John Hollander: On "The Red Wheelbarrow"

[I]n twentieth-century verse, an enjambment can occur without interest in shock or abruptness as a mimetic effect by itself. . . . A paradigmatic case is from William Carlos Williams in a well-known poem which uses the device almost as if in a manifesto. . . .

The rigorous metrical convention of the poem demands simply three words in the first line of each couplet and a disyllable in the second. But the line termini cut the words "wheelbarrow" and "rainwater" into their constituents, without the use of hyphenation to warn that the first noun is to be part of a compound, with the implication that they are phenomenological constituents as well. The wheel plus the barrow equals the wheelbarrow, and in the freshness of light after the rain (it is this kind of light which the poem is about, although never mentioned directly), things seem to lose their compounded properties. Instead of Milton's shifting back and forth from original to derived meanings of words, Williams "etymologizes" his compounds into their prior phenomena, and his verbal act represents, and makes the reader carry out, a meditative one. The formal device is no surface trick.

From "Vision and Resonance: Two Sense of Poetic Form". Copyright © 1975 by Oxford University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title John Hollander: On "The Red Wheelbarrow" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author John Hollander Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form
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