The Red Wheelbarrow

The Red Wheelbarrow

Hema Manika asked me to read for her poetry audio-blog, pō-ĭ-trē. My first reading, of William Carlos Williams’s The Red Wheelbarrow, is now up on the site, along with my notes.

This is a fun project, definitely worth a look and a listen.

The Red Wheelbarrow
by William Carlos Williams

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

-from Spring and All (1923)

And here are my notes:

This stark, elegant piece always reminds me of the versatility of poetry and the agility of precision-crafted writing.

The poem’s opening couplet (“so much depends upon”) starts the reader on a traditional poetic journey into desires or physical imperatives which must be satisfied. This is what poetry is good at: finding emotional fault lines, tracing needs and wants, describing action or setting in a way intended to convey something conceptually more complex, more meaningful. Or I should say, this is what we do easily with poetry — poetry itself being good for a great many things.

But somewhere between the second and third couplets, the poem makes a shift. (Actually, this is when the reader makes the shift. The poem itself transforms with the phrase a wheelbarrow, rather than calling out the wheelbarrow.) The language is not a high-flying metaphor or parable for anything. It does not teach, complain, exalt, condemn – or do any of those other didactic things poems usually do. Instead, the poem settles in to an intensely visual sensibility; and though the descriptive elements are really quite scant – a red wheelbarrow, wetness, white chickens – the resulting still-life has a rich, painterly quality. Williams does not so much describe an image as create one.

Still, the powerful opening couplet refuses to let the reader simply take in the scene, as if it were depicted on a canvass. There is a temporal, narrative element – and an urgency – quite apart from the visual snapshot. The mundane object and unremarkable birds are presented without the hint of action or any trace of expressive quality; and yet, we ache to know: who or what depends on a wheelbarrow, and why?

The beauty of this tension, and of the interplay of discursive strategies within the sixteen spare words of the poem, has kept me returning to this poem for years.

My deepest thanks to my lifelong friend Eric Zakim for introducing me to this poem.

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1 Response to “The Red Wheelbarrow”


  1. 1 Walter Wray 5 August 2009 at 9:05 am

    I love this poem – first read it at university aged 18 , didn’t get it at all, spent years wondering what all the fuss was about… i stopped thinking about it and it suddenly made sense. I sing in a band called LiTTLe MACHiNe – we set famous poems to music The Red Wheelbarrow was one of the first pieces we tackled – please take a listen, hope you like it. http://www.myspace.com/littlemachineuk

    Walter


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