On "The Red Wheelbarrow"
PostedNovember 28, 2007
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
—William Carlos Williams
This poem can be infuriating because on one hand it appears so guileless and simplistic. The problem is that you can’t take anything for granted, not even simplicity.
What are the first things you notice about the poem? Begin with what you know, or what you think you know. First, the poem is arranged in fairly consistent lines. The four units of the poem look somewhat alike. There is not any punctuation either. What was the poet’s intention? Was the shape an accident of the poet’s descriptive style? Was the lack of punctuation an oversight? Was the poet being careless or lazy? Was is that he just couldn’t think of any better words? Why is this poem so well known, so respected, so well liked?
Denise Levertov, in "Some Notes on Organic Form," says "there is a form in all things (and in our experience) which the poet can discover and reveal." But how does a poet make this discovery? One way is to pay close attention to the sound and movement of the first words or lines that begin the act of writing, in which the object, mood, and experience that give rise to the poem will often be expressed through tone and rhythm. Do the words work together to create euphony, dissonance, or something in between? What are the weights and inherent durations of words and lines? The poet who is sensitive to this emerging form can give it full play as writing continues.
Robert Creeley, in "Notes Apropos 'Free Verse,'" uses the analogy of driving to explain his approach to organic form in writing: "The road, as it were, is creating itself momently in one’s attention to it, there, visibly, in front of the car." He implies that there may be more around the bend or beyond the horizon; but, like drivers, poets can only arrive at that possibility through careful attention to what is immediately apparent. Poets must follow the words, like the road, as they come.
When you read a poem, you must be both observant and patient. Look at the words and the lines as they emerge. What do you recognize? What looks or sounds interesting? Wait a little. Welcome surprises. As more of the poem reveals itself, you may find an exhilarating momentum, recognizable patterns, or a merging of form and content that will carry you along.
So how does "The Red Wheelbarrow" unfold? A helpful exercise is to try to continue writing the poem yourself. Double the length, either by repeating the theme or by adding a new riff about the images of the first eight lines. This is an experiential way of discovering what is noticeable about the poem. You will likely write in two line stanzas or couplets. Most of the second lines of the couplets will consist of a single word. Many will have those words be nouns, or two-syllable words. Aha! So you have already begun to notice how the poem is put together.
This brings us to the poem’s statement, its meaning. Many poems, especially nonnarrative poems, are difficult—if not impossible—to paraphrase, especially after a first reading or a first listen. And expecting to find a meaning that’s obvious is often frustrating, as it may be here. Why does so much depend? So much what?
Artists often say that a work of art is about itself and something else. In this way, a poem can be an ars poetica, a statement by the poet about poetry, about his or her beliefs about what poetry is and about what it does. Asking how this poem might be an ars poetica is a great way to further understand both the poem and Williams as a poet. What does the poem demonstrate about poetry? Well, certainly the features of style and form come up again. But the statement that the poem makes, the credo it represents, is right there, too. Another way to ask the question might be, What does this poem value? Common things, clearly. The only objects in the poem are ordinary, enduring, and somehow essential. The scene is rural, perhaps a farm. The chickens are not symbolic; they are white chickens that exist beside equally plain things of the world: a utilitarian barrow that is not exalted, but left out in the rain. And not an apocalyptic rain but a slow drizzle. Why does Williams choose this image, this scene? Why does so much of the poem depend on things so ordinary? Do these concrete things suggest a larger, more abstract idea?
It should be clear at this point that inquiry into earlier questions about form and technique have yielded larger questions of interpretation. So let’s return for a moment to a question of form. All that’s left from the list of first impressions is the lack of punctuation. How would the lack of stops anywhere in the poem reinforce the idea that ordinary things are of great importance? What does grammar accomplish in any text? For one thing, it helps determine beginnings and endings, and for another, it works with conjunctions to represent relationships among things, time, and ideas in the text. But in this poem, there is none of that. Why? Without the interruptions of commas and periods, the words flow together. They are not discrete parts but one whole unit, differentiated only by the space between couplet or stanza. But the pairing of lines seems to create a unity as well: four equal parts. So the "scene" is integrated further by the lack of any hierarchy imposed by punctuation. The grammar remains, of course.
So the stanzas stand on the page as separate, but the lack of punctuation connects them. Thereby, a tension is created, an independence that somehow is connected. This is beginning to sound like the statement the poem is making: "so much" depends on these humble things. The great and small, apparently distinct objects (and the stanzas) are nonetheless interconnected. Form and content are joined in a dance to create meaning, as is so often the case in art.
Published in partnership with the Great Books Foundation.