William Carlos Williams, what did you mean?

early-to-mid 1900s wheelbarrow

The poem usually called “The Red Wheelbarrow” has always annoyed me.

I like the white chickens, the rain water, the red wheel barrow, but not the first stanza. “So much depends/ upon” inflates the poem into a portentous metaphysical statement. In an introductory class some years ago, the students wanted to twist the images into allegory. The most memorable interpretation was as a version of Communism from an Orwellian Animal-Farm viewpoint (“but the wheelbarrow is red, Dr. Brown”). See, students do learn from those classic texts assigned in high school. (Common Core debaters, take note!) Craig Morgan Teicher’s essay ruminates on his adolescent experience, reminding us also of another oft-quoted couplet from Williams: “No ideas/but in things.” If Williams really believed this–and his poems seem to bear that out–then why did he bother with the first stanza? Why not just write about the wheelbarrow, the rain, the chickens and let the images convey whatever ideas the poet or the readers find there?

The New York Times recently published a report of scholar William Logan’s discovery of the wheelbarrow’s owner, a street vendor named Marshall who lived in a working-class neighborhood where Dr. Williams visited his patients. This setting does give a more mundane slant to the “so much depends/upon”;  it was the wheelbarrow which Mr. Marshall used as a cart, so his livelihood depended on it. The chickens in the rain are images which cut to the heart of life. According to Logan, “knowing there was a man with a particular wheelbarrow and some chickens does help us understand the world the poem was embedded in.” Read Jennifer Schuessler’s article for the details: Here linketh the NYTimes essay on “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

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