The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

William Carlos Williams, “The Red Wheelbarrow” from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I, 1909-1939, edited by Christopher MacGowan. Copyright 1938 by New Directions Publishing Corporation. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.
Source: The Collected Poems: Volume I 1909-1939 (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1938)

Writing Ideas

  1. Make a list of characteristics of “The Red Wheelbarrow.” For example: short, enjambed lines; simple word choices; etc. Then use the first line to start an anti-imitation of the poem. Try to make your poem the exact opposite of Williams’s. Use your list of characteristics.
  2. Rewrite “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Use only the words in Williams’s poem, but rearrange, divide, or otherwise recycle them.
  3. “The Red Wheelbarrow” originally appeared in Spring and All (1923), a book of alternating poetry and prose. Write the prose you imagine this poem might have been embedded in. Then, find a copy of Spring and All and see how Williams framed the poem.

Discussion Questions

  1. “The Red Wheelbarrow” is almost haiku-like in its simplicity. Review the entry for haiku. How does Williams’s poem conform to and deviate from haiku? (Does it share anything, for example, with riddles?) What about Imagism? Look at other famous examples of Imagist poems, such as Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” Could you describe the tenets of the movement from these poems? Check your description against Amy Lowell’s “Preface to Some Imagist Poets.”
  2. Though spare, Williams’s poem packs in a lot of sound play. Using a different colored pencil for each, track single sounds through the poem. Does paying attention to the sound, rather than simply the poem’s image, alter your sense of it?
  3. Draw the poem. What is visually representable in the poem and what isn’t? That is, in a poem famous for its relationship to Imagism, what can’t be imaged? 

Teaching Tips

  1. “The Red Wheelbarrow” might be American poetry’s best example of an anthology piece: a poem printed and reprinted in anthologies until its “original” context is forgotten. To follow up on the third writing idea above, have your students find the original “The Red Wheelbarrow.” (Or present a few pages from Spring and All to your class.) What do they notice? How does reading “The Red Wheelbarrow” in that book differ from reading the poem in an anthology (or on a website like the Poetry Foundation’s)? Ask students to think about how the context of their reading—what kind of book or website they’re reading from, what kinds of text, images, or other material are also available—affects their engagement with the poem. You might have them each find a poem on the Internet or in an anthology and take notes on how it is presented (how and where it appears in an anthology, how it is linked to on a site), and how such presentation alters their reading and in what ways/ Then, have them track down the original version. Does anything change in their understanding of the poem? Does where you read a poem change how you read it?
  2. Before your students read Craig Morgan Teicher’s discussion, close read “The Red Wheelbarrow” as a class. Try out typical questions—what depends on a red wheelbarrow? Why red? What is the poem “about”? Then have them read Morgan Teicher’s poem guide: do they see themselves at all in his descriptions of reading Williams? Discuss or have your students spend some time writing on what Williams’s most famous maxim—“No ideas but in things!”—might mean. Return to the poem as a class and consider the poem now in light of Williams’s biography (as summarized by Morgan Teicher), his vernacular poetics, experimental method, and his understanding of the relationship between things and words. Have students write their own brief “poem guide” for “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Like Morgan Teicher, have them bring in their own feelings and contexts.
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