53. The Red Wheelbarrow: William Carlos Williams

This is one of my favorite poems.

In short, Williams is an Imagist. What you see is what you get. By taking a snapshot, Williams slows the reader down and makes them picture the scene. He adds no meaning, no symbolism, no metaphor. To paraphrase Popeye, it is what it is.

My students have tried to put more into it. A favorite interpretation is that it shows how farms are the backbone of America: Red wheelbarrow; white chickens; blue water (yes, rainwater being blue is a stretch, but not out of line on how far teachers sometimes push symbolism).

I also throw at them the story of Williams, a doctor, writing it out as he sits looking out the window while waiting for the fever to break on a young patient. This is my introduction to biographical criticism: Does it help to know that information? Can you now hear this poem without seeing that little girl, asleep and feverish in her little bed? More important, does knowing it really matter? Does it date the poem, or make it irrelevant? Discuss.

The excellent-yet-dated “Voices and Vision” series has a bit on Williams; the first ten minutes sets an interesting mood. See it here. It is so odd to see 1970s New York City and some of the crazy-haired critics (you’ll see); the kids love it. Williams’ use of the typewriter is linked with the dawn of the industrial age, which you can parley into a social science unit (don’t forget Whitman; he’s great for industrialization in America). In short, he typed the words over and over again, changing the lines and breaks only.

Have fun. Rewrite the poem. Find a typewriter, or magnet poetry, or cut the poem into words and move it around.

The Red Wheelbarrow
William Carlos Williams

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white


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