so much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens
(William Carlos Williams, 1923)
The first thing readers often notice about Williams’s poem is that it seems so arbitrary – just an arbitrary set of domestic images, with no philosophical propositions, no apparent symbolic referents, no historical context. Just the “thing in itself,” as Williams liked to say. In some other context, a red wheelbarrow may have a practical function, but here the images are stripped of practical value. This is exactly what liberates us to see them through the lens of pure aesthetic wonder. At least that’s the imagist idea.
Formal construction of the poem supports this imagist project. The line structure breaks each substantive unit (wheel / barrow, rain / water, white / chickens) as if to retrain the eye, bringing you through a double-take back to the thing in itself. The one verbal unit – “glazed” – puts it all under a glass coat for aesthetic gaze.
So if that’s the agenda, the question remains, why these images? Why not “the pile of dog / shit / by the black / shovel”? For the imagist, it’s a trick question. The arbitrariness is itself the key. Of all colors, red on white! The arbitrariness gives a fragile sensory beauty that cannot be achieved in more cerebral poetry.
When the poem rips its subject from practical and historical standards of value, you might say it rips away the causal nexus that brought the objects into this configuration. This is where the imagist poem intersects with Jung’s idea of synchronicity. For Jung, there are two modes of assigning value: via causality or via synchronicity. You can explain things by looking at the external string of causes that brought them here, or you can strip away the causal nexus and look at the things in themselves in their unique and arbitrary aspect. The imagist poem focuses through the lens not of causality but of synchronicity.
While I can appreciate the imagist project, I still like to think that I can appreciate the poem on both levels (despite the poet’s intention, as it were). I can place the imagist poem into historical perspective as a countercultural thread within modernism. Key features of modernism – fragmentation, the loss of depth and of transcendental meaning – which may cause paralysis and despair in the poetry of T. S. Eliot or the prose of William Faulkner – are turned by the imagist into a celebration of the arbitrary fragment, of the colliding surfaces themselves. One might in this respect align the fragmented, colliding surfaces of Picasso with the imagist poets, as a counterweight within the angst-ridden modernist movement.
But when the historical placement is done, it’s still nice to go back and bask in the immediacy of the imagist poem. It is, after all, the flash of synchronicity which re-opens a vista for modern Westerners who have in many cases lost the register for that kind of raw, meaningless beauty.
Compare, finally, to the closing lines of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819):
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Noteworthy is that Keats attributes these lines to the urn itself and not the speaker of the poem. Indeed, the lesson we might apply from the imagist poem is that truth is NOT beauty. “Truth” is the cornerstone of causal thinking. We compare a proposition to the world it references and determine its truth-value. “Beauty,” on the other hand, is the cornerstone of synchronicity. Its value lies in its immediacy. The urn in those final lines tries to marry the two together, but the real poignancy in the Keats ode lies in the fact that that marriage is tenuous. Keats may have already sensed at the writing of the poem the tuberculosis that would soon kill him. Certainly, in any event, the tension between the mortality of the poet and the immortality of the figures on the urn is an operative force in the poem. The young lovers depicted on the urn will remain “forever young,” and therein lies their beauty. But the truth is that they will never feel the warmth of the kiss, their lips forever an inch apart.
The poet has an advantage over the marble figures in that he will feel the human warmth of the kiss, but the cost of this warmth is that he and his beloved will soon wither. The urn’s beauty lasts forever, but the truth the poet must face is death – and very soon, in Keats’s case.
The image set in “The Red Wheelbarrow” is like the set of figures on the urn. Its beauty will last, as the poem has lasted for generations, its synchronic value unadulterated by time. But the imagist poem evades the truth of mortality. Or almost evades it. Williams’s first stanza (“So much depends / upon”) suggests a tiny hole in the imagist fabric, an element of urgency, an inkling of time and mortality, a slightest hint of the inexorable truth of causal reality breaking against the edges of its crisp and beautiful synchronicity.
I think I really needed this posting: I have never ‘got’ Williams; you may just have given me the key. Part of me wonders How would this read aloud? And I have no answer. Not that aloud-reading is any measure of a poem, despite what most writers ‘pronounce’ (they can be very prescriptive)..
I can see the synchonicity, I can see it tie-in with the later Beats, with meditation and drug cognition. I can see the Picasso, though I think it’s more Duchamp – Picasso was annoyed more Americans connected with Duchamp than his work. Picasso is more causal, I think.
But Imagism still seems a plaything, a toy. There is probably a heap more I’m missing.
Hi Michael. “Plaything” captures the simplicity of Williams’s poetic landscapes well. I think Williams would like that. I find your additional references clarifying, too.
I’ve often thought that read-aloud poetry and written poetry were two art forms requiring different skill sets. The media of vocal delivery and of organized patterns of thought, image, emotion, dreams on a page are very different media, when you think about it. I’ve greatly enjoyed some poetry readings and gotten home with a purchased book to realize that the poems lose much when read on the printed page. My own poetry, on the other hand, I think works better on the page and loses something in the live venue. I would guess, as I think you hint, that Williams’s art form is primarily for the page. (Some rare birds integrate both skill sets seamlessly.) “The Red Wheelbarrow” is often anthologized because it is a stark or extreme expression of imagism. If you want an imagist poem, this leaves no doubt. But Williams often gives a little more aesthetic texture for you to chew on. Here’s one I like with a bit more to it:
Fine Work with Pitch and Copper
Now they are resting
in the fleckless light
separately in unison
like the sacks
of sifted stone stacked
regularly by twos
about the flat roof
ready after lunch
to be opened and strewn
The copper in eight
foot strips has been
down the center at right
angles and lies ready
to edge the coping
One still chewing
picks up a copper strip
and runs his eye along it
Oh yes, I like that. Glad it wasn’t that other stand-by about the fruit in the freezer he has so selfishly helped himself to etc.
Maybe because, especially here in the UK poetry is such a diminishing market, every scrap of space is being fought over. No longer the largesse of a writer’s uniqueness, but more how she/he fits into the accepted trend.
I cease to care.
But I am very impressed with the William’s example you so generously give. Thank you.
As a sensitive duckling with a clear preference for the imagist pond I initially blushed and took umbrage, you know. In fact, it took me a while to digest everything. But your words ring as clear as a bell.
Beauty can also become an anaesthetic, right, when the truth of mortality isn’t held in equal regard? It was a hard landing, I can tell you, but also a tremendous opportunity for growth.
“Beauty can also become an anaesthetic, right, when the truth of mortality isn’t held in equal regard.” That in itself is one perfectly stated thesis about the Keats poem (and one that challenges some long-held critical assumptions).
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