An interpretation of "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams

Undergraduate Academic Essay

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“The Red Wheelbarrow”

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

—William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” presents a unique problem for interpretation of lyric poetry. On the one hand, the poem has often been taken as a celebration of “the thing itself,” presented in all its vitality and concreteness in the manner that Pound and Emerson would urge. An object gains this power from the emotional connection and vision of the poet. Imagist poems can be said to carry the power of new symbols used freshly and without clutter. On the other hand, many critics express dissatisfaction with the poem’s simplicity and straightforwardness. One such critic notes that,

“When Dr. Williams writes of the wheelbarrow one is reminded of the poetic youth in one of Mr. Saroyan’s plays who wrote poems with single words—‘tree,’ for example, and ‘sky.’ Poetry, one need hardly say, is not so simple and the reader might be tempted to ask himself whether Dr. William’s notorious ‘non-poetic’ style was less a deliberate devide than a confession of inadequacy. . .” (William Carlos Williams: The Critical Heritage, 242)

One could say that the particularity of the objects presented precludes a symbolic interpretation, since there is no history of associations that one may bring to bear on such items. More often, critics have argued that the language of the poem is simply too sparse. “The Red Wheelbarrow” lacks the formal complexity—the metrical or phonetic play, the verbal art—that many expect from poetry. In sum, imagist poems are often problematic because “seeing the whole in the part, the extraordinary in the commonplace, the universal in the particular, or the supernatural in the natural, means focusing ever more sharply and narrowly on minutiae. . . But it can also mean depending on verbal minutiae to render these things, on bare lists of words cut loose from conventional syntax” (Rapp, 61-62)

Jonathan Culler’s Structuralist Poetics strikes at the heart of these issues. On the one hand, Culler initially makes the point that any verbal passage can be be seem to have poetic qualities, and may even bear interpretation if given proper spatial arrangement and presented as a poem. Yet, Culler modifies this position by setting forth ideas about the conventions we bring to bear in reading poems. Coherence, impersonality, significance, and formal structure are the conventional tools that we employ in reading a poem. Culler seems to solve the problem of reading “The Red Wheelbarrow” by locating the poem’s significance in the convention of reading imagist poems. Culler asserts that “[i]f an object or situation is the focus of a poem, that implies, by convention, that it is especially important. . .” (175).

Culler rightly notes that the expectations we bring to poetry are often more important than formal patterns and verbal style in distinguishing between poetry and non-poetry. As evidence of the power of expectation, Culler examines a piece of journalism and William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is Just to Say.” Both the poem and the newspaper excerpt, when read “as poetry,” seem to exhibit such poetic qualities as irony, verbal suggestiveness, and symbolic resonance. These observations imply that anything can be poetry, and what is more, anything can be good poetry, mostly because of the efforts we make in reading.

However, Culler later emphasizes the difference between poetry and non-poetry by foregrounding coherence as an aesthetic criterion. He notes that a poem can only form a unified, organic whole when the reader perceives a model which allows him or her to make sense of the poem. Coherence, present to some degree in the mere sense that the text is presented as a poem, is also instrumental in arriving at “the best” interpretation. According to Culler, “Ideally, one should be able to account for everything in a poem and among comprehensive explanations we should prefer those which best succeed in relating items to one another. . .” (Structuralist Poetics, 171). Moreover, since these items include the formal patterns of a poem, Culler’s statement seems to imply that coherence equals complexity. He goes so far as to list what he sees as the basic models of unity in lyric poetry: “. . .the binary opposition, an unresolved opposition by a third term, the four-term homology, the series united by a common denominator, and the series with a transcendent or summarizing final term” (174)

An interpretation of “The Red Wheelbarrow,” then, should follow one of the above models, as well as account for as many of its features as possible. One such satisfactory reading might be similar to that of Stephen Tapscott, who asserts that “this Imagist piece works structurally through a series of progressively more specific observations: from the rhetorical abstraction of the first couplet, to the generic object of the second, to its qualities (in the third), to its relation to a sentient world (in the fourth)” (89). Tapscott makes full use of formal qualities of the poem in his interpretation, observing that “poetic” distance from abstraction equals vitality. Yet, he also notes that the first and last couplets are metrically similar to each other in contrast to the pattern of the middle ones. Tapscott then concludes that the vitality and abstraction are “united by the. . .wheelbarrow in a process like that by which the mind is joined to the world through the objectification of a perception, in a “thing” (the wheelbarrow, the poem) (89-90).

This interpretation, which seems consistent with Culler’s sense of expectations and conventions, also points to its problems. The interpretation finds a verbal and conceptual complexity that belies the initial sense of simplicity. However, it errs on the side of generosity. Such an interpretation exposes the tendency in Culler’s conventions to find “poetic” qualities in any text labelled as a poem. The poem, while “fitting into” Tapscott’s pattern, simply seems better interpreted with less formal complexity.

Williams himself gives a simple explanation of “The Red Wheelbarrow”: “. . .The sight impressed me somewhow as about the most important, the most integral that it had ever been my pleasure to gaze upon. And the meter though no more than a fragment succeeds in portraying this pleasure flawlessly” (Rapp, 89). Williams, like Emerson and Pound, believed in the power of the minute to suggest the universal. I hesitate to rely on biographical information to justify a reading of a poem. However, such a process is a better alternative to one that forces a complex and obscure interpretation on a poem for which simpler, equally “pleasing” readings are available. Biographical information is useful insofar as it serves as arbiter between different “schools” of interpretation.

Given Williams’ own attitudes toward poetry, we may safely choose the romantic version of an imagist interpretation. In this version of “The Red Wheelbarrow,” the objects themselves draw their importance because of their particularity and the infusion of symbolic power inherent in the poet’s choice of them. The smallness of the poem and simplicity of description evoke an intimate world. The wheelbarrow, rain, and white chickens may suggest innocence, wholesomeness, and earthiness. Wheelbarrows are instruments of farming, or perhaps a child’s toy; rain often symbolizes purity; chickens are also a homely symbol of a farm. What then, distinguishes this poem from “normal” language, or prevents it from being overly bland and simple, if not the expectations of coherence and structure that Culler describes? Essentially, we can point to the choice of objects combined with the clean, spacious manner of description. The combination of details is important in suggesting the image of America at its most home-spun and concrete in a way that would not have been possible with different selection of objects or style of presentation. The significance of “The Red Wheelbarrow” may lie in the purity and physicality conveyed by its simple, direct language. The lines “so much depends/upon” support this interpretation of the poem, pointing to the power of objects to evoke emotions. We need not believe that the objects are intrinsicly important, since our concept of a poetic persona moved by the objects is enough to justify their significance. Thus, there is a simple approach to interpretation which still takes into account formal qualities, significance, and coherence.

However, it is not so much the particular interpretation that is important as the conviction that the most complex arrangement is not necessarily the best. While Culler presents a logical explanation of the conventions that govern interpretation, he is not clear enough in showing that they are merely conventions which may be overused. One such convention is the idea that “the richest organization compatible with the data is to be preferred” (174). This idea seems a response to the troublesome simplicity of such poems as “The Red Wheelbarrow.” The fascinating complexity of many structuralist readings seems unfairly belaboured, perhaps for the sake of alleviating the fear that anything can be poetry. We may make a simpler definition of coherence: coherence may simply be most reasonable organization compatible with the data. Essentially, the poem’s sparsity and simplicity question the validity of the traditional qualities attributed to poetry. Rather than stretch logic in order to apply conventional methods of interpretation, we should expect the poem to determine the conventions.

Works Cited

“Unsigned Review, Poet of an Industrial Society.” Times Literary Supplement. No. 2,609, 1 February 1952, 95. Rpt. in William Carlos Williams: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Charles Doyle. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd, 1980.

Rapp, Carl. William Carlos Williams and Romantic Idealism. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1984.

Tapscott, Stephen. American Beauty: William Carlos Williams and the Modernist Whitman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.