On “The Red Wheelbarrow”

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens
— William Carlos Williams, 1923

The jump from college chap to newly grad is swift and ruthless, with regular reminders of just how much one’s expectations, responsibilities, and aspirations outstrip present means. A modest form of such reminder is the frequent donation solicitation mailings from that fine institution from which you were supposed to have emerged a fully formed intellectual butterfly. I happen to volunteer for the Alumni Annual Fund of my own esteemed alma mater, Carleton College, located in a small town in southern Minnesota, and can attest to the awkwardness that comes with bugging classmates with such queries, aware that most of them are somewhere between swamped in debt, just scrapping by, “scrapping by,” or otherwise in far from settled stations in life. It’s nice when donations do trickle in — usually in lumps of $5 to $20 — but we all know that the amount each of us recent grads donates right now is so trivial compared to the expenses of the overall enterprise, and so the real goal is probably simply to get as many them in the habit of donating so that, down the road, odds are better that at least two or three amongst us will have made it big enough to come through with a mega-gift. This pleasant charade was inadvertently highlighted in an letter our class was recently sent by the Annual Fund announcing that over the 2014–2015 fiscal year, “We raised $7.9 million. $150,000 came from donations of less than $100. Every gift truly matters!” A friend’s wry text pointed out to me that the rake-in from small donations constituted a whopping 1.89% of the total, i.e. not even enough to cover the full cost of one student’s financial aid through four years of schooling. Whoever in the Alumni Fund office wrote this was no doubt simply being Minnesota Nice, trying to make everyone feel good about being involved, though I can’t be too surprised if some of the few of my classmates who bothered to read the letter took the declaration with mild resentment, or at least playful cynicism. Obviously, in simplistic financial terms, not every donation matters. That said, one also shouldn’t write off too quickly the impulse not to forget the little contributions amidst the great.

Did not that great man Tolstoy painstakingly detail in War in Peace how, contrary to all historians’ reports, Emperor Napoleon’s shouts and stratagems in the end had little to do with the outcomes of the Napoleonic Wars — instead, it was upon the shoulders of the nameless swarm of Ivan and Pyotrs and Pierres that the great battles were won and lost? Likewise, might we not join our voices to the speaker of Bertolt Brecht’s “A Worker Reads History,” and ask:

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
 The books are filled with names of kings.
 Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?

Of course, Carleton College is no Thebes, and there are still many miles between those writers’ mission to demythify the “Great Man” myth and, say, an unpaid intern’s choice to forgo a morning coffee in order to further the future some yet-unpaid intern’s prowl about the grounds he or she once walked. Yet what the anarchism of Tolstoy, the socialism of Brecht, and the philanthropic capitalism of the Minnesota Nice Carleton Alumni Annual fund employee all do seem to share is the admirable impulse to want the little guys to think they are — nay, for them really to be — important. The spirit of democracy, flowing East to West, wishes to bring into concrete terms the postulate “all men are created equal.”

In the 20th century, it became possible for the first time to prove by some combinatorics of statistics and economics the exact mechanism by which this fact — that the fate of the world really does rest on the actions of ordinary people — was in fact a fact. And it took the sad ecstasy of the First World War to do so. For the Great War was the first total war; when all parts of society, all aspects of life became directed towards the singular goal of national triumph.

At least as far as the Western World was concerned, it was no longer possible to be a bystander, a regular old joe, and mass media blueprinted for the masses the vocabulary to execute the transformation of one’s pitifully ordinary existency into a vital struggle for good over evil.

Imagine what it must have been like! — To have driving a screw into a socket suddenly declared to be as noble as driving a sword into a villain’s bowels! To have your morning oatmeal enlisted into the fight against the German horde! Never had so little mattered so much. Never before had the world been so linked together. In the early 20th century, the world was spinning faster than ever. Such disproportion boggles the brain, and it’s a matter of fact that World War I knocked the world off its rocker and the mind has yet to recover.


In 1923, the New Jersey doctor William Carlos Williams (no relation to Karlos Williams) took to his table, peered into that mess, and scribbled the 16-word opus “The Red Wheelbarrow”:

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens

Unfortunately for us, the world was by then spinning so fast that Not Karlos forgot to tell us upon what his fancy wheelbarrow depends, and so we must ourselves take up the plow of speculation. I am not a farmer, however, and though my grandfather once lived on a farm I have never used a wheelbarrow for work and in fact am not sure what sort of work you’d use them for. But agricultural production seems a safe guess. Probably at that time agricultural production was more important than every before. If crops don’t get done, the economy doesn’t grow. That could mean stock market crashes, foreclosures, bonds markets suddenly drying up. America needs industry, America needs work to function, the war machine needs its meat, etc… Who knows what sort of economic mayhem will be unleashed if this wheelbarrow won’t deliver its barrel of wheat or bricks or sheep to the predetermined location before sundown. The all-American backdrop of the wheelbarrow’s oh-so-heroic actions are reinforced by the poem’s colors — the red of the wheelbarrow, the white of the chickens, the blue (it must be blue, must it not?) of the rainwater.

Incidentally, do you know what the colors of our flag mean? I always assumed they meant something. Perhaps Red for Reverence, White for Wisdom, Blue for Bravery. But search through the annals of Continental Congress and you’ll find they never got around to affixing a meaning on the colors with which we decorate our Stars and Stripes. Imagine: all those blue-coats stomping through Lexington and Conrad, lying wounded at Appomattox, without the least explanation of the meaning of the banner under which they bled. Of course, there’s always the chance they knew better than we did.

But back to our war effort, democracy, the free world — and our poem! Which reminds me: since, Mr. W K Williams is a poet, he must certainly be unpatriotic. So we must believe that the opening voice he presents, the booming declaration that “so much depends,” is his silly attempt to parrot the manner of speech of the grand techno-industrio-governmento-extracapitalistic generican American imperative to worship the machine, this wheelbarrow. To worship it, to buy into its ideology. To accept its self-evident importance. Look at how the wheelbarrow attempts to situate itself as the center of all reference and meaning. The wheelbarrow is red, simply, though if we think about it we know this “red” is not an intrinsic trait but one painted upon it. Compare the “natural” red of the paint with the artificially described “glazed” of the natural rainwater. Ta da! Big industry has naturalized paint and defamiliarized the natural world. Some trip the 20th century is. Some trap the 20th century was. In a similar move, it’s the quite-animate chickens which have been made into the decidedly stationary reference point to which the wheelbarrow is compared.

Before the 20th century, had a poet ever been compelled to turn their eye to a tool? To the magnificent heavens, to a lovely countryside, to a fickle lover, to a potted vase — yes. But to a prop in the production of agriculture? Look how this mathematico-industrial-complex has yanked about the poetic eye. But Williams wants us, does he not?, to resist the pull of the wheelbarrow, to forge ahead to the other end of the poem, to discover a trace of life — our beloved white chickens! How those peaceful white chickens offer our eyes much-needed sanctuary from the blood-red warmongering wheelbarrow. Can we turn from a tale of war and industry and ideology into a simple domestic trial? Can we imagine the wheelbarrow and chickens are friends? The wheelbarrow, the little wheelbarrow that could, churning its hardest so to save the chickens from needing to be sold or slaughtered? Of course, we could just as easily flip the tale on its head once more. Now we notice that the invention of the wheelbarrow has led to a huge increase in the farm’s production, such that the time-consuming low-yielding process of raising chickens has been rendered obsolete. Thus, the chickens can be slaughtered or sold off and the family now has enough means to instead buy frozen chickens from the newly opened Sam’s Club in the neighboring town.

Or, come to think of it, maybe so much depends upon the wheelbarrow because if it breaks down then the people who own it won’t get fed. Not much seems to depend on people in the poem, incidentally. Absent they are from the farm, and from the narrative voice. Only later did it come out, in fact, that we happen to know there’s a man being described in the scene. Wikipedia quotes a 1954 essay of Mr. W.’s as saying the poem:

sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a fisherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. He used to tell me how he had to work in the cold in freezing weather, standing ankle deep in cracked ice packing down the fish. He said he didn’t feel cold. He never felt cold in his life until just recently. I liked that man, and his son Milton almost as much. In his back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.

Just last year, actually, a University of Florida (Roll Gators!) English professor finally identified this man as Thaddeus Lloyd Marshall Sr., a resident of Rutherford, New Jersey. Mr. Marshall, it seems, made a living selling eggs, chickens, vegetables. He was also involved in his local community, the professor explains, “having contributed money toward the installation of a World War I memorial window in Grace Episcopal Church and having petitioned the governing body of Rutherford to improve Elm Street, where he was a resident.” It couldn’t have hurt Mr. W to have mentioned this in his poem; we would have learned about this man Mr. Marshall a century before we ultimately did. It’s not like readers would have been fatigued to read a few stanzas further: “…a red wheel barrow/ beside an old Negro /named Marshall who caught/ fish and didn’t get/cold I liked him.” Or something thereabouts. But maybe the white chickens mattered more to Mr. W than the old Negro.

Speaking of people, Willie Car Williams himself was absent when it came to naming the poem. “The Red Wheelbarrow” originally appeared simply as “XXII,” probably because it appeared as the 22nd poem in his collection Spring and All, which I have not read. Whomever or whatever act of posterity bestowed a name upon this numbered poem even did Chilly Willie one better, stitching together whole the “wheelbarrow” in the brave new title from the disjointed “wheel barrow” Wilfred left carelessly disjointed in the body of the text.

Incidentally, do you know what a barrow is? I don’t. Which is funny: take a word we know intimately, “wheel”, and stick it next to one we don’t, “barrow,” and somehow what results is something we know. A somewhat similar experiment, albeit in visual arts, was performed a few years prior to Williamses poem by Mr. Marcel Duchamp in his “Wheel Chair.” Most people know what a wheel is, and most people know what a chair is. And yet, how strange it is when combined together, they conspire to make something one wouldn’t be quite sure what to do with. Actually, Duchamp called his piece “Bicycle Wheel.”

To return to our order of business: figuring out why so much depends upon this stupid wheelbarrow and/or wheel barrow. To review: what’s definite: the wheel barrow. What’s indefinite: what depends. Now, as many a commontater has commentated, the poem itself happens to be structured like a series of mini wheel barrows (if one can speak of translating wheelbarrows into a poem-shaped form). That is, it’s comprised of 4 groups of 4 words each, and each quartet has three words resting on one, hence: a wheel supporting a barrow. The major fancy poetical feature WCW employs is enjambment, breaking up each group of four in oh-so-creative ways. Let’s examine the tricks. The 2nd occasion we’ve already discussed: the break between “wheel” and “barrow” reminds us that we don’t really know so well what a barrow is (unless we do in which case the effect, for us at least, is diminished). In the 3rd situation, it’s a different game. “Rain” and “water” are both familiar words. And so the trick serves to make us ponder how odd it is that they both mean similar things and yet we still feel compelled to combine them together. Why not just “rain”? Was WCW worried if he’d simply said “rain” we’d imagine it could be acid rain or chocolate rain or purple rain or something else? Moving on: white pause chickens. More subtle here. I’m told there are chickens which aren’t white, so the redundancy a la watery rain isn’t what’s at stake. And yet, if we were told simply “chickens,” would much change in the way you picture them? Most of us would picture them as white, one can safely predict, unless one was raised on a brown-chicken farm or in another unusual circumstance. And if one were raised on brown chickens, would that really change much about how one gobbles up the poem? And how bout the introductory enjambment: “depends/upon”? What trick is being played there? The break seems to draw our attention to the shift from the abstract to the concrete. “So much depends” is an abstract statement; “a read wheelbarrow” is a concrete object. (Concrete! I seem to recall people pushing around concrete in a wheelbarrow, so there’s another use for it besides farming). We know that “upon” itself is a tricky word because it can refer to something physical (i.e. the lumps of rock upon a wheelbarrow) or poetical (i.e. mediation upon the theme of perception), so WCW must be doing pretty well by himself for that choice.

How much — or I suppose we’re supposed to say “so much!” — one can make of these few lines using the few tricks of literary exegesis gleaned in a smattering of English department offerings. From those original 16 words we’re already teased out close to 1,600. Are this poem’s meanings manifold simply because it’s so short that we have the attention to dig into each one? Or is it because the scene is so simple that one can wrap one’s head around it all at once? Could we not apply this principle to everywhere around us, to every scene of every everyday life? If so much can depend upon Sir Williams’s wheelbarrow, why not let the unwashed plate next to my computer screen that bears the residue of salad be equally as numinous? Can we not stare at all reality with the same perspicuity brought upon this bedrenched bucket truck? Would not every day of this world be perpetually beautiful, full of insight, full of wonder, full of tricks? Could we not forget the wars, forget the guns, forget the rivets . . . could we not all stand fixed, time eternally stopped, water always glazed, never running, starring at creation, at its marvelous artfulness?

And yet, the more we stare, do we not seem to notice how many of Will Will’s tricks seem unnecessary, downright indulgent? We already noted the redundancy of “water” and “white.” And on second thought, is not “so” not so important after all? “Much depends” will do just fine, no? The “up” of “upon” is another sore thumb; things can simply “depend on.” I google “wheelbarrow” and most of them come up red, so “red” can be done away with too. “Glazed with rain” — how about we keep it simple: “in the rain.” We’re not Shakespeare, after all. And to tell you the truth I never really thought so highly of the chickens, so we’ll off them as well. Let’s see what that leaves us with: “much depends on a wheelbarrow in the rain.” Is the picture in your head really that different now from what it was at the start? And if you say it aloud, we can continue our triage. The “d” in “depends” disappears due to some principle some Linguistics major can explain. We can save some breath too by smushing together some pauses between words. I’m thinking now: “Much depensona wheelbruh in th’rain. Hey, that even scans better! Let’s add back the “so,” multiply the wheelbarrows, and we’ve got iambic pentameter: “So much depends on wheelb’rrows in the rain.” Maybe we are Shakespeare after all! On third thought — does not every poem declare it’s own importance by virtue of it being written? So why need to state that “much depends” on this one in particular? How about simply “a wheelbarrow in the rain?” And yet, on fourth thought, in fact, if the whole scene were eliminated would anything really be lost? If tomorrow, during conversation with a friend, you mentioned or you didn’t mention that you’d seen a wheelbarrow in the rain, would your day be much different? Would theirs? So let’s just get rid of the whole lousy poem. If you really miss the wheelbarrow, you can go buy a new one yourself.

Now that there’s nothing left, perhaps a slight panic arrives in our heads. Could it be that we’ve missed the point entirely? That it isn’t about techno-capitalism at all, nor the war, the struggle for food, guns, nor Black Lives Matter, nor the chickens even, nor, for that matter, the illusion of objective reality. Rather, this work of art — only about art? Totally oblivious to the world around it? It’s been done before. Perhaps — though how silly to imagine — it simply pleases William Carlos Williams to, arriving home after another shitty New Jersey day, sit in his warm hut and watch his letters and sounds march about. The confederacy of ‘u’s and ‘o’s marshal, meet sudden resistance from the ‘e’s, hit back, before finally succumbing to the ‘e’s and their treacherous alliance with the ‘a’s, those tricksters who have recruited to their cause a herd of the tardy, resplendent, American ‘I.’ Or picture him sitting there, Mr. William Carlos Williams, besmiled, rocking back and forth as his mouth skips succulently between ‘w’s and ‘r’s, repeating to himself, over and over: “red wheeeeel bear-row. red wheeeeel bear-row” Aren’t there worse ways to waste one’s time?


The world is too big

And I am too small

But I’m still the king

Of my red bicycle