so much dependsupona red wheelbarrowglazed with rainwaterbeside the whitechickens.
When I first nervously bumped into William Carlos Williams’ simple, yet amazingly complex The Red Wheelbarrow, I was an awkward junior high school student infatuated with Stephen King and horror novels. Nothing was more important to me than vampires, werewolves, and a good piss-freezing scare. I avoided poetry like it was a sneezy, runny-nosed first grader. Poetry wasn’t linear – it wasn’t clear. Why anyone would prefer poetry to prose baffled me.
So when The Red Wheelbarrow made my acquaintance from the pages of a literature anthology that my sixth grade English teacher had us reading: my first reaction was unmitigated joy.
“Hallelujah, a short poem!”
Here, finally, was a poem that my adolescent mind could wrap its brain cells around. And it was one lousy sentence of 16 words (and not one word more than two syllables). This was no T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock or one of Shakespeare’s impossible sonnets. This was, well, American sounding.
If asked what the poem was about, I would have said: A red wheelbarrow.
So much did my young mind appreciate Williams that the poem became infused in my memory. It became my favorite poem.
I didn’t think much of it after that – until college. The Red Wheelbarrow strolled back into my life in an Introduction to Poetry class taught by an erudite, cranky professor (and accomplished poet who claimed to have once met Hemingway by driving to his house on Key West and introducing himself).
“Ah,” I thought, “my favorite poem.”
The professor disliked Williams immensely and was not appreciative of The Red Wheelbarrow. In fact, he savaged it. Amazingly, I came to agree with him. What was so wonderful about this tiny, little poem about a wheelbarrow? Wasn’t it silly? Wasn’t it something Williams probably jotted down on a cocktail napkin one rainy evening?
So I dismissed it and went back to more important pursuits like getting drunk and analyzing the lyrics of Holiday in Cambodia by the Dead Kennedys.
Now, older and wiser, I realize that The Red Wheelbarrow is a masterpiece. Stark, yet vivid, and so gorgeous and so mind-blowingly deep that it can take your breath away. The poem is a riddle: “So much depends upon” this wheelbarrow, Williams tells us. Why? Why is the wheelbarrow so important? What cosmic secrets are lying on the wet grass next to those white chickens? What does it all mean?
What Williams has done is create a scene – so vivid, so lush – that it has become real. The contrast between the red wheelbarrow, slick with rainwater, and the white chickens firmly entrenches itself in the reader’s mind. Williams’ poem is a snapshot – a photograph. And by adding the weight of importance to the wheelbarrow with the riddle, Williams has gone beyond what is real and into what is art. The ordinary becomes the extraordinary.
Williams argued that The Red Wheelbarrow was a response to the garrulous poetry of European poets like – ta da! – Eliot. But in the end The Red Wheelbarrow is so much more. It is poetry. And it’s the wheelbarrow. The poem as reality. A mundane wheelbarrow as a poem.
So ask me. “What is The Red Wheelbarrow about?”
And I’ll tell you, quite confidently: “It’s a wheelbarrow.”
Labels: Poem, Poetry, William Carlos Williams