so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams is arguably one of the best known and most significant modern poems. It’s iconic. It’s one of the first poems I read as a student of poetry in college and it’s probably part of why Williams is a favorite poet of mine to this day. I’ve always thought of him as a poet of the people–there’s something for everyone to love in his work. His poems are easily remixed and retooled and most of them are even social media friendly. I am certain that Williams would have loved Twitter.
Williams is part of the modernist poetry movement. He wrote poetry when our ideas of what a poem could be and what a poem should be were changing; he’s part of why those ideas changed. You can see why with “The Red Wheelbarrow.”
This poem is sleek and elegant but it’s also earthier and more subtle than many earlier poems (like Shakespearean sonnets or Romantic poetry from writers like Blake or Shelley). Williams brings the same intricacy and thought to this poem–that’s the whole basis of what a poem does, after all–but it’s still a bit shocking.
This poem is stark. It’s a flash. A moment. Blink and you might miss it. Read it too fast and the beauty is lost. Unlike many other poetic forms, this free verse poem is also deceptive. Williams effectively draws the reader’s attention away from the complexity of this poem. The simplicity of the wording and the form belie the underlying thought and intricacy. Looking at the way the words are laid out, it’s clearly a deliberate decision. More so, in conveying such an evocative scene with fifteen words (none of which repeat) in just one small sentence gives this poem added weight and significance.
The poem itself seems to be imploring the reader to slow down and really pay attention–a sentiment that is mirrored neatly with the content of the poem. So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens. Why is that so? Williams doesn’t need to tell us. Just by saying it, by drawing our attention to it, the scene becomes significant largely because we are observing it as readers.
Poetry is timeless. It is intensely personal but it can also be universal. I wanted to close out Poetically Speaking 2017 with “The Red Wheelbarrow” because it exemplifies all of those things. Our world isn’t the one that Williams inhabited. It may not be the one readers will see if they stumble upon this post a year from now or even further down the line. Everything changes but poetry and ideas endure. In a time when everything is moving faster and faster, this poem is one of the best reminders to stop for a second. To breathe. To look around and to look up. And to remember that so much can change because of one small moment observed.
I hope you enjoyed spending Fridays this month talking about poetry here. I’d love to hear your thoughts about “The Red Wheelbarrow” (or any other poems) in the comments as we close out another National Poetry Month.