A boy who plays alto saxophone can sit in his place in the band and play his part perfectly without ever hearing what the entire piece sounds like from the conductor’s perspective. He hears his part and bits and pieces of the parts played by those around him, but the conductor and the audience hear the whole piece as it is meant to sound. The conductor keeps the balance so it sounds right to the audience, but none of the actual performers will ever hear this complete form of the piece.
At one point in this song, the saxophone player has a thirty-two-beat rest, which gives him a brief chance to listen to other instruments’ parts. In “The Great Figure,” William Carlos Williams uses only thirty-two words to describe an instant when he saw a glimpse of something that had nothing to do with him. In a poem this short, every word counts as a clue to the theme.
The first five words of the poem set the stage for the moment. The story takes place “among the rain and lights” of New York City, where streetlights are unnecessary because of all the other lights on the buildings (1-2). Adding rain produces a scene almost hidden by the constant flickers of light reflecting on raindrops and puddles. The entire story occurs in the blink of an eye, but even if it took more time, no one who was not looking for it would notice it amidst the distractions of this busy background.
In the same way, a reader who is not looking for a reason behind each poem would breeze right by this one. At the glance it takes to read this poem, it does not seem to have any real purpose. A second glance reveals far more.
The next thirteen words tell the story: The narrator sees the number five on the side of a fire truck. The colors red and gold are simply the traditional colors for a fire truck and its number. It is important to note that after this basic story, Williams adds more description. If his only point was to tell about a fire truck racing through the streets, he would end the poem here. Instead, he adds adjectives. The scene is “tense,” nerve-wracking, and exciting (8). To give the reader a better sense of this mood, there are “gong clangs siren howls and wheels rumbling” in the part of the city to which the fire truck is traveling (10-12). Clanging, howling, and rumbling are chaotic, edgy, ear-piercing noises that draw attention to the situation.
In the middle of this description of the frenzied aura around the fire truck, there is another adjective: “unheeded”(9). How can a scene so disruptive be ignored? The rain and lights mentioned in the first couple of lines explain, pointing out that the truck blends in with all the flashy lights, after all, this is New York City. Also, the chaotic noises that are mentioned after this word are not coming from the fire truck. It is “moving … to” them, which suggests that they are constant background noises in the city (7,10). In the grand scheme of things, a fire truck running through New York City is probably not very significant. Plenty of bad things happen in New York all the time, but they only affect a few people. This realization is the first part of the theme of this poem.
At first glance, the final line seems to conflict with the second line’s description of lights. The whole scene detailed in the body of the poem fades away “through the dark city”(13). This could simply mean that it is night, but more likely it suggests a return to the original situation. In the beginning, the scene was only a blur of “rain and lights” with no focal point (1-2). Perhaps the city is “dark” in that the speaker is no longer focused on a particular thing, the fire truck (13).
All is once again meaningless background scenery. Putting this together with the previous realization, a theme emerges. This poem details a glimpse into someone else’s story. For a fraction of a second, the speaker in this poem can see a bigger picture that is not primarily focused on his own story. In general, each person can only see his or her part of the overall story of the universe, but these mini-stories connect and overlap constantly. This is like the saxophone player in the band who can usually only hear his part of the music. The moment in the poem is a moment when he can hear the trombones or flutes or percussion. For that moment, he can begin to imagine what the entire band sounds like, but then he must return to his part. The other parts go on, but he can no longer pay attention to them. From his perspective, they fade away into the background.
Williams, William Carlos. “The Great Figure.” Literature for Composition 4th ed. Ed. Sylvan Barnett et. al. New York: Harper Collins, 1996. 905.