Barry Ahearn: On "The Red Wheelbarrow"

. . . what are we to make of "The Red Wheelbarrow"? We are back in the neighborhood of Rutherford, or perhaps any rural location. Chickens and wheelbarrows are found in proximity in many parts of the world, though they would not be found in the middle of Greenwich Village. But numbers and the red wheelbarrow do have one thing in common: both are elementary in the sense that civilization depends on them. The wheelbarrow is one of the simplest machines, combining in its form the wheel and the inclined plane, two of the five simple machines known to Archimedes. Just as civilization depends on number, civilization depends on simple machines - both in themselves and in their increasingly complex combinations. "So much depends upon" the wheelbarrow in its service not only through the centuries, but as a form whose components are indispensable to the functioning of a highly industrialized civilization. We can identify two contrasts in the poem. One is between the latest advances in machine technology and the continuing but overlooked importance of elementary machines. The other is between the universal and age-old scene depicted in the poem and the radically new free verse form in which it exists. . . .

In terms of its sounds, quite apart from its images or its vocabulary, Williams intricately tunes the poem. The first and second stanzas are linked by the long "o," in "so" and "barrow" and by the short "uh" in "much," "upon" and "a." "L" and "r" interlace the core stanzas (the second and third); these two sounds, however, are not in the first and fourth stanzas. This simple device distinguishes the framing stanzas from the central stanzas. One result of this distinction is that the central stanzas are mellifluous, the frame stanzas choppy. Then again, however, the honeyed and the choppy are linked in the third and fourth stanzas. They are joined by means of a parallel construction; the long vowels in "glazed with rain" match those in "beside the white," In the last stanza, another loop is closed when the sounds "ch" and "enz" in the last word of the poem echo the sounds in the initial line, "so much depends."

From "William Carlos Williams and Alterity: The Early Poetry". Copyright by the Cambridge University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title Barry Ahearn: On "The Red Wheelbarrow" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Barry Ahearn Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication William Carlos Williams and Alterity: The Early Poetry
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