Poetry Like a Delicious Cold Plum

William Carlos Williams’ poem designated XXII in Spring and All used to drive me crazy. I’d rack my brain trying to figure out what it all meant. The poem is short enough I can reproduce it right here:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

Williams, a doctor by trade, published his first book of poetry in 1909, titled simply Poems. The Red Wheelbarrow, as the poem is commonly referred to today, was published in 1923, and you can see Williams’ medical career slip out in other poems, such as By the road to the contagious hospital, which was also originally published without a title. The Wheelbarrow is pure imagism. Reading Wheelbarrow is like looking at a photograph; there is no meaning except what you provide. A lot of Williams’ poetry was inspired by photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Even if you don’t recognize the name, you know who he is. He took this photo:

I’m not sure what this photograph, The Hand of Man, means. The title maybe gives some hints. The harmful effects of pollution and industrialization to the more natural landscape that should be present in the photo, but is the natural beauty really missing because of the locomotive? Personally, I just like trains, so maybe the photo has more of a romantic noir detective feel, like Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine and Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund:


“Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. If that
plane train leaves and you’re not with him, if you don’t go, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but soon, and for the rest of you life.”
“What about us?’
“We’ll always have Paris.”

Reading Casablanca into the photograph is probably adding too much meaning. Why can’t it just be a train? Why can’t Williams’ wheelbarrow just be a wheelbarrow?

What catches people off guard is the line “so much depends upon.” You have no idea what depends on the wheelbarrow. Williams was asked once what the poem meant. His response is just as enigmatic as the poem:

“[The Wheelbarrow] sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a fisherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. He used to tell me how he had to work in the cold in freezing weather, standing ankle deep in cracked ice packing down the fish. He said he didn’t feel cold. He never felt cold in his life until just recently. I liked that man, and his son Milton almost as much. In his back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing” (Rizzo).

I don’t see Marshall in the poem though. Williams does, but unless you know the history of how the poem was written, Marshall isn’t present at all. The only sign of any human activity in the poem is the wheelbarrow, and that mechanical device is somehow taken over by nature altogether—covered in rain and chickens.

***

Williams was overtaken in popularity by T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. That poem is complicated, filled with at least seven languages, I don’t know how many individual speakers, and obscure pop culture references. Williams wrote in his autobiography, “I felt at once that The Waste Land had set me back twenty years and I’m sure it did. Critically, Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on a point to escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself—rooted in the locality which should give it fruit,” and he continued to be critical of Eliot’s work. What I like, what I enjoy, about Williams as opposed to Eliot—who I like for different reasons altogether—is Williams use of American plain colloquial English. Nothing about the Wheelbarrow is fancy. Not a single word is over two syllables. American poet and literary critic, John Hollander, called Wheelbarrow “meditative.” All good poetry is, really, delicious and cold, like a plum.

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