September 25, 2019

Trying To Do the Danse Russe with William Carlos Williams

Caricature of William Carlos Williams, 1920, by William Saphier

A reader sent me a poem that she thought was a nice combination response to our nude prompt and the current prompt on imagism with Pound and Williams.  It is "Danse Russe" by William Carlos Williams which I hadn't read for many years.

I thought I remembered the poem, and I thought I knew what it was all about - until I started searching for it online.

The poem is shown below but I recommend that you try this link of Williams reading the poem too.


If when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,-
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
"I am lonely, lonely,
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!"
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,-

Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?

A poem about a happy genius dancing naked in front of the mirror. Right?

Well,  I found several pages ( and of the poem with reader comments and interpretations.

One says it is "one of the best confessional poems ever written: self-deprecating while grandiose -- a paradox of humility and self-aggrandizement" but another says that he never thought of it as a confessional poem.
"It never occurred to me that the man actually did this naked dance anymore than I assumed the sun was a flame-white disc in silken mists. I assumed he was a poet trying out imagery, not dancing, and that the man was the happy genius of his household because he could actually write poetry!"

A teacher's comments that she got a student interpretation that the poem is about "a mass murderer who has just killed his 'sleeping' family and now is exulting in his 'loneliness.'"

The teacher bemoans the "any interpretation is as good as any other" school of literary criticism and offers that this is possibly "promulgated by poor instruction in high school concerning poetry and the poet's intent."

As far-fetched as that interpretation sounds, commenter Tomm thinks it just might be about "a madman ("genius") who has just murdered his family? They're "asleep" as the sun burns bright? Part of the dancer's grotesquerie could very well be his bloody hands, limbs, and blood-soaked shirt. "Russe" - after all - is cognate with "red." This could have been called a "Danse Macabre."

And I just thought it was a happy, naked guy dancing in New Jersey while his wife and baby sneak a midday nap.

Go figure.

Danse Russe by William Carlos Williams from School for Advanced Studies on Vimeo.

The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. 1: 1909-1939
The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. 2: 1939-1962


  1. One of my favorite poems. One of the qualities of a great poem is that every individual reader's interpretation is, in fact, the correct one. A woman once asked Wallace Stevens: "What does this particular poem mean, Mr. Stevens?" His reply: "I don't know. I don't know what it means". A brilliant answer in my opinion. Thanks for this post.

  2. Wow I forgot all about this poem. It was in a survey course I took once, I think. I prefer the benign interpretation, myself. Although the other appeals to the Stephen King fan in me. Thanks so much!

  3. It's not about murder you idiots.
    Anymore than William Carlos Williams ate poop and howled at the moon.

  4. Thank you Duncan. Of course it's not about murder. And poems don't mean what the reader thinks they mean. They mean what the poet thinks they mean and maybe some beyond that but not some ridiculous extrapolation based on our superficial society.

  5. what a great poem. it makes me sad : (

  6. I love this poem, and just came across it earlier this year. I did a short analysis of it that coincides with that idea of the confessional. Thinking about modernity, mechanization, and isolation, the speaker's intimacy in that moment of dancing brings out a kind of grotesque vulnerability that doesn't seem to be acceptable socially. Knowing his own vulnerability seems to contribute to his sense of being the "happy genius." Loved this post!
    I just posted an essay on "Flowers by the Sea" on my own blog, and would love any input or interest.


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