• 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.
The Red Wheelbarrow

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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)
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William Carlos Williams: “The Red Wheelbarrow”

Poem Guide

Just what does depend on that old wheelbarrow, anyway?

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.

The Red Wheelbarrow

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