When we moved into our house back in the 80s I discovered that the previous owner had left behind—a very old wheelbarrow.
I've never raised chickens; but my wheelbarrow is red, and in the winter it's occasionally glazed with rainwater. Over the years I've used it to transport bricks, lumber, potting soil, tree trunks, rotting apples, prickly pears, dead leaves, and other debris and materials to or from our yard. Every time I seize its wooden handles I find myself reciting that sixteen-word William Carlos Williams poem that has lodged itself in millions of imaginations since its publication in 1923.
Williams didn't call it "The Red Wheelbarrow." The poem originally appeared as number "XXII" in his book Spring and All. The title was pasted on by anthologists. The object of the portentous opening line is meant to take us by surprise. Why steal the poem's thunder?
Williams never explicitly answers the question his bold opening assertion implies. Wheelbarrows were as essential to human productivity in 1923 as laptops are today. Readers had a practical sense of the many objects and activities—the dependencies—that "so much" includes. Nor did Williams say anything about the chickens other than to note their color. Wheelbarrows bring feed to barns, coops, and yards. Chickens depend upon barrows and those who wheel them for feed, and we depend upon hens for eggs and meat.
Dependency is also conveyed by lineation. Each of the two-line stanzas features a single word that hangs like a "pendant" from the preceding line. Splitting wheelbarrow into two words reminds us that "the wheel" is one of man's first inventions, essential to productivity; and that "barrow" can mean the burial mound where all activity ends. Splitting rainwater in two reminds us that all life depends upon H2O. This up-and-down, hold-and-depend motion mirrors both the persistence and futility of the human enterprise.
Williams said that he wrote his poem after making a house call. While treating his patient, he looked out the window and glimpsed the wheelbarrow and chickens. The scene depends upon human consciousness and visual perception. The word "glazed" suggests a mediating filter not unlike what we find in an impressionist painting.
The standout word in this verbal painting is "red." It's the first of the poem's two adjectives and the accent feels more emphatic here than on any other syllable. A tool designed to carry mundane, even disgusting matter has been made attractive. We paint wheelbarrows to keep them from rusting but also to fulfill our craving for beauty, a basic human dependency. The "white" chickens have been created by genetic husbandry calculated to promote that color—again, partly for visual appeal.
The power of the poem is generated by keeping the forces its scene "depends upon" (including the poet) offstage while making us feel their presence. The poem's Ã¼ber-force is whatever we imagine brought chickens and rainwater to the wheelbarrow; eyes to the scene; and a poet to write about it ("Intelligent Design" or merely what Lucretius called "a fortuitous coalition of atoms"?).
I never bought Williams' later dictum: "no ideas but in things." Without the notion of dependency and the lineation that amplifies that concept, the offstage forces would disappear from the poem. Things would remain, but they would lose their mystery and resonance, merely becoming:
Creative writing teachers use "The Red Wheelbarrow" to promote "imagery." Their advice to "be concrete" ("show not tell") actually endangers poetry since metaphor works by comparing something specific to something more universal, as in Blake's
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sun rise.
Pound advised poets to "go in fear of abstractions" not expunge them.
Recently, while trundling my red wheelbarrow about the yard, I fantasized that it was not just any old barrow but the one that inspired the now classic poem. I watched the Antiques Roadshow that evening and wondered how much my wheelbarrow would bring "at auction" (with a letter of authenticity, say, from the original owner and "provenance" from Williams himself)?
We live in a world where a ten-year-old grilled cheese sandwich, supposedly bearing the "image" of the Virgin Mary, recently sold for $28,000 on the internet. Surely, the wheelbarrow that inspired one of the most renowned poems of the 20th century would be worth more than an inedible cheese sandwich!
Here was a potential metaphor for 21st century dependencies—for a reality-tv, hedge-fund driven era that commodifies everything, preferring body to spirit; possessions to ideas; texting to talking; stupidity to competence; wheelbarrows to poetry. The poem that all this mental trundling produced is both a tribute to the good doctor and a laugh until you cry answer to my title question: "What's in the Wheelbarrow Today?"
So much depends upon it
And now it can be yours!
AVAILABLE ON eBAY
The original Red Wheelbarrow
immortalized by William Carlos Williams.
The glaze of rainwater evaporated long ago
and the white chickens succumbed
to necrotic enteritis in 1929.*
Now you can own all that literally remains
of the no-ideas-but-in-things poem par excellence
used to terrorize millions of college freshmen
during the Cold War phase of the 20th Century
(some destined for worse encounters with things
red—in distant villages and rain forests).
The World-Famous Wheelbarrow!
The thing itself.
A perfect gift for the imagiste in your life.
Tire's flat. Could use fresh coat of paint.
Must-have for anyone who longs to trundle
mulch, compost, dung with impeccable style.
Bidding starts at $50, 000.
*Note: necrotic enteritis: an acute or chronic
enterotoxemia seen in chickens, ducks, and
turkeys worldwide. Infection occurs by
fecal-oral transmission. Symptoms include:
closed eyes; depression; immobility; ruffled