Automobility and Lyric Poetry: The Mobile Gaze in William Carlos Williams' 'The Right of Way.'

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Author: Jon Chatlos
Editor: Michelle Lee
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 109)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,396 words

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[(essay date fall 2006) In the following essay, Chatlos presents a reading of Williams's "The Right of Way" based on the assumption that the images viewed by the motorist in the poem are continuous rather than separated, and argues that this enacts a "dynamized ekphrasis."]

William Carlos Williams' "The Right of Way," a lyric poem from the experimental collection Spring and All (1923), is about the mobile gaze of a male motorist in the early days of the motorcar.1 Short though the poem is, it makes a large and complex statement about the interplay of image and word in early twentieth-century America. The poem both richly portrays the visual experience of 1920s automobility (Urry)--the spectacles, stories, subjectivities, and social relations that the motorcar created--and implicitly compares motorcar spectatorship and cinematic spectatorship. Among the implicit similarities between motorcar and movies, the most suggestive is the "editing." Are the images seen by the motorist disjoined into discrete spectacles by a poetics of montage (an "automobility of attractions," to work a variation on Tom Gunning's well-known phrase)? Or are they joined by an eyeline match that produces a coherent narrative about voyeurism and passing? The editing works both ways: it enacts an unresolved ambiguity between spectacle and narrative. Of course Williams renders this ambiguous visual experience not in images but in words. The resulting text is an ekphrasis with a twist: not "the verbal representation of visual representation" (Mitchell 152), but the verbal representation of visual culture.

The poem runs as follows:

In passing with my mind on nothing in the world but the right of way I enjoy on the road by virtue of the law--(5) I saw an elderly man who smiled and looked away to the north past a house-- a woman in blue (10) who was laughing and leaning forward to look up into the man's half averted face and a boy of eight who was (15) looking at the middle of the man's belly at a watchchain-- The supreme importance of this nameless spectacle (20) sped me by them without a word-- Why bother where I went? for I went spinning on the four wheels of my car (25) along the wet road until I saw a girl with one leg over the rail of a balcony

"The Right of Way" does not declare that its motorist is male, but it implies it. How? First, social history suggests it. Driving a motorcar in the early 20th century is a gendered activity: in the 1920s, males drove much more often than did females (Scharff 13). Second, the poem as a system of words intimates it. The motorist is active, seeing, and speaking, while the girl on the balcony is passive, seen, and silent. To the explicit female space of the balcony corresponds the implicit male space of the motorcar. And the motorist arrogates to himself the right to "enjoy" the road as perhaps only a male of the era would. Finally, even if the poem did not...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420100925