What depends on a red wheelbarrow?

Yesterday in class, we discussed a poem that is virtually obligatory for every introductory literature class: William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.” For those who aren’t familiar, it goes as follows:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

The discussion in one section became very heated, in part because one student recalled a teacher who “spent an entire class on this because she hated it.” Ultimately, despite my efforts, a sense emerged that the poem was so vague as to be meaningless, or susceptible to whatever meaning one projected onto it.

Now it’s clear that there are many interpretations. Yet I have a simple one, which I advanced in class.

The wheelbarrow represents poetic form itself. While it often goes unnoticed in favor of the content of the poem, it is actually what makes a poem a poem — in this case, transforming a somewhat banal picturesque scene into a classic poem. Two hints: first, the poetic form here is very primitive (no rhyme scheme, stanzas defined by the number of words rather than metrical feet), just as a wheelbarrow is a primitive means of conveyance. Second, the little stanzas are kind of shaped like wheelbarrows (as a student observed).

Whatever else the poem may be about, it’s also about poetic form and the distinctive and yet weirdly unspecifiable (“so much…”) way it generates meaning.

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8 Responses to “What depends on a red wheelbarrow?”

  1. Matt Frost Says:

    Indeed. “so much” stands in just the right place between “everything depends” and irrelevancy. Something, and something critical, but something at the same time inexpressible.

    I find it interesting that you ask about the wheelbarrow rather than the scene. I’m not sure it’s the wheelbarrow that provides that je ne sais quois, or that the wheelbarrow is separable from the rainwater or the chickens. It may depend on the entire aesthetic. And ethics so frequently does depend on aesthetics, on having just the right image of the world.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The inclusion of the whole scene makes sense. One of the interpreters in the page I link points out that the scene is a fleeting moment — the wheelbarrow is still glazed with rainwater, yet it’s apparently stopped raining because the chickens have decided to come out into the open.

  3. adswithoutproducts Says:

    A good one to do with it is Pound’s:

    In a Station of the Metro

    The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
    Petals on a wet, black bough.

    I tell them that it has to do with the metaphorical acts at the basis of poetry – i.e. the work that that semi-colon and linebreak have to do. The negative space between the first (or is it the second?) line of the poem and the second (or third). And other things… But I do thing they go together, these.

  4. Matt Frost Says:

    I have the same problem with theological anthropology. :) Not only do we focus overly on one object and determine that it makes the scene; in so doing, we also focus on an object in transition, in a scene that will cease to exist momentarily. And instead of reveling in the beauty of transience, we attempt to preserve the wheelbarrow with just the right amount of water on it, in just the right lighting, with taxidermy chickens.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Ads, We did discuss the Ezra Pound poem as well — the theme for the first class was “pithy poems.” My colleague who is teaching a couple sections of the same course reports that she wrote six pages in college on those two lines. I believe it, though some students were skeptical.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    There must be some significance to the fact that the wheelbarrow is both the “means of conveyance” (symbolic of poetic form, in my interpretation) and part of the scene — perhaps a suggestion that form and content can never be fully distinguished.

  7. Robert Saler Says:

    This may be a bit auteurist, but I’ve always found myself reflecting on the fact that Williams is said to have delivered over 2000 babies (often far from hospitals, in remote farms) in the Rutherford area. When people would go to visit him in later life, he would sometimes be wandering around his farm, making motions with his hands and arms that people recognized as the ones that he would use to deliver children. These motions were etched into his body.

    It makes me wonder whether these sorts of themes – transience, the inextricability of form and content, life and death contaminating each other – were, in his art, rooted in the intense physicality of repeatedly presiding over bloodily “natural” childbirthing. Obviously “The Use of Force” is a clearer example of that, but it might apply to “The Red Wheelbarrow” as well.

  8. Daniel Imburgia Says:

    Remembering back to many poetry/lit. classes, most ugrad arguments tended to revolve around *what* something means (i.e. does the whale in Moby Dick represent God, the devil, death, yadda yadda). Like Louis Zukofsky and Charles Olsen, and the somewhat later John Ashbery (one of my favorites and whose hand I shook once!) WCW’s poetics (I want to say “postmodern poetics,” but I know how problematic that can be theseadays…which is still kinda the point?) WCW’s poetics can cause us to ask *how* something means rather than *what.* And unlike so much of academic discourse and FB politiking, the PM poets were challenging a kind of writing that works to narrow and limit the possibilities of meaning, rather than open them up and expand them, and even intentionally transgress accepted modes of meaning–making (so much of what Derrida and Foucault would write depended on that red wheelbarrow!) I think it was Marjorie Perloff who called PM poetry a ‘poetics of indeterminacy‘ (though I think she was talking specifically about the later language poets like Susan Howe and Charles Bernstein). So I’m not sure that “The wheelbarrow represents poetic form itself,” or that it “represents” anything outside of itself, anything beyond the ‘projective event’ of the poem as it is. And I’m also not sure what you mean by saying that the poem is “primitive.” But you can see how quickly we get ensnared by language itself in talking about this poem–and that is part of the “how” of the poem, and part of the project of WCW’s poetry. So in one sense the students are right, the poem is “meaningless,” but in the same way a sunset, or a bird whistle or a white whale is meaningless. But even more so, because William’s poetics deliberately make it hard to impose or ‘project’ any/a meaning onto them (unlike Moby Dick ?). Here’s what Ashbery had to say:

    John Ashbery, “What Is Poetry”

    The medieval town, with frieze
    Of boy scouts from Nagoya? The snow
    That came when we wanted it to snow?
Beautiful images? Trying to avoid
    Ideas, as in this poem? But we
Go back to them as to a wife, leaving
    The mistress we desire? Now they
Will have to believe it
    As we believed it. In school
All the thought got combed out:
    What was left was like a field.
Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around.
    Now open them on a thin vertical path.
It might give us–what?–some flowers soon?

    Obliged.


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