“The Red Wheelbarrow” is arguably Williams’ most famous work, remaining an icon in American poetry to this day. In order to better understand the progressive nature of this poem, a precursor should be analyzed alongside it: Orrick Johns’ “Blue Under-Shirts Upon a Line.” Mark Hama notes that “Williams most certainly would have been generally familiar with Johns’s work and specifically with his ideologically and aesthetically provocative “Blue Under-Shirts” at, and likely even before, its publication” (Hama 168). Johns’ poem reads as follows:
Upon a line,
It is not necessary to say to you
Anything about it—
What they do,
What they might do . . . blue undershirts” (Hama 169)
On the page, these poems look very similar and even deal with similar everyday items. Though these two have “parallels in the use of central primary colors and working class objects, together with the prominent use of “upon” in the two poems,” they differ drastically in effect.
Williams develops his image as the poem progresses, building anticipation at the beginning with “so much depends / upon” (Williams 1-2) that is gratified by the end with the revealing of the “red wheelbarrow,” “rain water,” and “white chickens.” However, “Johns begins with the concrete image and then fades into abstraction, before returning anticlimactically to the same image, no further developed, at the poem’s end” (Hama 176).
Williams engages the mind’s eye of his audience by employing vivid and bright colors of “red” and “white,” and giving the poem further dimension through the tactile, “glazed / with rain water” (Williams 5-6). His carful, climactic crafting ensures that “by the poem’s end, the reader is left with the now fully developed image, devoid of commentary” (Hama 178). Williams further enhances the image through the structure of the poem itself. The lines,
“a red wheel
barrow” (Williams 3-4)
resemble the structure of a wheelbarrow in and of themselves. In his poem, “Descent,” Williams also crafted the poem’s descending lines to mimic the title. Bruce Holsapple writes, “Williams’ work … originates in sight, not sound, in a visual pattern against which the aural dimension must assert itself … the poem thus becomes a ‘pictogram’” (Holsapple 128). Williams inventive use of form “made the reader aware at a glance that the words on the page were not to be confused with the things they referred to but were the things themselves” (Halter 182). While meeting every requirement for Pound’s imagism, Williams pushes beyond through his completely objective yet climactic presentation and by creating a new dimension to poetry’s visual impact.
Williams uses no unnecessary word in “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and I have matched the poem’s intention by drawing no unnecessary object. David Perkins observes that “‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ suspended a few images in no context, like a mobile sculpture” (Perkins 252). I have left the rain-glazed wheelbarrow and chickens “suspended” without even a shadow to anchor them. I made this decision in order to convey the undefined nature of this poem’s setting which can be interpreted as many ways as there are people. The wheelbarrow has been drawn from a side angle that mimics the way Williams’s poem looks on the page.
Halter, Peter. “The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams (Book, 1994) [WorldCat.org].” WorldCat.org: The World’s Largest Library Catalog. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2016.
Hama, Mark. 2010. “Blue Under-Shirts Upon a Line”: Orrick Johns and the Genesis of William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.” College Literature 37, no. 3: 167-182. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 16, 2016).
Perkins, David. “The Impact of William Carlos Williams.” A History of Modern Poetry. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1976. 246-75. Print.