For one of my poetry classes, we have been reading John Felstiner’s Can Poetry Save the Earth. In preparation for a Skype session with Felstiner on Monday night, he sent us a list of poems he wanted us to consider, along with some questions about each. In regards to William Carlos Williams’ infamous “The Red Wheelbarrow,” he asked the simple question: “How much depends, and why?” I’m a ramble-thinker. I blab & (attempt to) condense, so welcome—my process of figuring out the answer to that question.
The choice of the word “glazed” in particular strikes me as it positions the reader in a very specific relation to both time & weather—two things completely out of our control. The wheelbarrow is not “dripping” or “drenched,” as it would be if it were currently raining, yet it’s not “dry” or even just “damp” as though the rain’s been over for awhile. We’re in that space just after the cessation of the rain—the sort of liminal space between states of wet & dry. It captures a very specific, very fleeting moment via that image & word choice. The moment just after the rain is stunningly broken into its constituents—it’s both “wet” & “dry.” Similarly, the compound words are broken into their constituents via enjambment—“wheelbarrow” into “wheel” & “barrow,” & “rainwater” into “rain” & “water.” This forces a reader to consider what it means for “wheel” & “barrow” to come together to make something new while each retaining their individual properties—& the same with “rainwater.”
Additionally, for Williams’ speaker, so much literally depends upon the wheelbarrow. This is not poetic exaggeration on the part of Williams’ speaker. Just the object itself is interesting, since it contains two of the six “simple machines” that are sort of the basis of the building of modern civilization (interesting how he splits “wheel” & “barrow” via enjambment, breaking down the complex machine into the two simple ones). Writing this poem post-industrial revolution, Williams was certainly surrounded by industrial & technological advances that some would argue made machines like the wheelbarrow irrelevant. The reverence the speaker has for this simple machine beckons the reader to reconsider the significance of it, & the enjambment that effectively slows down the pace of the poem gives the reader adequate space to do that.
His choice to revere the wheelbarrow is interesting, too, because it is something commonly associated with hard labor. Placing it in the farmscape surrounded by chickens evokes connotations of work & labor. If Williams had focused on something more stereotypically “poetic” (a rose, the moon, etc.), the poem would likely not have held as much power. By taking something “not poetic” & placing it in the space of the poetic, Williams emphasizes the distance (if not dissonance) between the realm of art & the realm of reality. We, as readers, are taken aback by the appearance of a wheelbarrow in the poem—we don’t expect it because it’s a tool of the working class, a tool of the material rather than a tool of the emotional or the intellectual—those realms that traditionally are associated with the poet.
“So much depends,” then, on the constituents of the world that’s allowed Williams to get to this place, standing before the wheelbarrow & writing about it. There is an incessant amount of work—both work of the body & work of the mind—that’s gone into getting him here, & his reverence for one such tool is indicative of his realization of this. “So much depends” on one’s willingness to exist in a liminal space, just as the wheelbarrow exists in a liminal space between wet & dry, & furthermore exists in the “in between” of “wheel” & “barrow.” The speaker here exists both in a moment of acute awareness & perception—as evidenced by the language of the poem itself, & in a moment of historical & social reverence—as evidenced by the subject matter.