Essay

William Carlos Williams: “The Red Wheelbarrow”

Just what does depend on that old wheelbarrow, anyway?
Introduction

So just what is the deal with that red wheelbarrow and those white chickens? Craig Teicher looks closely at Williams and his American vernacular.

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.

Originally Published: November 15th, 2006

Craig Morgan Teicher's most recent book is To Keep Love Blurry (BOA Editions, 2012). He is editing the selected writings of Delmore Schwartz and working on a collection of essays. His poems appear in the Yale Review, Boston Review, Pleiades, Seneca Review, the Brooklyn Rail, and other publications. Reviews and...

Related Content
  1. December 12, 2006
     kayleigh

    THIS IS CONFUSING IS THIS ABOUT WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS OR NOT ???

  2. December 12, 2006
     KAYLEIGH

    oh ok then i guess it is ...

  3. February 20, 2007
     Rod

    Williams' "Red Wheelbarrow" is scrawled into the bus stop bench as grafitti where I catch the bus into downtown Chicago. Apparently, evidence of Williams' cult-members living in Hyde Park!

  4. March 15, 2007
     michael

    The nonessential story/myth goes: Williams (a doctor) was called to the bedside of a terminally ill young girl. After realizing there was nothing he could do to save her, nothing more he could do to lessen her suffering, Williams sat in a corner of the child's room and looked out the window. There he saw a red wheel barrow out in the yard, probably under a grey sky (but maybe whipped by sprinkler water instead of rain)... I remember reading one old philosopher who, at the end of a long academic life, expressed a relevant revalation (something along the lines of) "I realized our most fundamental relationship with existence is not intellectual, or spiritual, (or technological)... but entirely physical."

  5. April 10, 2007
     Irene

    So much depends on the visual juxtaposition of
    the red wheel barrow and the white chickens:
    blood and flesh, sustenance and toil. The water
    is, I believe, crucial; it connects the disparate
    elements. For me, it vivifies the tableau, at the
    same time infusing it with melancholy.

    --Just happened across this while subscribing for
    the first time. An unexpected treat at my lunch
    break!

  6. April 14, 2007
     Rachel

    Actually, I am writing a paper on William Carlos Williams and "The Red Wheelbarrow." My professor told us the same story as told on here about the ill little girl. Williams actually wrote it while at a sickly elderly african american mans house and saw this scene in his backyard.

  7. May 5, 2007
     Susan

    I've always enjoyed this poem because I think
    it captures a certain sublime quality that the
    ordinary physical world has -- i.e., nature's
    perseverance and indifference to the "human
    drama." I feel like it's similar to a Japanese
    haiku: it's a very visual poem in which an
    intangible, metaphysical feeling is tripped by
    the act of meditatively looking at a pedestrian
    scene. "So much depends" on the rain-slicked
    wheelbarrow and white chickens because
    although both provide humanity with
    nourishment, they are oblivious to a child's
    illness, for example. Such indifference to
    personal tragedy and humanity in general
    assures that life goes on, no matter what
    happens -- in one way, like the ideal clinical
    detachment of a doctor.

  8. May 30, 2007
     LBK

    So much depends on images/images to distract/to draw us from unpleasantness/ or perhaps/unpleasant images/to force a focus/to acknowledge life or death/or perhaps/ to suspend us/within images/beneath the colors/under the waters/and washes of natures ploys/that have deluded us/endlessly/to toss us us upon new shores.

  9. May 30, 2007
     LBK

    So much depends on images/images to distract/to draw us from unpleasantness/or perhaps/unpleasant images/to force a focus/to acknowledge life or death/or perhaps/ to suspend us/within images/beneath the colors/under the waters/and washes of natures ploys/that have deluded us/endlessly/to toss us upon new shores.
    (corrected)

  10. September 19, 2007
     edis

    I would support, that glazing water element is not that "constructive", but essential in providing liquid, giving-able vividness to the picture. All participants are there. All for a reason. So much depends upon every one of them.

  11. September 28, 2007
     Diane Jay

    So much depends on the moment. This one
    moment so clearly, hauntingly, perfectly
    recorded by the poet and every other one, as
    well.

  12. October 9, 2007
     Bill

    Williams himself, interviewed on her radio program by Mary Margaret McBride, when asked about the meaning of the red wheel barrow poem said, "Oh, I think it means 'A thing of beauty is a joy forever.'" He is quoting, of course, the first line of his beloved Keats' poem Endymion. You can hear this response on the PennSound site, where many, many Williams audio tapes have been gathered together and can be downloaded.

  13. October 30, 2007
     Doug Rushlau

    Context matters. "So much depends..." is lifted from a complicated argument William's sets out in Spring and All:


    "poetry: new form dealt with as a reality in itself.

    The form of prose is accuracy in its subject matter--

    how best to expose the multiform phases of its material

    the form of poetry is related to the movements of the imagination revealed in words-- or whatever it may be--

    the cleavage is complete"

    Williams is explicit in his distaste for writing as a recording of experience, or trying to 'capture a moment':

    "Writing is not a searching about in the daily experience for apt smiles and pretty thoughts and images. I have learned that to my sorrow. It is not a conscious recording of the day's experiences 'freshly and with the appearances of reality'..."

    *************

    'red wheelbarrow' appears as the last in a sequence of four short poems (IXX through XXII). They might be read separately, as exemplars of the form of poetry he was attempting-- creations apart the details and images from the world they might include. Emphasizing this, Williams valorizes Shakespeare for writing "NOT TO COPY... He speaks authoritatively through invention, through characters, through design. The objects of the world were real to him because he could use them and use them with understanding to make his inventions..."

    *******

    This sequence could also be read as connected, or rather, flowing from one to the next. With the 'prelude' of XXI, XXII ( red wheelbarrow) becomes something quite different:


    "one day in Paradise/a gypsy/smiled/to see the blandness/of the leaves--/so many/so lascivious/and still/so much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow...""

    His choice of line breaks suggest as well the opportunity to read wheel separately from barrow, rain from water, white from chickens-- so that the first line of each stanza is complete, not carried over to the second, as well as an unbroken senetence-- in doing so, it becomes more than a 'postcard' of distraction from his physician's role at that moment, which he was the last thing he wanted to do with his poems.

  14. November 2, 2007
     Rex Stevens

    One of my students, after I had read WCW's Red Wheelbarrow interrupted the pregnant pause I'd inserted after I'd read the poem. He said this:

    "No, it doesn't."

  15. January 3, 2008
     dr. howell

    omg i love William Williams

  16. July 27, 2008
     lixsee

    I think the key is in the structure itself.


    Take a look at each stanzas. It seems the imagery in the third and fourth would make sense in the context of the second stanza (the red wheelbarrow). The fact that each stanzas are shaped like wheelbarrows has illustrated the point.

  17. November 13, 2008
     luke

    ...amazing...i like cookies

  18. March 2, 2009
     Tyler M

    WCW's "The Red Wheelbarrow" paints a vivid picture in my mind. It's easy to imagine looking out a window into a backyard and see this scene going on. However, WCW says, "so much depends upon" this image he has painted in our mind. I seem to think he is trying to create a thought of life and death. Red compared to White, chickens (living) to wheelbarrow(non-living). Also the flow of the poem I seem to think is particularly important, There is no end-stops just 8 enjambed lines. Due to the fact that like this poem, the wheelbarrow, and life...it all goes on.

  19. March 3, 2009
     Megan

    Maybe Im reading this wrong on your intake of this poem, but the whole sense of this poem is maybe to not portray imagery or even a meaning behind the words. Maybe all that William Carlos Williams is trying to say is that there is a red wheelbarrow that has some drizzled rain on it (meaning morning dew im guessing) next to some white chickens. Nothing more and nothing less. Just simple words that dont uncover a hidden meaning. To me, these are just plain words that are saying exactly what they mean.

  20. May 25, 2009
     phyllis beckman

    joy depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.
    dependable joy.
    guaranteed.
    every time.
    yes.

  21. July 14, 2009
     Colleen De Norman

    When I was studying poetry in college, Williams' poem was the one that I remembered the most. There is something very emphatic about beginning the lines of a poem with "[s]o much depends upon . . ." It forces you to focus on the literal meaning. Honestly, when I first read it I thought that maybe Williams was trying to show how anything can be seen as important if you draw attention to it. It is kind of like when you go to a flea market and look at something that you think is junk but the person selling it decides not to sell it because there is so much personal history in the story of the item. A farmer is going to have a stronger significance regarding a "red wheelbarrow." If I read it, I might not even notice the wheelbarrow and might focus on the peculiar physical structure of the poem instead. No doubt, if "The Red Wheelbarrow" contained over a hundred words few people would be critiquing this small group of words. It would be a nice way to get away with writing a shorter term paper using fewer lines. I love this poem because it is different. Well done, Williams!

  22. July 22, 2009
     Demian Koller

    I agree with what, I think, some others have said already. Maybe, what "depends" on the red wheelbarrow is simply the rainwater itself. I have noticed often rain drops clinging to the underside of the lip of some thing. And yet, the "so much" could also be anything else in the world. It seems to me a beautiful fusing of both the most specific and the most general. A clever pun, eh?

  23. August 26, 2009
     jonnielime

    This evocative poem has been my favorite for nearly 40 years. I'm sure there are layers of complexity in it I don't (and, in truth, don't want to) appreciate which many of you have insightfully explored. To me, however, the poem has always been the perfect expression (and reminder) of how important it is to be in the moment, fully aware. "So much depends", it says to me, on simple things -- and on taking the time to drink in every detail of them: the redness of the wheelbarrow, the whiteness of the chickness, the slickness of the rainwater. It is not so much the objects of the scene itself on which "so much depends", but the very fact of our noticing them.

  24. October 30, 2009
     Mia

    This poem came off to be pointless when i first read it but now it shows the necessities of life.