so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

-- William Carlos Williams

It is in Paterson that William Carlos Williams lays out his famous line, "No ideas but in things". The Red Wheelbarrow is an example of this concept; Williams said that he wrote the poem in response to seeing the objects described in the piece when he looked out the window while attending at the bedside of a dying young girl. One thing is for sure Williams had an economy for words.

The Red Wheelbarrow is a verse libre poem of the twentieth century and is Part XXI of Spring and All (1923) in Williams' Selected Poems. The structure of this piece is clear. Composed in couplets; the odd-numbered lines, the first, third, fifth and seventh, have three words; the remaining even numbered lines have one word of two syllables; the two-syllable word is in three of the four cases are nouns --barrow, water, chickens. These nouns are then separated from the natural modifiers so that these modifiers --wheel, rain, white--become more prominent becoming key words in their own right.

Here is where Williams’s genius becomes apparent. He has taken two somewhat undistinguished lines of blank verse

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

and created a composition of words. He has suggested the importance of image through the still-life representation, Imagist in style, Williams uses a collage of words, pointing his finger at to show the reader rather than tell in a direct presentation of the material to the senses.

When these diverse fragments are set side by side, it changes everything. Red usually brings to mind warmth, but here it is cold as the metal of the wheelbarrow, hardened by the wet glaze. The focal point is the wheelbarrow beside the white chicken and there in that place, the wheelbarrow is redder, the chicken even more white, all this is set against an obscured and hazy background of questions from the reader exactly does the implied yet missing owner and the chicken depend on this simple piece of garden equipment?

In a very real sense a painting of a landscape which is a representation of the actual landscape. "No ideas but in things," William Carlos Williams writes in the first page of Patterson, and to hammer the point home, in spite of its brevity and with so much to be discovered within eight short lines, he has composed an unpretentious but dramatic work.


In a Dark Time: William Carlos Williams
Accessed May 10 2001.

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