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Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Great Figure

(The Figure 5 in Gold by Charles Demuth, 1883-1935,
American artist)

William Carlos Williams is well-known for his many poems that comment on works of art, especially the paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

There was one instance when the direction went the other way: a painter responded to one of Williams’ poems.

“Once on a hot July day coming back exhausted from the Post Graduate Clinic,” Williams wrote in his
Autobiography, “I dropped in as I sometimes did at Marsden's studio on Fifteenth Street for a talk, a little drink maybe and to see what he was doing. As I approached his number I heard a great clatter of bells and the roar of a fire engine passing the end of the street down Ninth Avenue. I turned just in time to see a golden figure 5 on a red background flash by. The impression was so sudden and forceful that I took a piece of paper out of my pocket and wrote a short poem about it.”

The artist Charles Demuth created a watercolor inspired by Williams’ poem. With its linear flashes of color and the movement of the numbers, the image does suggest the energy of the fire truck that raced by that day. Demuth’s intention, however, was to produce an abstract tribute to the poet. Note the letters spelling out “BILL” near the top left corner and a faint “CARLOS” under the top horizontal line of the largest number 5, and close to the bottom, in very small letters, the initials of both the artist and the poet.


Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
fire truck
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city

~ William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), American poet and practicing physician

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