Besides being the first day of National Poetry Month, it’s April Fools day, so maybe it’s a good day to present a poem that caused many readers to wonder if it’s a joke: William Carlos Williams “The Red Wheelbarrow.”
I’m not against a poem causing wonderment, are you? It’s fine to look at it and respond “You can’t be serious — is that really a poem?” but I urge you to follow that question with other ones, such as “What use is it?” “Is this just an artsy provocation?” or “What should poetry be then?”
I think Williams’ poem is a late but effective representation of the movement that launched Modernist poetry in English: Imagism. Fairly quickly, a great deal of English language Modernism soon moved on to more complex poetry, a poetry that was often hard to grasp due to intense but hermetic personal material or elaborate references to other works of art, but “The Red Wheelbarrow” is none of that. Instead it expresses, like a sub-two-minute punk song from the mid-1970s, a rejection and clarification of overly elaborate poetry.
and this place has chickens. Also a short 12 tone-row composition.
I think Williams genuinely thinks the rain-water makes the wheelbarrow beautiful, and he doesn’t even think he needs to say that word “beauty” or make some elaborate metaphor to seal the deal. To say that, and just that,* is a provocation against poetry that asks more, and to readers that expect the poet to give them more. But it’s not just the momentary rain-water glaze that makes it poetic: it’s useful, something to depend on. Now that’s a goal for poetry (or any art) to meet at least some of the time, don’t you think? Self-impressive poetry, trickster poetry, poetry that gathers and unites widespread allusions — all have their place as well, but sometimes it’s good to see what there is seen naked in the rain. When the cave dwellers put their hand or the hand of their child up against the wall of the cave and blew red ochre dust around it, that’s art — not of the artists showing us skills, but the art of our shared and transient experiences made fixed.
Musically here I decided to use another contemporary early Modernist tactic: the tone-row. If one knocks “The Red Wheelbarrow” for not having poetry’s elaborate or fanciful imagery, or some tight connection with the artist’s personal biography, perhaps this performance will show something traditional it retains: a lovely, largely iambic, word music. Yes, it’s music in miniature, but still that poetic element was there for me to express.
To hear my audio performance of William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” set to my own music, you can use this highlighted link, or (if visible) a player gadget below. And as I’ve been doing with our National Poetry Month re-releases, there’s a simple, low-budget, lyric video at this link.
*Well, he also admires the contrasting chickens.