A Kind of Colloquy - Hugh Kenner and Bruce Holsapple and Carol Rumens
on William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow”

[Sources:  A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (NY: Knopf 1974; London: Boyars 1975), and Bruce Holsapple, The Birth of the Imagination: William Carlos Williams on Form (New Mexico UP 2016) - respectively accesses at Univ. of Illinois > English > Maps > Poets S-Z - online, and Google Books - online; accessed 30.05.2017.]

“The Red Wheelbarrow’ by William Carlos Williams

so much depends upon

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white


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Hugh Kenner Bruce Holsapple Carol Rumens

Hugh Kenner (A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers, 1975)

Not what the poets says, insisted Williams; what he makes; and if ever we seem to catch him saying (“So much depends upon ...’), well, he has cunningly not said what depends. He has levered that red wheelbarrow into a special zone of attention by sheer torque of insistence.

Attention first encounters the word “upon,’ sitting all alone as though to remind us that “depends upon,’ come to think of it, is a rather queer phrase. Instead of tracing, as usage normally does, the contour of a forgotten Latin root, “depends upon’ ignores the etymology of “depend’ (de + pendere = to hang from). In the substantial world “upon’ goes nicely with “wheelbarrow’: so much, as it were, piled upon. In the idiomatic world, inexplicably, “upon’ goes with “depends.’ In the poem, since we’re paying unaccustomed attention, these two worlds are sutured, and “depends’ lends its physical force, an incumbency as though felt by the muscles, to what must be a psychic depending.


[A]fter “upon,’ there’s what looks like a stanza break. What are these stanzas? Small change symmetrically counted, always three words and then one word, the one word, morover, always of two syllables, but the three-word line having four syllables the first time and the last, but only three syllables on its two middle occurrences. These are stanzas you can’t quite hear, especially as one very simple sentence runs through all four of them. They are stanzas to see, and the sight of them, as so often in Williams, inflects the speaking voice, the listening ear, with obligations difficult to specify. “Upon,’ “barrow,’ “water,’ “chickens,’ these words we punctuate with as it were a contraction of the shoulders, by way of doing the stanzas’ presence some justice. And as we give “barrow’ and “water’ the emphasis their isolation requests, two other words, “wheel’ and “rain,’ isolate likewise. [...]

“Wheelbarrow’ and “rainwater,’ dissociated into their molecules, seem nearly kennings: not adjective plus noun but yoked nouns, as though new-linked. And “red’ goes with “white,’ in a simple bright scheme, and “chickens’ with “barrow’ for an ideogram of the barnyard, comporting with the simplicities of rain; and the rain glazes a painted surface but (we are left to imagine) does not glaze the chickens, merely soaks them if they are chickens enough to stand in it. (And yet they need it, and may not be wise enough to know how much depends, for them, on the rain.) So much depends on all that pastoral order: food, and the opportunity to touch actualities (while trundling a wheelbarrow), and the Sabine diastole to counter the urban systole.

Are these reflections penumbral to the poem? Probably. Probably even external to it. This poem tends to ignore what it doesn’t state. But let them serve to remind us that a farmer would know every one of the words in this little poem, but would be incapable of framing the poem, or even uttering its sentence. We need to be at a picturesque distance from such elements to think of how much depends (for us) on them.

 “Mobile-like arrangement,’ said Wallace Stevens. Yes. The lines, the words, dangle in equidependency, attracting the attention, isolating it, so that the sentence in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system. This was one thing Williams meant by “making,’ not “saying.’ Yet you do say, you do go through the motions of saying. But art lifts the saying out of the zone of things said. For try an experiment. Try to imagine an occasion for this sentence to be said:

So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens.

Try it over, in any voice you like: it is impossible. It could only be the gush of an arty female on a tour of Farmer Brown’s barnyard. And to go on with the dialogue? To whom might the sentence be spoken, for what purpose? Why, to elicit agreement, and a silent compliment for the speaker’s “sensitivity.’ Not only is what the sentence says banal, if you heard someone say it you’d wince. But hammered on the typewriter into a thing made, and this without displacing a single word except typographically, the sixteen words exist in a different zone altogether, a zone remote from the world of sayers and sayings. That zone is what Williams in the 1920’s started calling “the Imagination.’ ( pp. 59-60.)

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Bruce Holsapple (The Birth of Imagination: William Carllos Williams on Form (2016)

  In A Homemade World, Kenner assesses Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow’ as having stanzas that “you can’t quite hear - “stanzas to see’ - “and the sight of them, as so often in Williams, inflects the speaking voice, the listening ear, with obligations difficult to specify.’ (58). The worlds “dangle in equidependency,’ Kenner relates, “so that the sentences in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system’ (59). In order to show how the poem suspends “saying out of the zone of things said,’ he renders it as prose, without line divisions, inviting the reader to imagine a context and addressee to whom one could say such a thing. Impossible to do without wincing. “But hammered on a type-writer into a thing made .. the sixteen words exist in a different zone altogether, a zone remote from the world of sayers and sayings’ (60).

Kenner’s account is itself classic, his prose arresting, yet I’d respectfully argue the reverse, that the poem is eminently sayable and that Williams likely composed it on the tongue, to use Ginsberg’s apt phrase, for the stem, “so much depends upon,’ is a common phrasal element and Williams [301] himself used it in conversations (Int 28). If flattening the poem into prose makes it appear unsayable, that’s not because Williams’ arrangement is simply visual, although it is, also, visual. Rather, that is because removing lineation renders the poem into a flat proposition about “what depends.’ All of Williams’ cues to intonation, rhythm and timing have been erased, and they are what in fact elevates the words into poetry. That is to insist that an essential part of the structure of the poem is auditory, speech-based.

Consequently, when Williams indignantly announced to Laughlin in 1938 that a new auditory quality informs how his lines are arranged, there is ample evidence he was attending to linguistic properties like intonation and pace, in addtion to more traditional concerns, and that he had developed that look, line by line, for well over a decade. His attention to tonal properties was given decisive focus by his friendship with Zufoksy - their friendship proved catalytic for both poets [...]. Williams consequently revamped his approach, attending to syllabic quantities and qualities, using musical patterning to bolster the line, hence the remarkable difference in compositional practice between the poetry of the 1920s, for instance, Spring and All, with its jagged juxtapositions and lightning transitions - it[s] emphasis on imagination - and An Early Martyr and Other Poems in 1935, with its controlled focus on uniformiity of linear and musical langugage. Emphasis shifts from the macroscopic and the imaginative to the microscopic and the musical. 

This new form, as Williams conceived of it, would be equitable with traditional forms, to the point of his deploying an older vocabulary, metrical foot, scanning, quantity, and mesure. [...] Tracing Williams through the 1930s demonstrates, then, not only that his prosody is speech-based, as he repeatedly said, but also that the line is devised to express those several prosodic dimensions. The vernacular “shapes the pattern’. [...] (pp.301-02.)

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Carol Rumens, ‘Poem of the Day’ [blogspot column], in The Guardian (8 March 2010)

This week’s poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow’ by William Carlos Williams, was untitled when it first appeared as number xxi [sic; recte xxii] 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 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. 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. [Available online; accessed 31.05.2017.]

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