©Evan Nichols, 2010

Few poems have received as much rejection of analysis as The Red Wheelbarrow by W. C. Williams. The greats of literary criticism have written reams about the 16-word poem, and their analyses have received comments like these.

“Dear me, al this fuss over a poem which probably the poet had no true conscious thoughts about.”

“People are reading way too much into these poems, things that aren’t there.”

“I cant believe that this tiny, simple, little poem has provoked so many
different interpretations.”

“the pome is to small “

(The above comments are from  American Poems, our Poetry Site.)

I invite comments on my brief analysis which makes no claim to being exhaustive. I had intended it as a illustrative addendum to an article I wrote previously on poetry analysis. It “got away from me” and I felt it deserved its own selfhood, for better or worse. Here is the poem as published in  Spring and All That

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

At first glance, the poem invites a shrug of the shoulders. It would appear to be a painter’s still life rendered in words, but there is far more here than meets the eye and ear. Line one consists of two iambic feet, or two stressed syllables, each preceded by an unstressed syllable. Readers ask themselves what is the “so much” the poet is referring to. Then follows the only verb in the sentence that constitutes the poem. “Depends” is a commonplace verb nearly always followed by “on” or “upon.” If this were prose, we would not give the independent clause a second thought. But this is not prose.

A careful reader will remember that the Latinate verb is made up of a prefix (de-) and root (pend-) that translate as “to hang from,” which makes our idiomatic “depend upon” sound overloaded with prepositions. The verb contains the Latin preposition “de” and is followed by our preposition which is a yoking of “up” and “on” —  a wheelbarrow load of prepositions.

In the second pair of lines, we have that basic, age-old object separated into “wheel” followed by “barrow,” a single word and the poem’s fourth line. The “so much” begins to yield specific meaning. One of humankind’s earliest tools was the wheel, and barrow suggests the inclined plane. Think how many primitive and high tech-tools, vehicles and instruments are derived from the wheel and the physics of the inclined plane. Civilization depends on the wheelbarrow that the line break divides into 2 of Archimedes’ 6 simple machines, the others being the wedge, the pulley, the screw, and the lever.

The next pair of lines import a metaphor, or implied comparison. The red object has not literally been glazed by the rainwater. Its red color is brightened and given a sheen and a polish that will disappear when it becomes dry. For the moment, the verbal adjective combines with the color words red and white to create a vivid visual impression as of the painted still life mentioned earlier.  The red of the object is a sharp contrast to the white chickens (which are not glazed).

A structural unity is apparent in the line breaks separation of rain and water as happened to wheel and barrow previously. As with the Archimedes’ basic tools, much also depends on rain, the source of water which sustains human life as well as the crops ad animals in this farm setting, Another aspect of form is the succession of prepositions in 3 of the 4 line pairings: upon…with…beside.

A final note about the sound elements needs to be made. The poet’s precision in this regard is an to the care taken by the imagined still-life artist with his brushstrokes and color blending. The first and second stanzas are unified b the long “o” sounds of “so” and “barrow” and the short “u” sounds of “much…upon…(and) “a.” In stanzas 2 and 3 we hear the alliterative “r’s” of “red…rain,” the consonant “l’s” of “wheel…glazed,” and the assonant vowel sounds of “glazed…rain” and “beside…white.” A neat circularity enters as the “ch” and “ens” sounds of the final word echo similar sounds of line 1’s “much depends.”

To conclude, I find the poem to be a sparkling gem of the Imagist school poetry that insisted on “no ideas but in things.” After years of staring at the poem with incomprehension, that rain-flecked wheelbarrow and those damp chickens are generating ideas. Or perhaps I am merely having a senior moment!

©Kerry Wood, 2010

Kerry Michael Wood was a member of BAWP’s second summer session. He is now retired to Pacific Grove after 38 years of teaching, most of them at Woodside High School. He has written a memoir, Past Imperfect, Present Progressive, and nearly three hundred articles for Helium.com.

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2 Responses to “Beside the White Chickens by Kerry Wood”

  1. Barbara Bornet Stumph Says:

    Charming

  2. kerry wood Says:

    Thanks, Barbara. You are kind.

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