Charles Altieri: On "The Red Wheelbarrow"

The work of edge-to-edge contact here does not need commentary; the effects of such connectives do. Why begin with that abstracting opening clause, if one is committed to the dominant force of the particular images? And why use a word count, rather than a syllable count, as one's organizing pattern? What can possibly be "realized" by drawing such parallels between word positions? Clearly, the sentence is once again the primary model of agency. But in "Flowers by the Sea," the agency was a fairly simple one. The sentence defined and complemented oppositions organized by our investments in seeing, so that the poem exercised a significant force, simply as visual rendering. Here, despite the confident realism attributed to it by critics, the visual rendering flirts with bathos. The picture as image is no more compelling a version of an actual scene than the abstracted vision Braque gives of the village at Estaque. Our interest must focus on the pronounced formal qualities. There resides our only route to substantial extraformal content. For example, one could concentrate on the way in which this structure calls attention to the material quality of these isolated words, as if, in glazing them, their power to make direct significations could be made manifest. But that is still to leave words in search of agency. For the poem to have much depth—to not be only about the lack of depth—we must define how the semantic force of that opening clause brings those material qualities to life and connects them to the poem's obvious concern for the nature of reference. We must show what can be realized through this treatment of dependency as a poetic site.

Ten years later, Williams made explicit the implications of that site: "This is, after an, the substance, therefore the explanation, of my poems and my life in which there exists (instead of you exist)" ("A Novelette and Other Prose," in Imaginations 302). Dependency, in other words, becomes a means of exploring ways in which subjectivity is subordinate to other, more inclusive and transpersonal models of intentionality. So much depends upon the red wheelbarrow, because so much depends on understanding what is at stake in the dual attributes of that "so much depends"; the mind's manifestation of an abiding principle of care, inherent in this "there is," and the mind's becoming itself virtually tactile, in its efforts to compose the world so that those cares can reside in actual phenomena.

I take the formal equivalent of this care to be the force of predication set in motion by the structural pattern of dividing the poem into four equal compositional units, with only one verb. The position of the verb is occupied, in the succeeding stanzas, by three adjectival functions, each literally depending, for its complete grammatical and semantic functioning, on the single words that complete the stanza. The effect is to have the completion of meaning constantly delayed, and to make the delay a means of slowing us down or defamiliarizing the process of conferring meanings, so that we are led to recognize the miraculous quality of words and cares eventually taking hold.

As we read, the mind is made to hover over details, until its waiting is rewarded—not only within the stanza, but also as each independent stanza emerges to fill out this waiting and to move us beyond details to a complex sense of a total life contained in these objects. How resonant the word "depends" becomes, when we recall its etymological meanings of "hanging from" or "hanging over." The mind acts, not by insisting on its own separateness, but by fully being "there": by dwelling on, depending on, the objects that depend on it. And words themselves take on that same quality, because each part of speech reveals its capacity to transfer force. Each first line ends in what could be a noun—a substance allowing rest in the flow of meaning—but that turns out to function adjectivally. As adjectives, the words define aspects of an intending mind—Locke's secondary qualities, perhaps—seeking a substance in which to inhere. But the words' nominal qualities do not disappear. Their incompleteness, and their shared position with the verb "depends," combine to create an effect of substance in action. In effect, concrete qualities seem verbal—seem capable, as Fenollosa insisted, of transferring force from object to object and from the mind's intentions to concrete events.

We are starting to recognize the justice of that initial abstract expression of emotion, "so much depends / upon." Because "so much" has no clear antecedent, the phrase itself expresses a sense of emotional possibilities, to be filled out and clarified only when the mind completes its action and finds a place. Ultimately, so much depends upon our recognizing the complex ways in which we depend on the scene (as the farmer depends on these specific objects for his sustenance). Moreover, the scene itself turns back to give concrete aspects to this initial abstraction—both by giving it a local habitation and, perhaps more important, by creating a set of structural parallels that invites us to feel the mind itself as a palpable, tactile entity—as the verbal equivalent to the containing knowledge in Braque's painting. First, the etymology of the word "depends" reminds us of the fact, so dear to objectivist poets, that most of our words for mind's activity depend upon metaphors that initially had concrete meanings. The structural parallels also intensify this sense of the mind's dependence as a palpable dimension of the scene. The word "upon," for example, occupies a position later occupied by a series of nouns, and it completes its verb, just as the nouns complete their intending adjectives. "Upon," then, approaches a literal state of being; it is no longer merely an abstract connective, but a physical presence of consciousness in action. Rather than presenting an icon that we take as a perceptual reality, Williams makes the iconic force of art testimony for the most abstract, yet most intimate of psychological energies: those that define the very form of intentionality.

We see this intentionality most clearly in the way that the three concrete stanzas enact the process of dependence by continually looking back to that initial opening that invests the scene with its governing verb and allows other elements to assume predicative force. By extending structural parallels into epistemological ones, mental acts become almost as palpable as physical objects. This palpable force actually thickens our sense of the interrelations between time and space. On the one hand, the reader's engagement in their dependency is profoundly temporal. This assertion about dependency erupts suddenly, forcing us, in effect, to leap a resisting frontal plane before we get to the object, itself slowly unfolding in time and as space. That leap keeps the object dependent on us, and keeps us watching the powers of our own connecting energies as they unfold. We move from the adjective states "red" and "wheel" to a simple noun, to a qualifier of that noun (with its dual roles of adjective and noun), to an adverbial modifier of place—all posed with a strange testing of language's ability to hold the real, so that we are tempted to think of the poem as the literal exploration of what language can trust, as if language were testing its predicate categories. Yet no poem in English is more spatial and timeless. On the mimetic level, these objects seem to have no history, to have always been there, and to represent a form of rural life whose essential habits, and dependence on natural processes, have never really changed. On the testimonial level, all of this motion is so under the control of pattern, and so abstracted to pure function, that it establishes another dimension, in which the various conditions making for objectivity contain and sustain the temporal features of intentional desire.

"Depends," therefore, has two temporal senses that complement its two meanings: One sense refers to the physical activity of depending on movement to complete the mind's intentions, and the other invokes an abstract meaning that suggests a total enduring relationship of mutual supports. One temporal sense refers to an immediate present that keeps changing; the other, Suzanne Langer has called an "eternal present" that we see in mathematical formulas such as "two plus two equals four" or "x is a function of y and depends on it." Taken together, these two senses reinforce Williams's idealization of the artist as "composing-antagonist" (Imaginations 99), who can disclose the real without either aestheticizing it or making violent impositions upon it. All of the energy leads back to this sense of sustaining interrelationships. This "eternal present" is not transcendental. It is simply our sense of visibility, made self-reflexively "ours" by the palpable form that works of art afford the mind. Because the acts of mind can be rooted in an objective world, there need be no idealist dialectic to reunite the poles of presentation and disclosure: Objects endure, and thus acts of mind that intensify them, and are intensified in turn, are infinitely repeatable. And, as Nietzsche knew, there is no greater test of will, of the spirit's capacity to align itself with necessities it cannot control, than this sense of infinite repetition. Because art can realize levels of experience concrete enough to be this abstract, Williams can sustain what amounts to a religious appropriation of Cezanne's aesthetics: "A life that is here and now is timeless. That is the universal I am seeking: to embody that in a work of art, a new world that is always real" (Selected Essays 196).

From "Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry: The Contemporaneity of Modernism". Copyright © 1989 by Cambridge University Press.


Criticism Overview
Title Charles Altieri: On "The Red Wheelbarrow" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Charles Altieri Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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