“The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams, was untitled when it first appeared as number xxi in his 1923 collection, Spring and All. Titled or untitled, it’s surely one of the most memorable poems ever written. But do we remember it in the way we usually remember poems? If you’re familiar with “The Red Wheelbarrow”, shut your eyes now and see what happens when you try to recall it. The poem probably appears in front of you, more or less intact. It’s the visual memory that it appeals to: once seen, its overall shape and inner patterns, as well as its key images, seem printed on the brain.
The visual arts had a profound effect on Williams’s poetic development, beginning with the new work he encountered in the epochal 1913 Armory Show. The moving spirit behind this exhibition was the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. His avant-garde Gallery 291 became another hub of creative activity for the new American artists, and Williams was a regular visitor.
As his Autobiography reveals, Williams was interested in Cubism, Futurism, photographic art, and the “readymades” of Marcel Duchamp. He talks particularly about the significance of Paul Cézanne and his successors, approving their concept of “sheer paint: a picture a matter of pigments upon a piece of cloth stretched on a frame.”
The four stanzas here are rather like that “piece of cloth, stretched on a frame”. The structural tension gives every word its space and focus. The dominant nouns are like objects painted vividly onto a neutral ground. Williams emphasises the colours rather than the shapes – the shape, after all, appears in our minds as soon as we see a word like “wheelbarrow” or “chickens”.
“The key, the master-key to the age,” Williams said of the modern movement in literature, “was that jump from the feeling to the word itself: that which had been got down, the thing to be judged and valued accordingly.” But we shouldn’t forget that poems are made of line-breaks as well as words, and “so much depends”, in this poem, on the splitting of the two compound words, “wheelbarrow” and “rainwater”. These dissections slow us down, and help the mind’s eye to register more: the individual wheels as well as the body of the barrow, the water that is more than raindrops.
Important for their spatial emphases are the prepositions. “Upon” and “beside” are two little words that the poem magnifies hugely. Their implications float beyond the phrases that contain them. The abstract “so much” depends upon the objects, but the rainwater also depends physically upon the barrow, and the glazing effect depends upon the rainwater. The idea of the barrow being “beside” the chickens is complex: the barrow is stationary (there is no sign of anyone pushing it) while the chickens are likely to be moving about. If they are not specially posed, their aesthetic effect is sheer lucky chance. The effect is snatched after all from the flux of existence.
Had Williams simply set down his imagery as a description, the poem would still have its visual impact, but we would be in an entirely contained pictorial world. But the poem’s opening assertion, “so much depends/upon…”, shows that, perhaps paradoxically, the speaker is not simply content with the thing itself.
A naive reading could take it as a comment about the great usefulness ofwheelbarrows on small-holdings where chickens are kept. Unharmed by the rain which has simply left a sheen on the painted surface, the barrow will shortly be filled with more useful matter. It would be amusing to think that the doctor-poet, so pragmatic and modest in his daily life, meant nothing more than that. But no: the poem has an obviously aesthetic agenda. Its author is a radical innovator, and he is setting out his poetry-barrow, not describing his wheelbarrow. This is his manifesto, surely – a poem quietly declaring how modern poetry works.
“No ideas but in things,” as he famously said. And yet, in this poem, so much depends on how we interpret the statement “so much depends”.
“The Red Wheelbarrow” evades what it seems to invite: a simple, visual interpretation. It seems to be absolutely clear, but, at the same time, it’s a riddle. Whatever you may decide the poem means intellectually, as an art-object it holds on to its own indelible shape and colour. Its images are irrefutable, and no amount of verbal rain will ever wash them from the memory they have entered – nor dull the shiny, spring-like, fresh-paint patina of happiness that this particular wheelbarrow seems to carry.
The Red Wheelbarrow
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
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