The poetry of vaccination—and why children can't stop the pandemic but adults can

When people think of William Carlos Williams—if they think of him at all—they remember this poem from high school.




It's a poem that always engenders the same comments: That's not a poem, and anyone could write that.

Actually, it is a poem, and anyone didn't write it, Williams did.


There's a story behind the piece—that Williams was treating a patient wavering between life and death, looked out the window and saw this bucolic scene, then scribbled those words on a notepad.


Yes, Mr. Williams, the poet was also Dr. Williams, the GP; and it was more than likely this intimate relationship with sickness and death that made him one of America's least sentimental writers.

I often think of that poem and how the first three words can introduce almost anything. I thought of it again this morning when I read that epidemiologists are worried that there may be some spikes in Covid-19 infections later this summer, mainly in states where people are eschewing vaccinations. So much depends on people looking out for other people.

But I also wondered how Williams would treat patients unwilling to save themselves and others. One of his short stories, "The Use of Force," centers on a doctor treating a child for a high fever. At the time diphtheria was rife and children were dying in frightening numbers. The narrator/doctor is pretty sure that the young child, Mathilda Olson, may be afflicted with it, but he needs to see her throat to know for sure. The girl is stubborn, and her parents are hapless—unwilling to exert the authority which seemingly they conceded a long time before. The story evolves into a pitched battle between the young child and the older and physically stronger man, now hell-bent on victory and having a look at that throat. The parents, caught in the middle, seemingly root for both sides to win.


Maybe modern-day Mississippi needs some doctors like Williams—and so do Arkansas, Missouri, Alabama, more. Maybe they need some doctors who will wrestle their patients to the floor and jab their arms with a vaccine that has the possibility of saving their lives and the lives of those around them. If they need something to stimulate them, how about a big doctor threatening to stick a spoon down their throat if they refuse the damn vaccination.


In real life, of course, the use of force would be offensive and, in the end, futile. But the alternative is just as unpalatable: a divided America on Labor Day, with some states experiencing near-normality, and others waiting for another re-opening while businesses are shuttered and mortality rates rise. With so many states hovering near a 30% vaccination rate and no real demand to make it higher, it's easy to envision such a scenario.


It's still the politics of Covid-19 that just won't go away.


In the last two presidential elections, around 70 million Americans cast ballots for Donald Trump, many of them endorsing his willingness to blurt out what’s on his mind. But that "quality" is something he shares with two- and three-year-olds, not mature adults. Mature adults that blurt out what's on their minds often lose their jobs, their friends, or their freedom. Innocent audacity loses its charm when cute children transmute into annoying adults who say "what's on their minds."


Which is one reason we don't let children decide their own medical treatment...why we don't ask three-year-olds if they'd prefer a needle or a movie. It appears that the 70% of people opting out of the vaccine are choosing the movie—behaving like Mathilda. Now admittedly there are many for whom taking time off from work is a non-starter, there are people with allergies, and there some with ongoing medical conditions that preclude the vaccine, and there are those legitimate objections. But too many have thrown in with the QAnoncompoops fearful of microchips in the vaccine leaving them sterile. (Insert your own comment here.)


At the other extreme is the state of Washington where, with "Joints for Jabs," you can get safe and get high in the same place. I doubt if Dr. Williams would have subscribed to either approach: he'd have asked us to use our common sense—something adults should traffic in on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line.


William Carlos Williams died half a century ago, so if your three-year-old mentality does choose the movie, at least you don't have to worry about the guy sitting behind you—the one with the notepad in one hand and a vaccination needle in the other. He's probably just writing a poem.



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