The Red Wheelbarrow
The Red Wheelbarrow
william Carlos William’s poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” was first published in the collection Spring and All in 1923. The poem is a good example of Williams’s statement, “No ideas, but in things.” As an unusually broken up sentence, the poem presents the reader with a seemingly ordinary object (the wheelbarrow) as the exclusive image. The poem focuses so deeply upon this image that the reader discovers the wheelbarrow is not an ordinary object, but is the poem itself. Such close scrutiny of an image reminds one of certain aspects of art. As in painting, the poem uses line and color to form the image of the wheelbarrow. Notice the painterly language. The colors red and white contrast sharply with one another, while the word “glazed” works to transform the image into its new, poetic form.
Williams was born September 17, 1883 in Rutherford, New Jersey, to middle-class parents who were lovers of literature and visual art. But Williams showed little interest in art until he attended the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school. It was there that he became enamored with poetry and was for some time torn between his parents’ wishes that he become a doctor and his own, less conventional aspirations. While in Pennsylvania, Williams befriended the poet Ezra Pound, a relationship that he later termed a watershed event in his literary career.
Pound not only helped Williams develop his aesthetic of Imagism—a poetic approach that emphasized the concrete over abstractions—but also introduced him to a literary circle that included the flamboyant poet Hilda Doolittle (H. D.). By the time Williams completed his studies, he was committed to his writing; yet he still pursued a medical career and maintained a private practice in Rutherford for over forty years. From his medical practice Williams gained not only the financial freedom to write what he wished, but also a rare and intimate insight into the lives of common people.
Williams’s immersion in and attachment to the lives of Rutherford’s townsfolk was mirrored in the aesthetic principles he developed over the years. He consistently advocated and wrote literature that took its themes from ordinary life and its voice from the patterns of common speech. During much of his poetic career, however, these values ran counter to those of the critically acclaimed poetry of the day—namely, the classicist, academic, and formal poetry exemplified by T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore. During the 1920s and 1930s Williams labored largely in obscurity; with the publication of the first Paterson volumes in the 1940s, however, he gained wider recognition, and the emerging Beat Movement poets of the 1950s venerated him for his rejection of formalism. Shortly after receiving a Pulitzer Prize, Williams died on March 4, 1963.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
The opening lines set the tone for the rest of the poem. Since the poem is composed of one sentence broken up at various intervals, it is truthful to say that “so much depends upon” each line of the poem. This is so because the form of the poem is also its meaning. This may seem confusing, but by the end of the poem the image of the wheelbarrow is seen as the actual poem, as in a painting when one sees an image of an apple, the apple represents an actual object in reality, but since it is part of a painting the apple also becomes the actual piece of art. These lines are also important because they introduce the idea that “so much depends upon” the wheelbarrow.
Here the image of the wheelbarrow is introduced starkly. The vivid word “red” lights up the scene. Notice that the monosyllable words in line 3 elongates the line, putting an unusual pause between the word “wheel” and “barrow.” This has the effect of breaking the image down to its most basic parts. The reader feels as though he or she were scrutinizing each part of the scene. Using the sentence as a painter uses line and color, Williams breaks up the words in order to see the object more closely.
Again, the monosyllable words elongate the lines with the help of the literary device assonance. Here the word “glazed” evokes another painterly image. Just as the reader is beginning to notice the
- An audio cassette titled “William Carlos Williams Reads His Poetry” is available from Caedmon.
- The video William Carlos Williams, part of the Voices and Visions series, Volume I, is available from Mystic Fire Video.
wheelbarrow through a closer perspective, the rain transforms it as well, giving it a newer, fresher look. This new vision of the image is what Williams is aiming for.
The last lines offer up the final brushstroke to this “still life” poem. Another color, “white” is used to contrast the earlier “red,” and the unusual view of the ordinary wheelbarrow is complete. Williams, in dissecting the image of the wheelbarrow, has also transformed the common definition of a poem. With careful word choice, attention to language, and unusual stanza breaks Williams has turned an ordinary sentence into poetry.
Order and Disorder
The spirit of this poem lies in the concept that even such random objects as those mentioned are not as randomly situated at they might appear to the casual observer. There are three objects here, each highlighted by standing alone on its own line in this poem—(wheel)barrow, water, and chickens. The second two are defined in terms of their relationship to the first, as the water glazes the wheelbarrow and the chickens stand beside it. In life, we know, chickens move about more or less randomly, and rain glazes everything it falls on. It is by leaving out all other things that this poem makes the wheelbarrow the center of this tiny universe. The poet’s task here is to reproduce a human experience, and in real life the biggest, brightest object in the yard would catch the viewer’s attention; he or she would see all other objects as they relate to it. This relationship is even clear in the articles of speech that Williams uses. Early in the poem he describes “a” red wheelbarrow, showing that it is unfamiliar, as if it is just at that moment being noticed; when “the” chickens are mentioned, they already have a context, a background. Once the situation is focused around the wheelbarrow, auxiliary objects such as chickens are minor details, like “the wheels of a car.” With the poem organized around the wheelbarrow, the reader can see how “everything depends” on it.
Art and Experience
In this poem, Williams tried to capture the experience as it struck him when he noticed it in his neighbor’s yard and to convey that experience. To do this, he used simplified, precise language, with just one adjective per noun, basic colors, and no action. All of these techniques are obvious to us only because other poets have used opposite techniques. Some poetry, as a matter of fact, seems to try to be complex, ornate, and active. The more details these poems add, the more they draw attention to their language and away from the experience they are describing. Some poets would say that experience is just one tool in the entire arsenal that a writer has to convey an idea, while others would argue that ideas are not a poet’s business—that a poem that makes its reader feel the essence of nature will capture nature’s idea without the poet imposing his thoughts. “The Red Wheelbarrow” is an almost pure expression of this latter philosophy.
One of the most striking things about this poem is its form, how each stanza has four lines and every fourth word stands as its own line. Although Williams did not want to enslave his experience to a set poetic pattern, he was open to accepting a rhythm if one arose naturally from a situation. In this case, the structure is not strict, as can be seen by the inconsistency of the number of syllables on the odd-numbered lines: four, three, three and four. In notes that he made public, Williams said that he wrote this poem in about two minutes, after the subject had caught his attention for months. What appears to be a poetic structure, then, is just the way the poem presented itself to him. It does have a structure, but that structure was decided by the experience, not the poet.
Topics for Further Study
- Write a poem describing an object central to a scene or incident. Try to imply the significance of the scene from your description alone.
- Suppose somebody stole the red wheelbarrow from this yard: now what would it all depend on? Why?
- Write about the colors that are mentioned in this poem, and their significance to the poem overall.
Nature and its Meaning
There are three items—wheelbarrow, water, and chickens—mentioned in this poem, but the one that everything depends on is the man-made tool. It is in using this word “depends” that the poem raises its greatest mystery. Usually, objects of nature are mysterious because they have an existence independent of human thought. If, for example, human beings had never walked the earth, there would still be rain and chickens, and so there is part of their existence that will always be independent of humans. In reading “The Red Wheelbarrow,” the reader has to wonder just what is meant by the natural objects “depending” on the wheelbarrow. How far does “so much” extend—just within the yard? Is the poet’s success or failure implied? Maybe the poem is even reaching into the area of physics that states that all things are interrelated, that a hummingbird’s path in Madagascar will affect a flood on the Mississippi River. Williams is purposely unclear about how much “depends” and in what way, but his tone makes it clear that what goes on in this yard is important, even crucial.
“The Red Wheelbarrow” is a poem which rose out of the Imagism movement in the early twentieth century. The poem is composed in free verse and uses unusual stanza breaks and assonance to emphasize the tone of the poem.
Imagism was a movement in early twentieth century poetry that emphasized concise language and fresh imagery over abstract ideas.
Free verse is verse that does not use a formal or regular pattern of meter or rhyme. The lines and stanzas are of variable length and it relies more on images and figurative language to show meaning.
Assonance is a literary device in which identical vowels are repeated in a line or stanza. The usually elongated sound it forms contributes to the tone and rhythm of a poem. Notice the assonance in line 5 in the words “glazed” and “rain?” Tone is the attitude of the voice in the poem. Tone is often displayed by images, figures of speech, and rhythm.
“An ’image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant in time,” the poet Ezra Pound wrote in a 1913 essay in Poetry magazine. “It is the presentation of such a ’complex’ instantaneously which gives the sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from tome limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.” Pound was one of the founding members of the Imagist school of poetry and had been a classmate of Williams at the University of Pennsylvania, where they formed a lifelong friendship. Imagist poetry was the product of a group of friends who claimed to be Imagists for only a short period of time (1908 to 1917), but the influence of this group has extended to the present day. Although William Carlos Williams mastered different styles of prose and verse in his lifetime, “The Red Wheelbarrow” is considered a perfect ideal of what the Imagists were trying to achieve.
The goal of Imagism was not particularly new. Imagists insisted that poetry should get its power from the feelings that images evoke, not from what the images symbolize or from the poet’s clever style. The focus on a fleeting image can be traced back to Japanese haiku of the sixteenth century, although haiku were almost always about things in nature and written in a strict form, whereas Imagism encouraged writers to be open to form and subject matter. In 1798, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge ushered in the Romantic Age with their publication of Lyrical Ballads, introducing a new goal for the poet: to capture experience as honestly as possible. The Romantic spirit emphasized the importance of the poet more
Compare & Contrast
- 1923: Soon after President Harding’s sudden death, it was found that his administration was rotten with corruption. Harding’s widow undertook an extensive search to collect and destroy all of his letters, leaving his involvement in the scandals unexamined.
Today: Critics suggest that intense media scrutiny given to all aspects of the lives of presidential candidates may be discouraging the best people from running from office.
- 1923: Adolf Hitler, a leader of Germany’s National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) political party, lead an overthrow of the Munich city government, for which he was arrested and sent to jail. In this same year, the Soviet Union became a country.
1924: V.I. Lenin, the chairman of the Soviet Union, died, and was replaced by Josef Stalin, who is thought to be responsible for the murders of up to 30 million Russians before his death in 1953.
1946-1990: After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a “Cold War” that did not involve actual fighting between the two countries, but they gave support to opposite sides in many smaller conflicts.
Today: After the breakup of the Soviet Union, America is the world’s only remaining superpower.
- 1923: The first commercial radio manufacturer, Zenith Radio, was founded.
1950: 9 percent of U.S. households had television sets.
1965: 95 percent of U.S. households had television sets.
Today: The number of households that have Internet access is increasing at a rate too quick to be accurately counted.
than Imagism later did, and therefore Romantic poetry used rhyme schemes and rhythms that the Imagist would say distracts from the full impact of the image. The most immediate predecessors to the Imagists were the French Symbolists, including Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Laforge. Symbols, however, are significant because they refer to another idea or object that they represent, and therefore they have to fit into some sort of system in order to have significance: an image speaks for itself.
In 1908, a small group of poets in London who had formed a Poets’ Club found their club dissolving, while at the same time many of the club’s members took to gathering informally at a restaurant. One of the former Poets’ Club members was Ezra Pound. These meetings naturally led to talk of poetry, and out of these talks came a theory of what poetry should do. Comparison of poetry from different cultures finally focused attention on the image as the poem’s central responsibility. T.E. Hulme, who was an unofficial leader, added the idea that no extra words should interfere with the job of presenting an image clearly, which meant, of course, that the poet should not choose his or her words in order to fulfill a rhythm or rhyme scheme. Imagist poems were short and direct. Several of the poets of the group started publishing poems that fit this description. The group’s title itself did not come into use until 1913, when Pound published an essay titled “A Few Do’s and Don’ts by an Imagiste.” The same issue carried an essay by another group member, F.S. Flint, called “Imagisme.” The idea caught on in the poetry community, and in the following months poems that were written in the Imagist style began to show up in magazines. In 1914, one of the Imagist poets, H.D., a mutual friend of Pound and Williams, signed a contract with a major publishing hours to produce annual anthologies of Imagist poetry, and the idea spread even further. By 1917, the group of poets who identified themselves as Imagists had broken up. The shape of all twentieth-century poetry has been changed by the Imagists’ ideas—for example, metered or rhythmic poetry has never recaptured the broad acceptance that it had before, because most writers now see that it is possible to strike an emotional chord quickly, using a cleanly observed slice of reality. On the other hand, after 1917 Imagist poetry became more and more infrequent, as poets went beyond one pure image to weaving a series of images together, or using a powerful image to anchor a wider piece in the way an orchestral piece might center on a single haunting melody as its refrain.
Williams was not part of the group who called themselves Imagists. At the time “The Red Wheelbarrow” was published, he was living in the New Jersey suburb he had been born (and eventually died) in and was a practicing physician. He once explained in an introduction to the poem that he had actually seen the wheelbarrow in a neighbor’s yard: “The sight impressed me somehow as about the most important, the most integral that it had ever been my pleasure to gaze upon.” He did not write this poem trying to be an Imagist, but the logic of Imagism obviously controlled his approach to the subject. To one degree or another, this is how Imagism has affected almost all poets of out century.
“The Red Wheelbarrow” is a perfect example of an imagist poem. In it, Williams focuses on an object instead of using the poem to explore an idea or express a sentiment. The poem focuses closely on the image of the wheelbarrow, eliminating all else. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren in Understanding Poetry see this microscopic vision of the wheelbarrow as a new vision of the ordinary.
Reading this poem is like peering at an ordinary object through a pin prick in a piece of cardboard. The fact that the tiny hole arbitrarily frames the object endows it with an exciting freshness that seems to hover on the verge of revelation.
James E. B. Breslin, in his book William Carlos Williams: An American Artist, also explores this new vision of the wheelbarrow:
The scene is not entirely bare: the wheelbarrow is red and it has just been rained on, giving it a fresh “glazed” appearance. A spare, clinical manner it is clear, asserts by relief the primary color and novelty that are there. We are brought down into a new world.
Jhan Hochman is a freelance writer and currently teaches at Portland Community College, Portland, OR. In the following essay, Hochman points out how, in this short verse, Williams has taken a rather ordinary scene and rearranged it so that the reader must pause and reconsider its significance.
Critic Hugh Kenner remarked that if someone said to you, “[You know,] so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens,” you would likely wince. But embarrassment is not the usual reaction to William Carlos Williams’s “XXII,” better known as “The Red Wheelbarrow.” And why is the reaction to such a poem not either the sarcastic—or even serious—response, “Heavy, man!” More than anything, it is the way these words are “said” or appear on the page. In “The Red Wheelbarrow” a romantic or heavy sentiment becomes a poem, a poetic object, one to walk around and through as though it were architecture made of words. And just as the Cubist painters, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and Juan Gris fractured their objects and creatively reassembled them in painting and sculpture, Williams has taken a rather everyday scene, broken it up, and reassembled it into an art object with space “around” it; it is almost as if we can walk around these words, look at the wheelbarrow and the chickens, get to “know” them for themselves, get to know their “suchness” apart from the usual poetic or sentimental encumbrances. Still, what is most intriguing is that the poem expresses a romantic notion and at the same time is purged of sentimentality. One might go so far as to say that “The Red Wheelbarrow” is an antipoem, or a poem attempting to be, not so much a poem, but a hard object “glazed” with poetry.
“The Red Wheelbarrow” appeared in Spring and All (1923), Williams’s collection of poems interspersed with manifesto-like prose stating position(s) on what poetry should and should not do, and what his poetry does and does not do. Critic James Breslin thinks the book one of the most important documents of twentieth century literature, not only for its own merits, but for the profound influence it had on other poets (Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and Robert Creeley to name a few). Out of this collection, “The Red Wheelbarrow” is Williams’s most anthologized and studied poem. First, there is not just what meets the eye, but also
What Do I Read Next?
- This poem is included in volume I of William Carlos Williams: The Collected Poems, which covers 1909 through 1939. Volume II covers 1939-1962. Both volumes were published by New Directions in 1991.
- Harold G. Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku, published in 1958, explains a poetic form much like the one Williams uses in “The Red Wheelbarrow,” with plenty of superb examples.
- The spirit of this piece is experimental. A collection of poets from the same time trying new techniques is gathered in Jerome Rothenberg’s Revolution of the Word, which studies avant-garde poetry between 1914-1945.
- In William Carlos Williams’ Early Poetry: The Visual Arts Background, the author, Christopher J. MacGowan, relates Williams’s works to what was happening in the art world at the time, particularly the Dada movement. This provides a fascinating new approach to poets and poetry for students who feel that they don’t “get it.”
- Paul Mariani’s huge critical biography William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked, published in 1981, is quite rich in details about the poet’s life and is interesting to read.
- Much of Williams’s style can be seen in the work of his friend, Ezra Pound. The Collected Early Poems of Ezra Pound, published in 1976, covers a time when both poets were developing their styles. To see how Pound developed in a different way than Williams, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, most recently published in 1970, is considered his masterwork.
- Williams is respected as a short-story writer as well as a poet. One particular story, “The Use of Force,” is frequently included in anthologies of American fiction. This story can be found in The Collected Stories of William Carlos Williams, published in 1996, previously published under the title The Farmers’ Daughters.
- Allen Ginsberg’s long poem “Howl” is one of the most influential poems of the second half of the century. It was published in a 1956 book called Howl, with an introduction by William Carlos Williams.
what meets the ear. Though it might go unnoticed, each of the four, three-word lines have either three or four syllables: four in the first and seventh, and three in the third and fifth; every one-word line has two syllables. In all, every stanza has three accents. Even though Williams is known as the inventor of the “variable foot” (a rather controversial bit of prosody where any number of syllables in a line contributes to one beat), the device does not appear in “The Red Wheelbarrow,” as some critics have maintained, but appears for the first time in a later poem, “The Descent,” (1947).
In a short and ingeniously simple poem like “The Red Wheelbarrow,” it is necessary not only to describe what the poem does, but what it does not do, in other words, what makes it an antipoem. Williams eliminates all capital letters and punctuation, rendering the poem into floating main and subordinate clauses that would hover in a realm between prose and poetry were it not for the poem’s arrangement and syllabic regularity. There is no rhyme and none of that familiar poetic rearrangement of words indicating that this is poetry, as in Shakespeare’s sonnet 116: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / admit impediments” instead of the prosaic, “Don’t let me admit impediments to the marriage of true minds.” With no symbolism, no comparison, no metaphor, there is little more than a bare presentation of entities-and mundane ones at that-as if to merely indicate them, as if someone said, “Look there.” And though poems usually have titles, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” when first published, had none. Finally, there is nothing personal in this poem, no self or I. Moreover, the poet would be effaced if not for the personal assertion, “so much depends.” All that is left to let readers know they are in the presence of a poem, then, is the layout and the lines with a constant pattern of syllables, which, may not seem like much, but is enough to distinguish it markedly from prose. Still, while writing is usually divided into prose and poetry, Williams presents us with an object that seems to be neither.
Even so, Williams conceives of “The Red Wheelbarrow,” as a poem and Williams called himself a poet, having worked most of his life writing poetry and theorizing about it. So, then, what is this poem about? Presumably the poet espies a wet, red wheelbarrow that has just been rained upon (“glazed”) near some white chickens. Something strikes the poet about the scene. Perhaps it is the ordinary usefulness of a wheelbarrow that a farmer might take for granted but a poet does not. Perhaps it is the contrast between shiny, metallic red and dull feathery white, between a cultural artifact and natural animals, between a thing that must be moved next to beings that move themselves, between something that must be “fed” or loaded, next to creatures who feed themselves. Perhaps it is the complexity of each entity in the scene, leading Williams to fracture the words wheelbarrow and rainwater at the ends of lines to make us think about them: there are wheels and a barrow, simple, elegant objects whose combination seems a stroke of genius. And “rain/water,” rain being water but not the only kind since there is river, ocean, and lake water, fresh and salt. And then the breaking of lines into as small a unit as a single word further slows down and focuses the reader’s attention on the scene’s components. Intense concentration on objects is perhaps as old as poetry, and though most objects of contemplation are from nature, and Williams writes poems about them as well, there is a poem by one of Williams’s first poetic heroes, John Keats, called “Ode to a Grecian Urn” (1819) that describes figures embellishing a kind of circular vase. Though Williams might have objected to the association, “The Red Wheelbarrow” qualifies as a kind of ode, if ode is defined as a lyric expressing exalted emotion about an object (an ode in regular stanzaic form like “The Red Wheelbarrow” is a Horatian Ode). “The Red Wheelbarrow,” despite its non-elevated language, does exalt the wheelbarrow (“so much depends”) to the point the poem might be renamed “Ode to a Red Wheelbarrow” and be criticized by a non-romantic who asked, “Really, how much does depend on this red wheelbarrow?
Williams’s other poet-hero was Walt Whitman who had said that “a perfect user of words is a user of things.” Williams, perhaps following Whitman, said, “No words but in things,” which points to Williams’s avoidance of words rich in connotation, words that come laden with years of conceptual baggage. Instead, Williams strips phrases to their essentials and selects words for their directness. Inherited and acquired knowledge, for Williams, are a kind of pollution of perception; he tries to see things as if washed clean by rain, and then recreates them, makes them over in his imagination, something he apparently believes is one’s very own, not a product of society. True or not, as a result of bringing objects into the imagination, the poem itself takes shape as an object or poem, a thing “standing beside” the scene as itself an object-poem dependent upon both the scene and the imagination, yet at the same independent of them. Williams construes this not as representation, but creation: “The only realism in art is of the imagination. It is only thus that the work escapes plagiarism after nature and becomes a creation.” Art, says Williams, stands between or mediates reality without imitating it, without creating an illusion of nature or reality. He explains it this way: “Words adhere to certain objects and have the effect on the sense of oysters or barnacles.” Words, then, are themselves real things or objects clinging to other real things. In this way, Williams asserts that art “must be real, not ’realism’ but reality itself.” Of course, few would assert that a painting of, or poem about, grapes does not have a separate existence apart from the grapes that are depicted, those grapes one could eat. To think otherwise would put one in jeopardy. Nevertheless, what Williams is trying to get the reader of “The Red Wheelbarrow” to do is make contact, not with the wheelbarrow or the chickens, but with Williams’s experience of the wheelbarrow and chickens, of having used his imagination upon a scene he experienced: “The exaltation men feel before a work of art is the feeling of reality they draw from it. It sets them up, places a value upon experience.” And, Williams would add, “There is no end of detail that is without significance,” that can be experienced, and be remade by the imagination. As the poem dollys back like a color film camera from a wheel to a wheeled barrow to a wheelbarrow beside chickens, what gets framed is how this human made object is not only important for itself, but how it is especially significant within a context, within the world.
As true as this is for the wheelbarrow, it is also applies to poems. In Spring and All, Williams’s project is double: to get readers to understand what it means to use the imagination on objects in the world, which, in the case of Williams includes art objects. Just as it behooves us to think about the world apart from what artists make of it, that is, to exercise our imagination upon our experience in order to make sense of or understand our experience and the world, it is also necessary to do the same with art (which, presumably, itself has already done this). Williams’s prose and poetry spurs us to do with his poems what he has already done with the scenes and objects he remakes in his poems: to raise them out of a welter of cultural products and recognize their significance. And if our experience tells us it is silly to attach so much significance to mundane objects or prosaic scenes, whether they be little poems or red wheelbarrows, then our imagination might also tell us how far our time has willfully or unwillfully distanced itself from poetry and from the rawer being of the world.
Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
In the following essay, Monte notes that, despite seemingly simple language, Williams’s work is complex and thought-provoking, forcing the reader to see familiar settings in a new light.
Most people who grow up in the United States have an allergy to anything that seems labored, artificial, or pretentious. Though this apparently instinctive reaction can at times develop into a mistrust of all intellectual pursuits, it can also produce a healthy skepticism or a no-nonsense approach to experience. William Carlos Williams viewed his poetic project in this light, virtually assigning himself the task of reinvigorating American poetry by bringing it back in touch with everyday life. One of his rallying cries throughout his career was “No ideas but in things,” a manifesto for concrete realities against philosophical abstractions. Williams’s mission, which he pursued with almost religious fervor, especially involved writing poetry with the language of ordinary people. According to Williams, American poetry should speak in an American idiom. Such a project has political implications insofar as it insists on making poetic language more democratic. This view of poetry connects Williams to a tradition of poets going back to Walt Whitman and William Wordsworth.
But perhaps the best way to approach Williams is to consider him first in the context of modern poetry. Williams wanted to correct a trend in poetry that he associated above all with T.S. Eliot. Eliot, Williams felt, was overly intellectual. He viewed him as having tremendous learning, but little or no vitality. Furthermore a poem such as Eliot’s The Waste Land(1922) was profoundly pessimistic and stemmed more from a European than an American tradition. Eliot was nevertheless the leading poet of the day and exerted tremendous influence on the younger generation of poets. Williams was outraged by this development. Eliot, who had moved to England and eventually became a British citizen, was denying if not betraying his Americanness, according to Williams. Meanwhile Williams settled in northern New Jersey where he earned a living as a doctor (he was general practitioner) and wrote poetry, essays, and fiction in what he called “the American grain.”
Though short and seemingly slight, “The Red Wheelbarrow” is well representative of Williams’s poetic project. The reader does not need detailed knowledge of a literary tradition, nor even a dictionary, to enjoy this poem. The poem may in fact seem so transparent in meaning as to make the reader wonder why so much fuss has been made over it or what makes it a poem at all. But the apparent simplicity of the poem is in certain respects misleading. Some of the poem’s effect relies on the reader’s awareness of another sort of poetry, if not that of T.S. Eliot than of someone else who represents the idea that poetry must be difficult or written in a language removed from what we speak everyday. If “The Red Wheelbarrow” feels refreshing, it is in part because it releases us from one set of expectations about poetry and appears to give us something genuine and direct. The poem reinforces this sense of refreshment in that the scene described is apparently a sunny moment following a rain. As simple as the poem may seem, the source of its effects is complicated.
So how does “The Red Wheelbarrow” do whatever it is it does to us? In order to understand the poem, it is worth considering how we would read it if it were altered slightly. If the poem were called “The Blue Wheelbarrow,” for example, we would react to it very differently. Though blue wheelbarrows exist, the scene would seem odd, more like something out of Wallace Stevens than William Carlos Williams. The redness of the wheelbarrow is necessary to evoke a pared-down vision of the world: the stark contrast of red and white, of wheelbarrow and chicken, is the sort of thing we might find in a children’s book. Or suppose that the poem were written as a one-line sentence: “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens.” In this form the poem would lose almost everything that makes it feel like a poem. Clearly the line breaks are important to the poem’s meaning. They also help pace the reading and make up for any lack of punctuation. If we look closely at the poem, further patterns emerge: each two-line unit consists of one line of three words followed by a line containing only one word. Some words, such as “wheelbarrow” and “rainwater,” are broken apart. It is even possible to see the two-line stanzas as visual representations of a wheelbarrow. For a poem that sounds as if it were speaking naturally, “The Red Wheelbarrow” shows signs that someone arranged its words for some effect.
But once again, appearances may be deceiving. Williams himself claimed that he composed “The Red Wheelbarrow” in two minutes. Does this mean that we are guilty of “reading into” the poem if we look too closely at it? Not necessarily. An experienced poet, like a high jumper who trains for months for a few leaps over the bar, may have long hours of practice behind him by the time he goes about his business. More important, explaining why a poem makes us feel the way it does may simply require more time than it takes to read the poem itself, if only because explanation forces us to ask questions we aren’t accustomed to asking. Interpreting poetry may, in short, demand its own kind of training. Still, knowing that Williams would not want us to turn his poem into an intellectual exercise should give us some pause. We should talk about how the poem affects us in an immediate way.
With this perspective in mind we can return with more focus to the question of how “The Red Wheelbarrow” achieves its effects. Most immediately, Williams’s use of line breaks forces us to read more slowly and invites us to look for more significance in the scene described and the words used to describe it. While the scene is ordinary and perhaps typically American, we are urged to see it in a new light. Williams is saying, in effect, that everyday experience can be as poetic as, if not more poetic than, any traditional subject for a poem. By isolating words like “barrow,” “water,” and “chickens,” Williams gives them greater prominence. The first four lines of the poem tell us that much depends upon the red wheelbarrow; the line breaks in the next four lines hint at what the red wheelbarrow helps us perceive. It is as if we were looking at a painting centered on a red wheelbarrow, but in looking at the wheelbarrow we became aware of other objects that surround and in a sense depend on it: the rainwater and the chickens, whose glaze and whiteness appear more clearly next to the red wheelbarrow. The prominence that the layout of the poem gives to certain words is further reinforced on the level of sound: the three nouns “barrow,” “water,” and “chickens” are all accented on the first syllable.
And yet it is not enough to say that the rainwater and the chickens in some sense depend on the wheelbarrow. The phrase “so much depends” makes us feel that the poem is telling us more than this. There is, perhaps, a hidden pun on the word “depends,” the Latin root of which means “hang from” or “hang down.” This pun makes sense given that individual words hang down from the lines consisting of three words, and that the whole poem hangs down from its title, “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Because a pun draws attention to words as words (sounds and letters as opposed to meanings), it also allows us to read the poem as a comment on language and poetry. When Williams splits apart one sentence into eight lines and compound words into their parts, he is showing us the building blocks of meaning which are generally invisible to us. Just as it helps us see an ordinary scene more clearly and more vitally, “The Red Wheelbarrow” helps us see and reflect on what we experience each day in the form of language. We are invited to linger over meanings literally between words, such as the “wheel” in “wheel/barrow.” The wheelbarrow itself is a tool, a simple machine as a physicist might say, and in this sense can be read as a metaphor for poetry (whose Greek root is the verb “to do” or “to make”). To the extent that poetry helps us see reality more vividly, much depends on it.
In looking closely at “The Red Wheelbarrow,” it is easy to lose sight of the poem’s overall effect. Here it is worth recalling how Williams’s poetic project was in part a reaction against bookishness. “The Red Wheelbarrow” wants to remind us of the things of this world. Its modest size and language cry out to us that less is more and that there is no need to be difficult. Regardless of hidden puns, “The Red Wheelbarrow” ideally does not require lengthy explanations. The poem’s general message seems clear and should not be overlooked when we are trying to understand its deeper meanings. But though “The Red Wheelbarrow” stands on its own in many respects, its effects rely on expectations we bring to our reading. The poem is organized in a far from natural way, yet we feel that it is natural and simple because we are familiar with or can imagine other “artificial” or “difficult” poems. What this means is that “so much” of our reading of a poem “depends upon” how the poem compares to other works we have read. We experience poems
“The poem is impersonal; its impersonality, however, is not that of indifferent God paring his fingernails, but one that comes from the way the poet has yielded himself intimately to the scene.”
—or stories or songs for that matter—in part through other poems, stories, and songs. We may think we are reading a poem or listening to a piece of music on its own, but we are always making comparisons.
In the end, a reading of “The Red Wheelbarrow” leaves us with as many questions as it answers. When we realize that the effect of a poem depends in part upon other poems we might ask how many poems like “The Red Wheelbarrow” can be written before the effect wears off. Does Williams’s poem and poetic project depend too much on a reaction against what does not seem both natural and American? And from here we might begin to question ourselves. When we react against something that seems artificial, labored, or pretentious, what sort of comparison are we making?
Source: Steven Monte, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
James E.B. Breslin
A discussion of the intense emotion found in the simplistic presentation of the poetry of William Carlos Williams.
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Source: James E.B. Breslin, William Carlos Williams: An American Artist, University of Chicago Press, 1970 pp. 54-5.
Axelrod, Steven Gould and Helen Deese, editors, Critical Essays on William Carlos Williams, G. K. Hall, 1995.
Breslin, James E. B., William Carlos Williams: An American Artist, University of Chicago Press, 1970.
Brooks, Cleanth and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Poetry Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976, pp. 73-74.
Frail, David, The Early Politics and Poetics of William Carlos Williams, UMI Research Press, 1987.
Miller, J. Hillis, editor, William Carlos Williams: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1966.
Williams, William Carlos, The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams Volume I: New Directions, 1986.
World Literary Criticism Volume 6, p. 4009.
The introduction to this book focuses attention onto the overall question of poetry’s goals and how they differ from one poet to the next: the treatment of “The Red Wheelbarrow” that comes later in the book is a little obscure, but provides useful information.
Drew, Elizabeth, Poetry: A Modern Guide to Its Understanding and Enjoyment, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1959.
In a chapter entitled “Sound Patterns,” Drew is quite rough on “The Red Wheelbarrow,” stating coolly: “Whether this kind of thing pleases must be a matter of personal taste, but it should not be called ’verse,’ since that word means the rhythm ’turns’ and repeats itself.” This seems to be exactly the kind of thinking Williams was reacting against.
Pearce, Roy Harvey, “Williams and the ’New Mode,’” William Carlos Williams, edited by J. Hills Miller, Engle-wood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996.
Pearce examines in detail how Williams came to use Imagist techniques. This collection also contains essays about Williams by close associates who are major figures in American poetry themselves, including Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Karl Shapiro, and Robert Lowell.
Pratt, William, The Imagist Poem, New York: E.P. Dutton Co., 1963.
An indispensable guide to understanding Imagist poetry. Pratt provides one of the most comprehensive histories of Imagism recorded and dozens of examples, including poems that are not directly related to the movement but fit the pattern.
Rapp, Carl, William Carlos Williams and Romantic Idealism, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1984.
The style of this book concentrates more on psychology than criticism, which is appropriate for Williams’s method in “The Red Wheelbarrow”: the poet shows an image that made an impression on him, and Rapp, in a well-researched examination, shows why it would be striking.