming 'AND I ONLY HAVE ONE BUTTOCK!', which is going to be my ultimate comeback in all arguments for the rest of my life). It's quite brilliant, and about as blackly humorous as anything I've ever read. If you laugh out loud, it's because Voltaire means you to, but if you're horrified you're still reacting exactly the way he wants. And that's pretty much the tone of the entire book.

For Voltaire, life is nasty, astonishing and long, but also unfailingly amusing. He's got a wicked brain that isn't afraid to poke fun at anything and manages to hit its target every time. He's funny because he's so bad - getting genuine humour out of soldiers chopping civilians up after a battle, for example - but also because everything he's describing is so true, even today. I think we can all agree that rape is still a problem that we have not worked out how to tackle, similarly people massacring each other during wars (step forward, Syria) and torturing each other for economic gain. During Candide's stint in South America, for example, (he goes to South America, discovers El Dorado and brings back several llamas, which are described as 'red sheep'. This is maybe the only bit of unintentional humour in the book) he comes across a black slave with his arm chopped off. Candide (who has a tender heart apart from when he is murdering people by mistake) gets very upset, and the slave says, YEAH, WELL, APPARENTLY YOU GUYS IN EUROPE WANTED SUGAR. I think we can all agree that we still resemble that remark.

At the same time, though, Voltaire isn't trying to argue that the world is a barren wasteland of pure awfulness. Characters who get lost are found; people who are supposedly dead reappear, a bit scarred but otherwise OK. In fact, characters in Candide are as resiliant as bouncy-balls, displaying a delightfully French attitude to their many trials and tribulations. My favourite exchange in the whole book is between Candide and Cunegonde, the first time they are reunited, and it goes like this:
"So were you not raped after all? And were you not disembowelled?"

"I most certainly was, in both cases," said the lovely Cunegonde, "but these things are not always fatal."
Isn't that great? It's shocking, laugh-out-loud slapstick humour, but at the same time there's a serious point hidden in there somewhere too.

Candide is like A Series of Unfortunate Events for grown-ups, equal parts whimsy and brain-spattered sudden death, with fifteen surprising things happening on every page. Candide (who reminded me forcibly of the Elephant's Child with a bit of Pollyanna thrown in) spends the entire novel haplessly trying to achieve his single goal: to find and keep hold of his One True Love, Cunegonde. Unfortunately, this ends up leading him on a Grand Tour of the worst injustices of the eighteenth century world.  He is robbed, cheated and beaten every inch of the way, and about every hundred miles or so he manages to murder someone by mistake, which only makes his problems worse. Almost every (short) chapter ends with a sentence like, 'Alas! At that moment five pirate ships appeared, set light to the fleet, captured the passengers, chopped them up and ate them in a deliciously spicy stew. Only Candide escaped.' Essentially, if you enjoy Angela Carter but feel as though there is sometimes too much menstruation in her novels, you will love it.

Candide works perfectly, on endless different levels. It's ridiculous, it's naughty, it's horrifying and it picks away at your conscience without you even noticing. If you're looking to buy or borrow a copy (which I totally think you should) I highly recommend the translation I had, Penguin's newest one by Theo Cuffe. Unlike Clarissa, Pamela or any of the other dire tragic-women novels that I thought Candide would be like, this is one classic that I think you'll struggle not to be delighted by.

4.5 stars.

Oh, and in case you're following my 1001 Books efforts, Candide brings my percentage over the threshold of the teens to 20.08%.


Monday, 23 July 2012

Review: No Orchids For Miss Blandish

Sometimes it seems like George Orwell has written an essay about EVERYTHING. Elephants? Check. Pubs? Check. Anti-Semitism? A rather temporally impressive check. Orwell is an extremely lucid and literate resource for anyone seeking a reasonable opinion on anything - although he does tend to have an automatic and amusing assumption that anything new is probably going to be WORSE THAN THE OLD THING WAS. He is a filthy cynic and I like that about him.

He is particularly crusty about my specialist subject, murder. Not only, according to Orwell, is the quality of real murder declining awfully, but murder mysteries these days (read: the forties) are simply not what they used to be when those bad old Victorians were in charge of the written word. One of the first essays I ever read by Orwell, 'Raffles and Miss Blandish' is about just that - a comparison of late-Victorian and mid-twentieth century attitudes to crime and criminality in literature. The two books he uses are smartly chosen to make his point (which is essentially: we are awful, they were great): representing the Victorians is the estimable Raffles, and holding up the side for the twentieth century is a book published in 1939 called No Orchids for Miss Blandish.

Miss Blandish is... an interesting book. I'm going to stop here and give you Orwell's own summary of its plot, because, as I think you'll see, it'd be hard to beat (hah).

Miss Blandish, the daughter of a millionaire, is kidnapped by some gangsters who are almost immediately surprised and killed off by a larger and better organized gang. They hold her to ransom and extract half a million dollars from her father. Their original plan had been to kill her as soon as the ransom-money was received, but a chance keeps her alive. One of the gang is a young man named Slim, whose sole pleasure in life consists in driving knives into other people's bellies. In childhood he has graduated by cutting up living animals with a pair of rusty scissors. Slim is sexually impotent, but takes a kind of fancy to Miss Blandish. Slim's mother, who is the real brains of the gang, sees in this the chance of curing Slim's impotence, and decides to keep Miss Blandish in custody till Slim shall have succeeded in raping her. After many efforts and much persuasion, including the flogging of Miss Blandish with a length of rubber hosepipe, the rape is achieved. Meanwhile Miss Blandish's father has hired a private detective, and by means of bribery and torture the detective and the police manage to round up and exterminate the whole gang. Slim escapes with Miss Blandish and is killed after a final rape, and the detective prepares to restore Miss Blandish to her family. By this time, however, she has developed such a taste for Slim's caresses that she feels unable to live without him, and she jumps, out of the window of a sky-scraper.

Now, Orwell does not rationally approve of Miss Blandish. Reading it, he says, is like taking 'a header into the cesspool'. This is not, oddly enough, because it is badly written (according to him, it is 'a brilliant piece of writing, with hardly a wasted word or a jarring note anywhere'), but because its glorification of violence reminds him uncomfortably of the nationalist cults of Mussolini and Hitler. It's a bad sign of some bad times - but all the same, Orwell can't quite bring himself to pan it.

Given the fascinating awfulness of that plot summary, and the fact that Orwell clearly can't decide whether he loves it or loathes it, I've been curious about Miss Blandish since I first read the essay. Unfortunately for me, it's been pretty conclusively out of print for years. But then my excellent friend Boadicea, who has never met a literary problem she could not solve, walked into a second hand bookshop and discovered a bright-red and battered copy of No Orchids for Miss Blandish glowing up at her like a nightmare prostitute sign. So she bought it. And now I have read it. And, ladies and gentleman, I can conclusively reveal to you all that


Hesistant as I am to call Orwell wrong, he must, in this instance, have been huffing some fairly strong substances. Miss Blandish is about as far from 'a brilliant piece of writing' as anything I've read all year. It is the verbal equivalent of those drawings by very small children, where the sky is a purple line, the house is bright green and Mummy and Daddy are alien blob-circles being given electric shocks to the head. Blandish's narrative is about as focused as a fly with ADHD, its point of view changes with dizzying irregularity, and its descriptions are bewildering. Its slang (of which there is a lot) is also simply weird: for example, people 'dig up a smile' (from where? From the ground?) more times than I would have ever thought possible. The general effect is that James Hadley Chase has taken all the most famous noir crime tropes he could think of, dialled them up to eleven and stuck them in a blender.

Now, I believe firmly that it's possible to read an older book that's horrifically racist or sexist by today's standards and still enjoy the other aspects of it. For example, I may despise and be offended by Raymond Chandler's penchant for having his characters casually beat up women and Mexicans, but I have to admit that he's an incredibly technically accomplished writer. But there has to be something in that book worth admiring, and I am not about to begin being an apologist for a racist and sexist book with absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever. Therefore I have no problem at all with saying that Miss Blandish should NEVER BE READ AGAIN. By all means, keep a copy of it somewhere as a reference point for a time that we don't ever want to go back to, but please, please, don't ever give this book a reissue.

Its crimes against decent humanity are many. At one point, for example, the 'hero' (who is a watered-down Philip Marlowe with no inner life and fists like angry hams) decides he needs to question a Hispanic character. He therefore walks into the room and, with no word of warning, breaks the guy's nose, blacks his eyes and lays him out on the floor. And then he starts questioning him. Some of the novel's ladies were watching this exchange, and they totally adored what a manly man the hero was being. Women in Miss Blandish truly dig violence, which is lucky, because there isn't a scene a woman appears in where she's not at least slapped and at most threatened by red-hot electric wiring. Whenever a woman happens to express an opinion that isn't 'I want to have sex with you now!' all the men in the room look at each other like they can't believe the dishwasher just spoke, and I cannot even begin to tell you how many times rape is presented as a delightful bit of gentlemanly fun.

Oh god, I hated this book. It was brainless, pointless and poisonous - and yet, as I was reading it, I realised that I understood exactly what it was: 1939's answer to Fifty Shades of Grey.

One of the more amusing aspects of the recent wild media explosion about E. L. James and her tasteful tale about being whipped in the nether regions in the name of true love is that many commenters appear to think that this is the first time the nation has ever been gripped by a craze for a trashy book. Their brains appear to have been mercifully wiped of all memory of Twilight and The Da Vinci Code, for which I am profoundly jealous. But it's becoming pretty clear to me that every few years a really badly written book comes along that is totally and utterly tuned in to what people want at that moment.

What people want now, apparently, is aspirational pain porn featuring a City billionaire (this actually makes sense, given the recession: the world hates rich people, but loves money, creating vast ambivalence and the perfect sexual enigma), and it seems like what they wanted in 1939 was really, really nasty noir porn featuring a rich woman getting her comeuppance for being so rich and female. That's a pretty vile concept, but so's our Hot Thing of 2012, which just goes to show that people will never cease to disappoint you.

Like so many of the people commenting on Fifty Shades today, I suspect Orwell fell victim to Book Apologist Syndrome. Being of the time, he read it and got something from it, and so tried to justify his guilty pleasure by discovering that is was actually a literary masterpiece. Of course, this doesn't hide the fact that in reality the thing is a turd, but looking at it in this way makes me finally understand why Orwell wrote about it at all, and why he responded to it the way he did.

Miss Blandish clearly was the subject of the most enormous craze - the edition I read claims amusingly that 'The story of Miss Blandish needs no introduction... She has been accepted as a household word'. Of course, this is entirely no longer true, and this suggests to me the delightful possiblity that in fifty years' time no one will have heard of Anastasia and Mr Grey - or Bella and Edward - either. Won't that be nice?

Meanwhile, though, it is time for the rating. I am not from 1939, and so I have no hesistation about making this the first book ever on this blog to be awarded

1 star.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Review: She-Wolves by Helen Castor

By a nice (but self-engineered) coincidence, the day I started reading Helen Castor's She-Wolves was the day I saw Canterbury Cathedral for the first time. Canterbury is a low-slung and dainty city, with lots of nice little buildings apparently arranged by random happenstance. And then you turn down one particular alley and BOOM THERE'S A STONE-COLD MOUNTAIN OF HOLINESS IN YOUR FACE.

Canterbury Cathedral is a beautiful visual metaphor for the medieval concept of power. In the days when kingdoms were, although small by our standards, huge when you consider that the horse was the fastest way of moving around, and when most subjects couldn't read and didn't tend to go anywhere either, rulers had to keep on making GREAT BIG MANLY STATEMENTS, like castles and battles and heads on sticks, to remind everyone that even if they didn't seem to be there at that time, they could still turn up at any moment, ready to throw down some severe punishment.

And that, as Castor explains, was the fundamental problem for any women who tried to be in power. The idea of leadership in medieval Europe was so tied up in people's minds with the concept of masculinity (even the word queen literally meant 'the wife of the king') that a female ruler was just met with total incomprehension and the suspicion that she was Not Being a Proper Lady. If you were a woman and you wanted to run things, you had to pretend to be doing it on behalf of somone male who was either too young or too busy to act for himself, and if you didn't do that... well, you could be in trouble.

Elizabeth I was the first queen of England to rule totally on her own, as the sole and complete top dog of everything, but before her (and Mary, her immediate predecessor) there were four women who, according to Castor, were supreme rulers in all but name: Matilda (of Stephen and), Eleanor (of Aquitaine and several Henrys), Isabella (of Edward II), and Margaret (of Henry VI, aka One Of The Pointless Kings). She-Wolves is a series of potted biogs of the political rise and fall all four.

Empress of the universe, etc
Now, as far as her first two subjects go, I buy Castor's project utterly. Matilda and Eleanor define badass. Take Matilda first. In her youth (we're talking 12 years old, here) she married the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and essentially helped him run Europe for a while. This gave her a real taste for power: even after he died she insisted people keep on calling her Empress. She also liked being called 'Lady of the English' and 'Domina' (which means 'mistress' in the sense of 'she-who-must-be-obeyed', rather than 'don't tell your wife'). As you can tell, Matilda was a big fan of titles.

When her father Henry I died, and her cousin Stephen usurped her claim to the throne, she embarked on a decade-long fight to get her kingdom back. This involved a lot of daring escapes from surrounded castles (my favourite is the one she managed in Oxford, my home town: at night, in the middle of winter and with snow everywhere. It never occurred to the people besieging her that she would even try it. She pulled it off flawlessly) and a lot of great tactical thinking, and culminated in her son Henry II being crowned king in 1153. She ended up ruling Normandy for him (weird to remember, but it was part of English lands then), as well as advising him on how to rule England and being in general a better king than most male kings could ever even hope to be. I would be scared to be in the same room with her - that woman was FIERCE - but I think she was brilliant.

Proudly wearing some scarlet
I also love Eleanor of Aquitaine. I first heard about her in E. L. Konigsberg's A Proud Taste For Scarlet and Miniver, an American kids' book about her life that's somewhat clunkily written but totally charming. (I reread it last month in preparation for this book, and I still love it.) Eleanor was amazing. She started by marrying the king of France Louis VII and going on crusade with him (unwillingly - Eleanor liked parties much more than holiness). This involved crossing the Alps a couple of times (with a large retinue, of course, the woman rolled deep). She then divorced her first husband to marry the much sexier Henry II (this was genuinely unheard of: divorces did happen, but women were never the ones to start off proceedings. Eleanor did it anyway), had eight children with him, rose up against him, got imprisoned, got released by her son Richard the Lionheart, ruled England for him while he was on crusade, helped spring him from jail and then when he died ruled England for her useless son John. I told you she was amazing.

Castor tells the stories of Matilda and Eleanor wittily and well, with just the right mix of historical fact and educated extrapolation, digging out the awesome reality of their exploits from all the rude discredit that got poured on them by their contemporaries.

However, She-Wolves is not without its issues. Castor's clearly got a brain as high-powered as her subjects. This is why she's such a great historian, but it can also lead to difficulties: her historical accounts rip along at such a terrifying pace that if you lose concentration for a second you're lost. Part of this is an intractible problem with her source material: there was always a Kent, a York and an Essex, and they were always different people, but partly Castor's just trying to cram in too much here. There's so much material (five biographies!) to get through that each event can only be given half a page at most. This is exhausting enough when you know the gist of the story she's telling, but when you're coming to it completely fresh it's almost impossible. And so it was with me and Castor's third and fourth subjects.

Gaviston REALLY needs a new cloak
I'd only ever heard of Isabella from Marlowe's play about her husband, Edward II, which can be best summed up if I tell you that its most recent TV adaptation was by Derek Jarman and essentially boiled down to naked men wrestling in tunnels for an hour and a half. Edward II is most famous for being very much in love with a man called Piers Gaviston and very much not interested in anything else, ie the country he was meant to be ruling.  

His story is fascinating and slightly hilarious (his lords would come to him and say "WILL YOU PLEASE RULE YOUR COUNTRY?!", and he would say, "Doesn't Gaviston look lovely in his new cloak!", and then the lords would exile Gaviston and Edward would throw a fit until he got brought back, and then the whole cycle would start again) but I really found it hard to be convinced by Castor's claim that Isabella was much of an political enitity in her own right. Even with Castor's best efforts to reclaim her, the impression I got was that for most of her life, Isabella... just sort of stood there, probably kind of annoyed but not really prepared to do much about it.

In fact, I was so unconvinced by Isabella as heroine, and so boggled by the number of people appearing on each page, that I had to put down She-Wolves for about a week out of sheer desperation. I only came back to it in the hopes that Margaret might be more interesting. And she kind of was! Once again, though, her husband was significantly more hilarious than she was. Henry VI apparently had grave difficulties simply functioning. He tended to trot happily after whoever looked like they might be in control, and he had one year-long spell where he went completely unresponsive. Even when he was displaying basic motor functions he was totally incapable of making rational descisions, and this, as might be expected, caused the Wars of the Roses. Margaret spent years frantically battling one person called York after another (all the while, of course, pretending she was doing it on Henry's behalf), but ended up being foiled by Edward IV (aka York), who was helped by the fact that he was not only male, but extremely attractive. People then, as now, liked their rulers to be sexy.

And that, apart from a brief bit about Mary, is the end of the book. PHEW. Do you see what I mean about Castor cramming too much in? This blog is a potted history of four potted histories, and look how LONG it is. My typing fingers are numb. It's ironic that She-Wolves, a celebration (with notable exceptions) of some exceptional women who really deserve a lot more space and credit than they're usually given, is forced to give each of its subjects so little time. To be honest, I think Castor should have written four books (no Isabella, please) instead of one. It all feels a bit too hasty, a half-done job instead of a complete one. Yes, the material is (mostly) fascinating, but there's just too much of it.

Nevertheless, when She-Wolves works, it's a great and much-needed refocusing of history, and one that, like all the best history books, makes a subtle (and depressing) point about the time we're live in. Even though Castor is saying that these are medieval attitudes to women in power, many of them are sadly similar to our own. Rational objections to figures like Margaret Thatcher aside, a lot of what's said about women in power comes with a distinct underlying flavour of, "SHE WAS A WOMAN WHO DID NOT ACT VERY WOMANLY! BAD." We never learn, do we? Because what Matilda, Eleanor, Isabella, Margaret and many others ought to have proven by now is that woman can be just as good (or as bad) at ruling as men.

She-Wolves may not be perfect, but at least someone's bothering to point that out.

3 stars.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Review: The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake

As I've said before, the 1001 Books list tends to be slightly snooty about genre fiction. Because god forbid this exercise should be fun. To give them a little credit, though, it's not a blanket ban. There's The Hobbit, Watchmen, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep - and the first two books in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy, Titus Groan and Gormenghast.

The Gormenghast trilogy is an oddly-shaped animal. There seems to be a history of slight confusion over whether or not it's actually fantasy. My copy of Titus Groan, a really gnarly '70s paperback, says on its blurb that the book is not only a 'brilliantly sustained flight of the imagination' but 'also a sustained piece of deadly irony' - which might have been the reason why it took me so long to actually pick the book up. A 'sustained piece of deadly irony' sounds to me like a recipe for sustained and deadly boredom.

But take heart! I have now read it, and I can tell you conclusively that the Gormenghast trilogy is a sustained piece of some of the nuttiest fantasy I've ever come across. Sure, there aren't any dragons or battles or people called G'Turk, but it more than conforms to my own personal definition of fantasy fiction, which is: would it make my mother feel confused and distressed at its lack of connection to the real world? And the answer to that can only be yes.

Flay! He is my favourite. Apart from all my other favourites.
Gormenghast is like nothing on this planet. In fact, it is (probably) like nothing in this universe. It would explain a lot if the characters in it were actually not part of the human race. They may be humanoid, but they're creepily far from human - there's a man so fat that he's got his own gravity, a man so thin that his knees crack like guns whenever he moves and a woman so big that staring at her is like looking up at a cliff. The villain (I have to call him that, even though most of the other characters are also villains to a greater or lesser extent) has blood-red eyes, and there's a girl who can float through the air like a flying squirrel. People's ages alter according to convenience (this threw me more than anything else, oddly enough), and they all live in a castle that's a marvel of baroque madness, a little world where none of the rules of rationality apply.

Open one door and you might find yourself in a room with a living carpet of white cats; open another and you'll see a space filled with thousands of living roots painted all the colours of the rainbow. Open a third and there'll be nothing but a room full of spiders; open a fourth and you might find two bodies lying on the carpet. Gormenghast Castle is endless and endlessly varied, but almost everything in it is just a little bit rotten.

Steerpike in the BBC series.Ugh, look at how great he is.
Peake's got a burning imagination and a taste for wild Gothic nastiness, and he subjects his creations to some extremely choice horrors. Sudden and gruesome death is the norm (don't even bother to hope that your favourite will get to the end of the book), and almost everyone wants to bump off almost everyone else.

Having said that, you might be surprised to know that I don't think I can remember when I've liked a group of characters more. They're irrestistably weird and instantly memorable, all so sad, bad and out-and-out insane that they're a delight to know. There are the Twins, who wander around like grown-up versions of the girls in The Shining and speak in unison; Doctor Prunesquallor, a human acid-trip; the Earl of Groan, who at one point just turns into an owl; and Steerpike, one of the most gloriously nasty baddies of all time ever.

The only non-event, sadly enough, is the hero(?) Titus. He suffers from a problem that Rudyard Kipling never anticipated: that if you are the one keeping your head when people all around you are killing each other and turning into wildlife, you will seem quite boring in comparison. Nominally, the story of Titus Groan and Gormenghast (and also of Titus Alone, which I haven't got to yet) follows the birth and life of Titus, 77th Earl of Groan. Really, though, it's all about the twisted and bloody politics of the castle itself and the awful rise to power of Steerpike, the best villain ever. I love Steerpike. By which I mean, I hate him. Or do I? I don't even know. He is a genius creation, the perfect mixture of attractive and repulsive, and I only wish I could make up someone so great. Well played, Mervyn Peake.

The mean and nasty Gothic soul of me was delighted by these books. They're beautifully, excessively, hallucinogenically written, absolutely out of this world in every sense. If you're my mother, don't read them. If you're anyone else, please do.

4.5 stars.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Fourth of July Poetry Madness: William Carlos Williams

Poetry in motion
Compatriots and non-patriots, rejoice! Several hundred years ago today, one half of my ancestors emancipated themselves from the other half - which worked out well for them, as you can see by the fact that I exist and live in London.

I shall be celebrating the duality of my heritage by spending this evening with a hotdog in one hand and a bottle of cider in the other, but while I do that, you can entertain yourselves with the work of a poet only America in all its glory could produce: William Carlos Williams.

William Carlos Williams is amazing. Not only is his name a work of startling rhythmical genius, but as a writer he had the sheer naked balls to create a poem that goes, in its entirety:
so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
Look at that. That is hilarious. BUT WHAT CAN IT MEAN?

To be honest, I don't think it means anything. I studied Modernism at university and when we got to Williams the professor just sat back and said, "Damned if I know what any of this stuff is about."

Williams was a poet of the Jazz age (think Gatsby, economic trauma and RELENTLESS GLITTERING CONSUMERISM), and as a consequence most of his poems are meant to evoke advertising and confusion. They're so odd and open-ended, though, that you can decide they mean whatever you like. Which is kind of brilliant and cool.

Williams' poetry also contains one-liners which are, simply put, some of the best I've ever read. There's
In my life the furniture eats me
Which I think is actually a ghost story; and
The pure products of America go crazy -- 
Which is clearly a prophecy about Sarah Palin.

It's the sheer simple weirdness of the way Williams puts words together that delights me so much. He's really good at being really strange, and that's made his poems stick in my head for much longer than all those indigestible verses that MEAN THINGS. He's also extremely good at being funny, a vastly underappreciated talent. It is hard to manufacture humour. Some writers even find it difficult to work out what humour actually is (just ask James Joyce.) But I think Williams manages it.

My favourite poem by him is also one of his silliest. It's been parodied endlessly (a sure sign that something's pretty great), and it's just so apt in so many circumstances. It's an ode to everyday life, a perfect description of thousands of tiny household arguments and a how-to guide to not really being sorry.

It goes like this.
This is just to say

This is just to say: I love corn on the cob.
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which

you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious
so sweet

and so cold 

Happy fourth of July, world.