William Carlos Williams’ two poems “The Young Housewife” and “Portrait of a Lady” allude to the role that power plays in the relationship between the two sexes. Linda A. Kinnahan, who wrote Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser, believes that Williams undermines the male’s “claim to mastery” by writing poems “about women that focus upon female vulnerability to forms of masculine power while signaling his own culpability within these culturally encoded dynamics.” Kinnahan seems to say that Williams is critiquing women’s vulnerability to male dominance by showing this dominance in his poetry and allowing the speaker to be judged. I agree that Williams does deliberately undermine masculine power in his poems. I, on the other hand, do not believe that Williams means to portray the female as completely vulnerable in the poem “The Young Housewife” and “Portrait of a Lady.” Describing the housewife Kinnahan states, “she ventures with full vulnerability onto the streets, where she becomes the unwitting object of another form of masculine mastery—the poet's gaze and the poet's representative possession of her.” The housewife is not actually vulnerable, but she is depicted as being vulnerable because she is being described through a male perspective.
Though the housewife is socially vulnerable, she does maintain sexual power over the poet. The housewife is socially vulnerable because she is defined by a male voice in a society dominated by males; this social vulnerability can be seen when the poet describes the housewife as being behind the “wooden walls of her husband’s hosed.” The poet is also able to present the housewife in the way that he sees her, and he describes her in a sensual manner. The poet describes the housewife as “shy, uncorseted, and tucking in stray ends of hair.” The poet, however, does not have any real power over the housewife. Though the poet wishes to dominate her by crushing her under the wheels of his car like the fallen leaves he compares her to, his desire is confined to his fantasy. The poet can only “bow and pass smiling.” The housewife, however, does have a sexual power over the poet, which is seen in the way the poet is mesmerized by the housewife.
This sexual power that women have over men can also be seen in “Portrait of a Lady” in the interaction between the male and female voices. In this poem, the man is attempting to flatter the woman by describing her in flowery language; the woman interjects with questions that cause the man to make mistakes and fumble over his descriptions. The woman asks, “Which sky?” and the man answers, “The sky where Watteau hung a lady’s slipper. Your knees are a southern breeze—or a gust of snow.” Realizing that he had mentioned the wrong artist, the man exclaims, “Agh! What sort of man was Fragonard?” The woman responds, “—as if that answered anything.” The woman continues to question the man causing him to make more mistakes. In this poem, the woman’s voice clearly has the power over the man’s voice. At the beginning, the man’s voice is confidence. This confidence quickly fades, and he becomes unsure of his descriptions. The man says, “Agh, petals maybe.” The presence of the woman’s voice causes the man to lose confidence. The poem “Portrait of a Lady” does not present female vulnerability from the male perspective; when the female voice is added, the male’s voice is the one that becomes vulnerable.
Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge UP.