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
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
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.