Friday, February 08, 2008

Poetry Friday- WIlliam Carlos Williams: The Red Wheelbarrow





I've had such a love/hate relationship with William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" poem over the years. You know the one:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.
My first and longest lasting opinion was that it was a private joke. Williams, I suggested, was just wanting to see what he could get published and still have people contemplate, when in actuality the poem is nothing. I even resented him a little for it. I loved "This Is Just To Say" so much, how could he pull such a nasty trick on his readers?

But throughout the years, I started to give him the benefit of a doubt. It then became my theory that it was Williams' intention to make this a private piece, but not one void of a point that the public could take away. Perhaps, I proposed, it's his way of saying that symbols are dependent on the individual. No he doesn't provide us with context, no we don't really know why the red wheelbarrow is so bloody important, but it's obvious that the narrator does.

But is my love for "This Is Just To Say" clouding my judgement? Am I giving Williams too much credit? Am I falling into the trap I accused him of setting in the first place? There's lots of great thoughts on this particular poem over at Wikipedia, what are yours?

14 comments:

Chris said...

Depends on what you're using the wheel barrow for.

I joined in today.

Kelly Fineman said...

I'm with you on the inside joke. I'm willing to stretch only so far as saying that he saw a red wheel barrow in the rain next to the chickens, and so do the readers of the poem see it in their mind's eyes, and so it is a successful conveyance of imagery. But as for the deeper meanings of life and death, etc., I believe that's all smoke.

And it's not like I don't like theories about poetic analysis - I posited my own theory about a few of Shakespeare's sonnets today, after all, which is completely different than either of the commonly-cited ones.

writer2b said...

I guess I've thought of it as a kind of private joke too, and resented it. But I think much of that has to do with the hysterical poetry teacher who first introduced me to it.

Your idea that it's about symbols depending on the individual makes sense. Whenever I have an "aha moment," whatever I happen to be staring at takes on the significance of marking that moment, so I can even relate to the poem in that sense.

TadMack said...

Whenever I read this poem, my college poetry professor's voice (think Isaac Hayes) comes to mine. He read it slowly, sonorously, and received volumes of blank gazes in reply.

We envisioned it, imagined the rain, glazing the red, we thought of damp chickens... and still... Nothing.

He never did get frustrated. We just went on to the one about the plums...

Definitely an inside joke, and I was okay with him keeping it.

John Mutford said...

Chris: I once used a wheelbarrow to transfer the contents of a septic tank. I don't have good connotations.

Kelly: Perhaps though, it's a metapoem. His way of saying everything depends on images.

Writer2b: I'm surprised noone's written a sequel to the poem.

Tadmack: Now I'm hearing, "So much depends on the sexy red wheel barrow, glazed with smooth rain water, beside the fine chickens. Oh baby." Much more interesting now. Thanks.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I don't know what the hell the poem means, but I love his name. William Carlos Williams, how cool is that?

Bybee said...

I like the plum poem much better. This one feels kind of haiku. I never thought about it being a private joke or anything.

Cloudscome said...

I always loved this poem. The first time I heard it I answered YES.

I assumed he saw beauty in the damp red wheelbarrow and the silly chickens, and meant that so much depends on seeing beauty in whatever crazy barnyard you happen to find yourself. An epiphany. Even on a rainy day. Kind of like the way I love the clouds coming in front of the moon in that haiku I posted yesterday...

From your comment on that post I think you know what I mean? I guess this just shows why I call myself a haiku poet.

I like the photos you posted here too - adds to the whole.

Sara said...

For some reason, the poem doesn't work for me when I hear it read aloud. I need to SEE it. Then it works. So that's why I side with the metapoem theory: that it's a meditation on beauty and image and form and the importance of not rushing by what you normally would dismiss as trivial. Isn't that what poetry does: force you to stop and look at the wheel barrow? And the chickens?

Karen E. said...

I've always thought of this as a poem about poetry -- about the economy of words, the necessity to create vivid images in just a few words.

"So much depends" upon that -- and then he creates a simple, but vivid image.

And I *love* "This is just to say", too.

Allison said...

We had a yellow wheelbarrow when I was a kid.

Yep, that's all I got about this poem. ;)

August said...

The poem describes a scene William saw outside the window at the home of a very sick girl he was treating in New Jersey (he was a doctor).

In that case I have tremendous difficulty seeing this as anything like a joke. Even before I learned that, though, I always felt like there was a deliberate stripping away of emotional content from the poem, or at least the effort to strip it away. The wheelbarrow is a thing to focus on, an object void of intent or of a direct relationship to the illness of the girl; it's a thing to focus on to strip away the anxiety and fear and what have you that narrator might be feeling. Given that we know the context of the piece, I can see exactly how much depends upon stripping away the emotional force of the event. It's a way to get the will, and in some sense the permission, to function adequately in difficult circumstances.

No ideas but in things, remember.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: Yeah, it's one heck of a handle.

Bybee: It certainly has a haiku feel with the sparseness and concrete images.

Cloudscome: The "so much depends upon" does imply an epiphany. Just can't say of what.

Sara: The pacing in the way it's laid down, does add to its charm for sure. There are a few poems that I like reading more than listening. It's why when anyone says, "poems are meant to be heard" that I answer, "not necessarily."

Karen E: "This is just to say" is probably one of my all time favourites.

Allison: I wonder if people would interpret this poem any differently if it read "yellow wheel barrow."

August: Until that Wikipedia article, I'd never heard of that sick girl scenario. No, I don't think sick kids are particularly funny, but without knowing that story it felt, to me, like an inside joke. If it was relevant to the poem, or especially if it was necessary to understand the poem, he should have, and probably would have, added it. I certainly didn't have your reaction to the poem, but I guess that's the charm of reading.

dperrings said...

My first introduction to this poem was about 15 years ago when i took a poetry class at UCLA extension. It was in the required reading material for the course. I cannot say the poem did much for me then or now even, except that the poem keeps finding me. Recently my wife used the book "Love that Dog" in her fourth grade class poetry section at Montair Elementary School, In Danville, California which featured the Red Wheelbarrow Poem.

In Billy Collin's Poem "Introduction to Poetry" he says the following:


"But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it."


I think the Wheelbarrow Poem is the perfect example of a poem that has been tied to a chair over and over again by endless people.


The poem possesses a sort of "chicken and egg" feel. "So much depends on the wheelbarrow" begs the question would the white chickens even be there if it were not for the wheelbarrow. The rain is necessary to the chickens and for the need of the wheelbarrow. The white chickens give one the clue that we are talking about a farm or backyard garden area. The rain glaze on the wheelbarrow evokes a pleasant pastoral image.


In Woody Allen's movie "Annie Hall" one of the last lines in the movie is "perhaps we need the eggs". Maybe so much depends on the wheelbarrow simply because we need the eggs.