It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. But does it take a thousand words to paint a picture? In 1923, William Carlos Williams composed his shortest poem ever, “The Red Wheelbarrow”, which consists of one single, 16-word sentence broken into four stanzas. At first impression, most readers get nothing out of the poem. The only obvious characteristic is the rural image painted by the red wheelbarrow and the white chickens, however; upon closer scrutiny, each word symbolizes and enhances simultaneously the idea of one coherent picture.
Williams was part of the Imagism literary movement that advocated the use of free verse, common speech patterns, and clear concrete images. His minimalist approach to creating an image with concrete objects encourages the imagination of the reader.
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Diction and symbolic keywords enhance the dichotomy of tones Williams create in the poem. The first two stanzas establish a stark and burdensome mood but then shift to a sense of renewal and clarity. The bold opening statement “so much depends upon” has a sense of necessity and pressure and leads to the title object, “a red wheelbarrow”. The “red wheelbarrow” is an austere-coloured, man-made object used to carry heavy loads too burdensome for the human body. The color red in literature usually connotes something harsh and shocking, intense and rough. The brightness of the color made the wheelbarrow so noticeable that it took Williams until the very last stanza of the poem to notice the chickens moving around it.
The entire phrase, “so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow” sets a tone of stiff tone of dependence, which is later changed in the poem starting in the third stanza. The reader reads that the “red wheelbarrow” is actually “glazed with rain water”, and suddenly there is a newfound sparkle in the poem. The idea of gentle rain implies that it is springtime, a season usually symbolizing rebirth and regeneration. The diction of “glazed” adds to the idea of gentility with a light, barely-even-there touch of rain. Williams then informs the reader that the “red wheelbarrow” is set right “beside the white chickens” for a stronger contrast between the two objects.
The color white contrasts the red with its association with purity and rebirth. The chickens contrast with the wheelbarrow because they are airy, carefree creatures, supplementary to the wheelbarrow in order to create the farm setting. Williams’ minimalist approach to writing strengthens the dichotomy between the red wheelbarrow and the white chickens because the lack of superfluous words lines the second stanza almost right “beside” the last one. The diction in the first and third stanzas also added to the shift of tone in the poem with the contrast of heavy reliance with weighty pressure to an unsullied renewal.
Williams’ minimalism approach to creating an image is as evident in his diction as in the form of the poem. The poem is divided homogeneously into four stanzas of four words each. Each stanza has two lines, three in the first and one in the second. This creates a minimalistic congruence and uniformity in the poem. The physical standardization of the words creates a rhythm in the poetry despite the overall lack of a poetic meter. The six syllables in the first and last stanzas envelope the two five-syllable stanzas in the middle. The physical structure helps to enhance the image created by every single word so that in actuality, “so much depends” on every single line of the poem. As mentioned before, the first stanza is bold and audacious and leads to the second
stanza with a sense of stress. Williams complements this concept using poetic meter among a few important words. The meter of the word “upon” is iambic, whereas the other words in each second line of each stanza are trochaic. All four words are two syllables each, but the “upon” serves a different purpose than “barrow”, “water”, and “chickens”.
It’s as if Williams not only tried to convey a sense of stress in the image but also to project the tone of the first stanza with this metric difference.
Though William tries to create an image with the least amount of words possible, he still achieves to specify elements of the image as if to break it down to its most basic parts. The breaking of the words “wheel” and “barrow”, as well as “rain” and “water” calls for more attention to each component of the picture that’s being painted. The second stanza could easily been “a red wheel” and still made grammatical sense. Only after skipping to the next line, does the reader complete the phrase, “a red wheelbarrow”. The splitting of the word wheelbarrow with not only a space, but also a line is a way for Williams to convey to the reader that the wheelbarrow is in fact two separate parts.
The splitting of the word is even more significant due to the fact that the title has the words together. It’s almost as if one is scrolling through the image, first seeing a wheel, and then the entire wheelbarrow. The “rainwater” works in a similar fashion. The stanza easily makes sense if it read simply “glazed with rain”, however; when talking about rain, one usually thinks of the rain as the rain that is falling down from the sky. But in fact, the wheelbarrow is “glazed” with water that happened to be left from the rain.
The same scrolling eafect applies here. It’s as if the reader tried to create a mental image of what is being described from the sky down, and at first, they see rain and then scrolling down into the image, they see the wheelbarrow covered with wetness due to the rain. It’s as if the rain itself is ethereal, coming down from the skies, and the “rainwater” is much more earthly, “glazed” all over the “red wheelbarrow.”
In regard to his poetic approach, Williams once said, “Emotion clusters about common things, the pathetic often stimulates the imagination to new patterns – but the job of the poet is to use language effectively, his own language, the only language to him which is authentic. In my own work, it has always sufficed that the object of my attention is presented without further comment.” This quote not only supports William’s belief that only the essential words need to be written, but also that he writes about common objects as a way for the common people to relate and expand their imagination when reading his poetry. The setting of “The Red Wheelbarrow” has a simple rural location with ordinary entities, yet the image conveyed offers an extraordinarily meaningful analogy. The simple yet openness of each idea allows us, the readers, to apply it in any way our minds choose to.
Williams’ use of only the essential words required to describe an image opens up the reader’s imagination and allows us to use his poem to be interpreted in various different ways. For myself as a reader and analyzer of this poem, I found myself thinking that the red wheelbarrow was an analogy for Williams himself. The background information on this poem tells us that Williams was working at a hospital delivering babies when he looked outside and saw this wheelbarrow.
As discussed before, a wheelbarrow is a much-needed aid in carrying heavy loads physically too much for a common human body. In a similar fashion, Williams is the one who aids in the delivery of a baby, and he has the ability to do so, an ability not found in most common people. When the poem states that “so much depend upon” the wheelbarrow, or Williams, it’s easily seen that the lives of the newborns are the pressure that is rested upon Williams. The next stanza, “glazed with rainwater”, is another metaphor of Williams, wetted by the body liquid of the babies coming out of the womb.
In a spiritual sense, a fetus is somewhat divine, and then after being delivered, it becomes an earthly human being. So Williams is then “glazed” with their aqueous body fluid when they have entered the earthly domain. After seeing this crucial and intense event, the viewer throughout notices the other people “beside” Williams – the nurses and doctors in white hospital uniforms. The presence of people adds to the sense of earthliness, thus completing the whole analogy of the poem. The contrast of the poem is seen in this application of the image; the beginning is serious and vital, and after the newborns are received as human beings, the tension is off, and everything returns to ordinary.
William’s medical career surely gave him a new insight into the lives of the common people. He chose the imagism poetic approach in his work as a rejection of Formalism and Victorian sentimentalism. As seen in “The Red Wheelbarrow”, Williams took themes and objects from everyday life; used free verse, common speech patterns, and clear concrete images. His use of only the essential words opens the poem up for interpretation and personal application. But despite the simplicity of the 16-word poem,
William’s skills in symbolic diction and subtle rhythmic patterns easily convey his own voice for the tone and atmosphere for the poem. Williams proves that though a picture may be worth a thousand words, it only takes 16 to create a concrete image.
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