El Hombre


It’s a strange courage

you give me ancient star:


Shine alone in the sunrise

toward which you play no part.


William Carlos Williams

I have liked this poem from the first time of reading it, but have never really given it much thought. On the surface it expresses that awe and sympathy towards the stars which we find in a lot of literature. I thought of it a week or two ago, reading a passage from Ethan Frome where Orion’s Belt is described in a way to make us think of the main character of the story. I wondered then if Williams was referring to a star in particular, and whether that might be significant in terms of his sympathy with the star. Then I looked up the poem and saw the title, ‘El Hombre’, and thought that ‘el Hombre’ might be what Americans, or Latin Americans or Spanish speakers called a particular star. I looked for this on Google, but to no avail. There is no star ‘el Hombre’ (unless someone reading this knows otherwise.)

What I found instead was a book called ‘The Spanish American Roots of William Carlos Williams’ by Julio Marzan – or at least as much of it as was available on Google books. Marzan explains how Williams’ family had strong connections with Puerto Rico and how his parents spoke Spanish rather than English together in the house. In the first chapter, Marzan brings up the poem ‘El Hombre’, explaining how it has another layer of meaning to it more personal to Williams and his background. That the title is in Spanish, he argues, is a clue that its meaning might be concealed in the Spanish sense of some of its words (the title of its collection is also Spanish – Al Que Quiere! – ‘To him who wants it’ ). The word ‘courage’ shares a root with the Spanish word ‘corazon’ – heart, while ‘strange’ derives from a Latin root that gave Spanish ‘extrano’ – foreign. Marzan links the ‘ancient star’ to Williams’ mother’s name – Helen. The concealed sense of the first line then comes out as ‘It’s a foreign heart you give me, mother’. Marzan’s interpretation of the second line is less convincing – he writes that Williams is saying she played no part in the rising of her son’s (which ‘sunrise’ puns on) poetry career. I find it hard to swallow that Williams would use an image of beauty to make rather a petty point like that – perhaps the second line is more about Williams’ separateness from American tradition and its Anglo-Saxon roots.

But Marzan makes another interesting point about the poem’s Spanish roots. In an earlier essay, Williams had singled out the Spanish poet Luis de Gongora (see last post) as ‘the man!’ Williams then is acknowledging a major influence, as well as signalling his belonging, in part, to a Spanish-American as well as an Anglo-American tradition. All of which goes to show what can be concealed in the shortest of poems by a poet of acute sensitivity. None of this, though, contradicts or undermines the main, simpler sense of the poem that one gets on first reading.



Filed under Poetry

10 responses to “El Hombre

  1. Just found your blog and you do provide some interesting meaning behind El Hombre. I’ve always thought the start he was referencing is the Morning/Evening “star”–Venus–that rises and sets with the sun. It’s something that has been mentioned all throughout history in literature and poetry and across cultures. I’ve considered the poem a metaphor for success: the sun gets the “glory” for the beauty of the sunset and the morning/evening star gets to share in that glory simply because it rises and sets with the sun. It adds nothing to the actual sunset/rise yet plays a part in it.

    That said, your interpretation from a cultural perspective is very interesting and I’ll be looking more into some of the resources you’ve provided.

    Thank you.

  2. My (non-existent) astronomical knowledge let me down, here. It sounds like you’re quite right about Venus. Thanks for the pointer on the morning star (one of those things I’ve heard of plenty, but never much thought about).
    It’s still a mysterious little poem, though, isn’t it? Why does this star give him courage? What is the unspoken analogy between his life and the star’s?

    • I think this is a poem that plays homage to the average: the morning/evening star that continues to shine but only in the company of the sun (by far the brightest star in the sky). The name of the poem “El Hombre” means “man;” perhaps this title implies a kind of “manliness” in continuing to shine despite a lack of attention, after all Venus can often not even be seen with the naked eye because it shines so close to the sun.

      Personally, I find “courage” in the poem simply because there are times in life one doesn’t want to shine, but instead turn away, give up, or quit altogether. It’s that moment when this poem reminds me that, even when no one is watching, that just the act of “shining” is courage in itself.

  3. Interesting interpretation – I like how you tie it into the title of the poem, which otherwise can seem incongruous or misleading.

  4. It’s something I learned (in my literature studies) when I had to do a close reading of “In a station of the metro” by Ezra Pound, another Imagist poet. “In a station of the metro” doesn’t make sense at all unless you look at the titles as part of the poem. It’s a concise little gem. It was studying Ezra Poun(the “father of the Imagists”) that eventually lead me to discover Williams, and later, another poet I really love, H.D. I enjoy the Imagists immensely precisely because their work is so sheer: “clarity of expression through the use of precise visual images” was the goal and they even had a set of “rules” they used to write (check those out here if you’re interested: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5658).

    Anyway, been a blast and I’ll definitely be following your stuff in the future! Maybe even leave a comment or two. 🙂

    • P.S. Please forgive my typos. The computers where I work border on ancient and take forever to register my typing…

      Also, do you have a Facebook or Twitter your blog is linked to? Would love to follow you since my google RSS is no longer working. Thanks!

  5. Thanks for stopping by. I don’t do twitter, I’m afraid, nor link my blog to Facebook (for which I am too old – at heart at least), but I hope you can still drop by sometimes. What’s your blogging platform, by the way? – your gravatar links to something where you last posted in 2012…
    Anyway, I’m a big fan of Pound too (his poetry I mean – not so much the fascism), and rank Williams as my favourite US poet. H.D. I’m not familiar with, but will look into I think. Cheers!

    • Definitely check out H.D. (Hilda Doolittle is her name but she went by the name H.D. as a poet) if you’re into William Carlos Williams. Her work definitely has elements of early feminism but maintains that poetic simplicity of Williams.

      I haven’t blogged at all the last few years in a personal capacity. I had one on blogspot I maintained all through college to publish my academic papers, but I’ve long since stopped posting since my graduation in 2010. You’re welcome to check it out but it’s mostly academic writing on undergraduate literary analyses and philosophy. I do have a work-related blog but it has nothing to do with poetry or literature since it’s mostly for my students who need help with reading and study skills. I use Facebook mostly for work and I fell out of twitter about a year ago.

      In any case, I’ll just have to make a point to come by since I’ve enjoyed this conversation and I really ought to read poetry more often!

  6. Julian

    What if the star isn’t his mother, but a reference to the sole star on the flag of Puerto Rico? If you “star” is metonymy for PR, then the first line still holds (“It’s a foreign heart you give me, ancient Puerto Rico”) but then the second stanza makes sense – “Shine alone in the sunrise” in the sense that as the US “rises” to a world power Puerto Rico stands alone as both part of the US but not (both because it’s not a territory and because Puerto Ricans are seen as foreigners by Americans) followed by “toward which you lend no part” which could be a satirical reference to how Puerto Ricans and immigrants in general are not seen as lending a hand toward’s America’s growth?

    • Thanks for the additional interpretation, Julian. I think the poem supports your interpretation as well as the others. I must admit that, back when I wrote this, I gave no thought to the specific circumstances of Puerto Rico as his mother’s home country, but doing so sheds an interesting light on the poem.

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