Oct 18, 2009

Poem of the Day: "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams

The Red Wheelbarrow (1923)
by William Carlos Williams

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

At last count, 247,822,409 American students have been driven crazy by the stature of this poem in the literary world. Many of them, in good faith, have offered that it celebrates farm life. While I don't find that wrong, I don't see why so many American teens don't think it's enough for a poem to say, "Look." Or, more elaborately: see? These ordinary objects, these items and creatures are in the world. What do you see in the world? How might it matter? Can rain or light transform them? Can you?

I recently assigned my college freshmen a descriptive sketch in prose, explaining that they need to be aware of their obligation simply to see--to witness--all they can of what's around them before they start trying highfalutin stuff like comparing and contrasting or defining or classifying. One more time, youth was baffled. "What are we supposed to see?" Or, "My world's boring." Or, "The picture frame on my desk is brown. So what?"

They don't seem to agree, or care about, Williams's and the Imagists' notion of "no ideas but in things," though it surely makes some important sense, no matter how limited or limiting it might seem compared to fancy endeavors like transcendentalism or ethics. If you don't perceive the material world, who cares whether you think you've transcended it or moralized about it effectively?

On Bill Moyers' Journal today, guest and journalist Mark Danner said that countries like the U.S. repeatedly become entangled in wars and other messes because they don't realize how much they don't know about Country X until they're already embroiled in a situation from which it would be embarrassing if not impossible to extricate oneself "honorably." And of course, embarrassment and dishonor are more critical than death. Once troops are physically there, palpably in the realities of a place, its people and terrain and objects and situations seize policy makers by the throat; new strategies have to be implemented--despite the inconvenience of moving corpses out of the way.

I don't see how it's far-fetched to say this amounts to a failure of imagination, which in turn is a failure to see, touch, hear, and smell what was there all along, but was inconvenient and inconsistent with preconceived notions--what we thought was there, what we needed to be there.

Is it really absurd to posit that this begins with noticing red wheelbarrows? And caves, really, really deep caves where people can hide? Wheelbarrow, cave, wheelbarrow, cave . . . . That stone wall and the path to it--are they glazed prettily with rainwater or merely slick enough to slip on?

There might be ideas in addition to things, but if ideas ignore things, details, as the ideas are getting born, I have a strong opinion on how much they're worth.

(By the way, I found Wikipedia's information on "The Red Wheelbarrow" interesting and helpful. It's brief and I have an eyebrow raised about some of it, but it's a beginning).

* *


Anonymous said...

Talk about four star. Can I take a correspondence course? But don't be unkind. I didn't even notice shadow and light until last year.

Jeff M said...

Ah, William Carlos Williams and the advent of symbolism-destroying poetry, which until his time plagued the student (for he/she had to strain to find deep meaning) and the teacher (for he/she had teach deep meaning). Williams' work was refreshing, an attempt to reinvigorate what the Chinese poets of all understood: that there is deeper meaning in a simple image. So...here's my tribute to Mr. Williams and all those poets who could see as much if not more in a red wheelbarrow and a drop of rainwater than most other poets combined.

chunk of butt steak
stabbed on a
cheap fork

the wine is dry
and the air is cold

a new Target has opened
the street

gothpunkuncle said...

I'm not sure if A.H. is signing up to study your fine literary analysis or your fine photography (I've seen enough of her work to know she's being too humble about her mastery of shadow and light.)

I particularly like that Professor Banjo hasn't merely posted this fragment of Spring and All (Is this this EVER read in context?!) and asked us youngsters if it's a poem or not (yawn...)

For an even funnier example of a poem that tries to "be not mean" I'd suggest Padgett's "Nothing in That Drawer" where the page becomes the subject matter, and we're left to make of it what we will.

Banjo52 said...

AH, amazing what a camera can do for the eyes, isn't it? I've never tried painting; imagine what THAT would do.

Jeff, hilarious! Thanks. You and GPU seem to have a less than reverent attitude toward the poem.

I'm afraid I really do like it, hearing as I do something like, "Just see what's there, and knock it off with cubism, metaphysics, positivism, dissectivism, and such." But I guess I've said that already.

GPU, I haven't read the Padgett yet, but are you finding "Red Wheelbarrow" the equivalent of a blank canvas?

By the way, I'm OK with a lot of Rothko and Jackson Pollock--great occasions for more wars about The New Criticism, eh? However, I shouldn't venture into the visual arts; I don't know them well enough.

Lovers' Lane