The New World of William Carlos Williams

Today it would be hard to find a reader of poetry who would not acknowledge William Carlos Williams as one of the major American modernists, a peer of Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound. His place in anthologies and on college reading lists is secure. Possibly no modern American poem is more widely known than Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” that tiny epiphany:

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Lisa Larsen/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
William Carlos Williams at his house in Rutherford, New Jersey, 1954

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

This is not Williams’s best or most important poem, but it does illustrate some crucial aspects of his art. In his Autobiography (1951), Williams explains that his goal as a writer is to capture the “immediacy” of experience: “It is an identifiable thing, and its characteristic, its chief character is that it is sure, all of a piece and, as I have said, instant and perfect: it comes, it is there, and it vanishes. But I have seen it, clearly. I have seen it.” This is just what he does with the wheelbarrow, the rainwater, and the chickens: trivial in themselves, their sheer uninsistent presence strikes the reader as somehow disclosing the very essence of being. Williams himself, not given to making high claims for his own work, considered this poem “quite perfect”: “the sight impressed me as about the most important, the most integral that it had ever been my pleasure to gaze upon.”

What makes the poem work perfectly is, first, the artistry behind Williams’s apparent artlessness. “The Red Wheelbarrow,” like a number of Williams’s poems (but far from all), could easily be rewritten as prose. Yet the way Williams lays out the words on the page is central to the poem’s meaning. Each couplet starts out narrow and then gets even narrower, with only a single word in the second line; the effect is a measured, haiku-like bareness. And then Williams takes care to break each couplet across a compound word (“wheel/barrow,” “rain/water”) or adjectival phrase (“white/chickens”), disrupting the flow of the language and forcing a hitch or stumble in the reader’s attention.

Most important of all, however, is the wager with the reader introduced in the first line. If you don’t understand why “so much depends” on this quotidian scene, Williams is not going to tell you. As a result, the reader’s ability to intuit the poet’s meaning becomes a kind of test of spiritual fineness, a conspiracy of meaning. If you look at the lingua franca of American poetry today—a colloquial free verse focused on visual description and meaningful anecdote—it seems clear that Williams is the twentieth-century poet who has done most to influence our very conception of what poetry should do, and how much it does not need to do.

Why…


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