William Carlos Williams: “The Red Wheelbarrow”
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
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
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
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
—through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
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.
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...