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Red Wheelbarrow William Carlos Williams Analysis Essay

 
It might be helpful to have on hand a sample of an essay written about a poem. Absinthe Liquori, a former community college student, has given us permission to use her essay written on William Carlos Williams’s poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.” This poem is one of the most often anthologized pieces in American literature. In spite of its brevity, there is much to be discovered within its eight short lines, as we will see.

New Directions, the publishing house that holds the copyright to Dr. Williams’s work, has declined to give us permission to reprint the poem in an electronic medium. This is, of course, their right. The use of fragments of the poem within the paper itself, we feel, falls within the domain of “fair use” for the purposes of research and teaching. If you would like to read this eight-line, sixteen-word poem, you can click here.

This is not a research paper on Williams or on his poem. The instructor apparently did not ask Ms. Liquori to look into Williams’s life or to find out what other writers and professional critics thought of this poem. What we have here, then, is entirely the student’s reaction to the poem.

Absinthe Liquori
Intro to Literature W554
Professor Villa
April 15, 1998

Snapshot as Poem:
William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”

William Carlos Williams’s poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” is extraordinary for what it accomplishes within its eight short lines. It is exactly one sentence long, sixteen words. Numbers like that wouldn’t normally be important in the consideration of a poem’s merit, but “The Red Wheelbarrow” begs to be noticed for its length (or, rather, its lack of length) and for the arrangement of its sixteen words on the page.

In fact, an interesting experiment would be to give a group of people the words that Williams uses and ask them to arrange the words into the structure of a poem. How many people would do as Williams does and end up with four almost perfectly congruent stanzas, each one with three words in the first line and one word in the second line? The syllable count in Williams’s arrangement is not perfectly congruent, but it is harmoniously different: the two longer stanzas (by only one syllable apiece) sandwich the two shorter stanzas. A sentence which would otherwise sprawl across the page, nearly without structure (it has no punctuation or end-mark), “so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens,” is poured into a form of mathematical precision.

Instead of flying through the sentence, as one would do if it were simply written in a linear way across the page, the reader tends to stop at each line-break and at every stanza break to contemplate how each stanza is different.

And there is a difference. The first stanza is abstract, calling upon the reader to agree to the notion that something depends on something. But the word is not “on”; it is “upon.” The formality of the word “upon” declares that this is important, that our attention is called to what the poet (and the reader) is about to perceive and understand. Instead of some formal or momentous event, though, the poet asks us to consider, in the second stanza, “a red wheel / barrow,” a barnyard device of convenience. The indefinite article, “a,” does not exactly make this red wheelbarrow generic, but like the “upon,” the article allows for a hint of transcendence: this is not just the wheelbarrow, any old piece of yard or barnyard machinery; it’s a wheelbarrow that can stand for something beyond itself. The break that comes between “wheel” and “barrow” causes us to consider the nature of this tool, its barrow-ness and the primitive wheel at its fulcrum. Also, the brevity of the lines calls attention to the weight of a singular word — like “red.” The color is a word that we could normally skip over or barely notice, except that the next stanza turns that color into something else. The red has been “glazed with rain / water.” The word “glazed” suggests something cold, hard, enamelled. Although the color red is usually regarded as a warm color, it has been made cool, if not cold, here. The effect of the “rain / water” (the word being broken, as “wheel / barrow” was earlier, with similar effect, our attention being called to its make-up) has been to alter the nature of the red, but also to alter the nature of the wheelbarrow itself. Like an old car in the rain, the wheelbarrow has been transmogrified into something new. It doesn’t matter whether this is a wooden or steel wheelbarrow: it is shiny and new now, made so by the all-changing rain.

Something else alters our perception of the red wheelbarrow, and that is the juxtaposition of the cold, inanimate barnyard tool with the animate, white, alive, and moving chickens of the last stanza. The red of the wheelbarrow has been made more red, deeper in hue, by the rainwater, and it is also more red because it is sitting next to the white chickens. The chickens, on the other hand, are more white because they are next to the newly refreshed redness of the wheelbarrow. Colors in “The Red Wheelbarrow,” then, are not just colors; they attain depth, texture, and life.

A question remains. What on earth depends “upon / a red wheel / barrow / glazed with rain / water / beside the white / chickens”? The poet clearly insists on this dependence, but he leaves us guessing what, exactly, he has in mind. Is it the fact that the wheelbarrow is a machine, something the chicken-farmer depends on, used to transport chicken feed and chicken manure? Or is it something even more mundane than that? Or does the poet mean to suggest that the mundane considerations of life are not truly mundane at all, but somehow transcendent?

The formality of the structure of “The Red Wheelbarrow” forces us to consider the poem as composition, as if it were a painting or a snapshot. The balanced, brief stanzas and lines cause us to pause and consider, as we move through the experience of the wheelbarrow, its textures, colors, hues, shapes, and temperatures. Where are we as we look upon the red wheelbarrow? In the doorway of the farmer’s house, waiting for the rain to end so we can go on about our chores (involving the red wheelbarrow, perhaps)? In the back room, looking out the window? In any case, the scene we look at is framed and self-contained by the structure of the poem, and all the sensory information of the objects we look at comes through that frame, opens up through that frame. Perhaps the real “dependency” in this poem is not that the speaker of the poem depends on the wheelbarrow as a farmer depends on his tools, although that is certainly part of it. Perhaps the real “so much depends / upon” is that the speaker, the beholder through the frame (and, by extension, the reader of the poem) knows that he or she is alive, that his or her senses are responding to the things of this world, and that, in a sense, the world — in all its variety and beauty and variegation, even in the most mundane things — responds to the person who has eyes to see.

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Points to Ponder

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At age 15, I was a bit of a mess. My mother had died the year before, leaving my father and me alone to piece together our lives. I was fumbling around, looking for a way to make sense of my life, and seized on William Carlos Williams’s poems in my 10th-grade English class. His poems were experimental yet safe—a combo I craved in my extra-dark teenage years.

The poem we spent the most time discussing in class was—no surprise—“The Red Wheelbarrow”:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

We haggled for a period or two over what exactly depends upon this wheelbarrow. Explanations such as “a wheelbarrow is really important for farming, and chickens represent farming” were offered. We wondered if the poem might be a tribute to the ways that nature (“rain / water”) could surmount humans’ mechanical encroachments (“wheel / barrow”), but nothing about the poem seemed to hint at that kind of reflexive hostility. Nowhere does Williams tell us why “so much depends / upon” his little scene; he leaves us to ask, and answer, that question.

Williams had an unusual life for a major literary figure. He was college buddies with Modernism’s high priest, Ezra Pound, at the University of Pennsylvania. But rather than spend his nights cavorting in Europe’s literary salons, he chose to become a doctor and live most of his life at 9 Ridge Road in Rutherford, New Jersey, an address that became a pilgrimage destination for younger poets. In between house calls, in the midst of delivering countless babies and treating the ailments of Rutherford’s working-class population, Williams wrote tiny poems on prescription pads or holed up late into the night in his upstairs study, from which his wife, Flossie, could hear the clatter of his typewriter as draft after draft raced through it.

This is not to say he didn’t live a literary life—he and Flossie frequently traveled to New York and hung out with poets and painters. He was a friend of Marianne Moore’s and felt himself engaged in a lifelong rivalry with T.S. Eliot, whom he thought had turned poetry back toward high diction and the literary past, while Williams, like Frost, believed that “modernizing” American poetry meant incorporating contemporary, American speech into its fabric.

His poems were filled with regular people talking. They were set on neighborhood streets, in hospitals, in backyards—places I’d been. When, in “Blizzard,” I read “[h]airy looking trees stand out / in long alleys / over a wild solitude,” I could look out my window in Westchester, New York, and see those trees. When he says, “[T]he blizzard / drifts its weight / deeper and deeper for three days / or sixty years, eh?” that “eh?” was as familiar to me as the misunderstandings my father and I bandied back and forth.

“The Red Wheelbarrow,” like so many Williams poems, is experimental. It lacks punctuation, relies on erratic or unusual lineation, and generally dissolves the traditional boundaries between one thing, or idea, and another. He had a famous maxim, “No ideas but in things,” which I take to mean that to speak about ideas, emotions, and abstractions, we must ground them firmly in the things of the world. All but the first two lines of “The Red Wheelbarrow” is devoted to one image.

Williams’s poems also often point out the relationship between things and the words we use to talk about them. In “A Sort of a Song,” Williams makes a bold statement:

Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
sleepless.

—through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.

He wants his words to move, wait, even attack. The Latin roots of the word “saxifrage” mean “breaking rocks”; the saxifrage flower roots itself in rocks, splitting the stone to reach soil. The word itself is a metaphor; the line breaks at “splits,” and Williams splits the sentence in the way the flower splits the rocks. He reveals how language can help us break out of our personal isolation, get out of our heads—whether as a teenager or an adult—and engage with the world around us.

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