Kenneth Lincoln: On "The Red Wheelbarrow"
Apart from Pound’s thunder abroad, so much depends on what back home, a red wheelbarrow? For a moment, peer through a knothole into Williams’s smallest poem, his most well-known ‘local assertion," broken off and loosened, as microcosmic emblem of the local American lyric: scan a sixteen-word poem stripped of filigree, unadorned, even anti-formalized. From the 1913 Armory Show on, Williams, Pound, Hartley, Demuth, Moore, and all the Others were "streaming through" a break in the old conventions: "—the poetic line, the way the image was to be on the page was our immediate concern."
Surely there’s more here than meets the eye. The ear, perhaps, picks up a stuttering iambic step, say, of a man (paternally English) trundling something across the barnyard (chicken manure?). But where, in this uncharted farmland, does the foot fall? The metric stress is ambiguously pitched: "so much" might make light of how much, and "so much" bears a trochaic heave that could overload the slight line. Yet together, iamb tilting against trochee, improvisationally and indeterminately metric, the opening catches us in the pitch of needing to know, and unknowing . "There’s a certain Slant of Light," Dickinson demurred with an anapest, and Frost churned the slurred line with trochees, "Something there is that doesn’t love a wall." This is measure freed to informal responsibilities of speech, poetry metrically loosened, American-formed.
Classically Western, this rolling sense of beginnings expresses the personal urgency, the rocking weight-in-motion, of not knowing where to put the "foot" as we shoulder the load in a new land. Thus, we must step (speak, think) carefully ... upon the second line. This preposition is a single verse unit, and as such, it’s the syntactic wheel of the machine, as it were—the rolling fulcrum of the line above it. By now we begin to see the game: a parodically imitative "wheel / barrow" couplet, rolling along, which leads into a second stanzaic movement, minimally precise, "a red wheel" (one syllable shorter than its corresponding tray of a line above). Barrow itself, nub of the poem, evolves from Old English bearwe, cognate with bear. This third line is composed of two spondees enjambed toward an inverted foot, a trochaic "barrow," which serves as the wheeling reverse pivot, indeed, of the second line (as with Pound’s "Petals"). And still it’s one continuous motion ("an unimpeded thrust," Williams wrote a friend in 1921, "right through a poem from the beginning to the end"). The poem trundles a wheel barrow along freshly, as barnyard metaphor of America (working man’s humor), to a trochaic "glazed," surreally highlighted by its own acoustics. Then, leaning iambically further, the line "with rain" tumbles toward a trochee, "water," into the third microcosmic couplet. All this to be completed in four syllables, trailing yet a third preposition, "beside," now normatively iambic, as a near rhyme within the line, "the white," drops with delicate trochaic twist to "chickens."
No title, without punctuation, minimal diction, tilling rhythm, and modestly internal rhyme (depends/upon, wheel/barrow, beside/white/chickens): it’s not much of a poem, an English formalist might object. What makes it tick? What catches in the eye, cocks the ear? Three modest prepositions—upon, with, beside--place these barnyard minims in visual apposition, or a kind of contingent spatial rhyme, as in Alexander Calder’s counter-gravity-balancing mobiles. Syllable to syllable the ear rolls (wheels) iamb upon trochee, the eye composes (glazes) red with white, as the mind centers (depends) on a barrow beside the chickens. It’s elemental—a figure / ground design scanned in twenty-two slim syllables. And perhaps it adds up to no more than a small comic lesson in the necessity of things in themselves, ideas in action, here the basics of a rudimentary machine (rediscovering the New World wheel, the rolling fulcrum of Western-moving-man). Work-ethic poetics, workman’s details, working-class humor. This artist gets the job done—scoops out the coop, fertilizes the turned ground, cleans the Augean stables as wry Hercules in minuscule. Williams’s first book of poems ("bad Keats, nothing else—oh well, bad Whitman too") was printed at his own expense in 1909 and sold four copies at the local stationery. A retired printer stored the remaining hundred copies on a rafter under the eaves of his old chicken coop, where they were accidentally burned ten years later. On through the red wheel barrow, Williams "scribbled" another fifty years, whether anyone noticed or not.
From Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Ó 1999 by the Regents of the University of California.
|Title||Kenneth Lincoln: On "The Red Wheelbarrow"||Type of Content||Criticism|
|Criticism Author||Kenneth Lincoln||Criticism Target||William Carlos Williams|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||18 Oct 2015|
|Publication Status||Excerpted Criticism||Publication||Sing With the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999|
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