Quite illuminating in this context is a commentary on William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" in The Guardian's Poem of the Week at:
"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 of wheelbarrows 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.
a poetry-barrow, not just a wheelbarrow --
"an unforgettable image", indeed, "that is also a manifesto for modern poetry" --
--- On Mon, 7/26/10, Chokh Raj <[log in to unmask]" ymailto="mailto:[log in to unmask]">[log in to unmask]> wrote:
> Rather complex? Ay, there's the rub!
> "[B]ut you are the music / While the music lasts."
> --- On Sun, 7/25/10, Chokh Raj <[log in to unmask]" ymailto="mailto:[log in to unmask]">[log in to unmask]> wrote:
> "Let us go then, you and I,
> When the evening is spread out against the sky
> Like a patient etherised upon a table;"
> If one sets about considering these lines as poetry, as something different from prose, a
> question likely to arrest our attention is "What is it that makes it poetry?"
> I look forward to the listers' participation in this debate -- a debate, though, that has
> occupied critical attention all along and, therefore, might seem rather iterative. But I'm sure this is a debate that warrants an unremitting engagement with the beauty
> of art -- an enterprise that hardly ever fails to delight.