October 19, 2017

The Red Wheelbarrow Debate Continues

wheelbarrow.jpgUPDATE: Here’s an excellent essay from Lawrence Perrine on the nature of “proof” in poetry. You should read it if you are interested in literary interpretation.

I’m sure some of you want me to blog on nothing but TRs, post-evangelicalism and the latest attempt to say that Mark Driscoll is Sam Kinison (I’m not making that one up.) But I am a teacher, and I am wanting more and more to spend my life teaching. Meditating on the issues that teaching raises within my faith and with my students is a big part of my “Christian Humanism.” So here we go.

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

-William Carlos Williams, “The Red Wheelbarrow”

And so once again, my AP English IV class begins its two-quarter study of poetry. I love this part of my course. Teaching poetry is easily my favorite part of being a teacher. Lecturing on poetry, reading it aloud and teaching my students to appreciate it are rare and sublime pleasures for me.

Each year, we visit many of the same poems, and I assign the same essays, questions and readings from “Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound and Sense.” Unlike Mr. Keating’s orders to tear out the “What is Poetry?” essay in his lit book, I have my students spend several days working through the characteristics of poetry and the nature of poetic language and art.

Which brings us to Mr. William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.” My students know it’s there. It’s always there in their literature books, waiting for them. It’s there in the English III study of American poetry. I assume it goes back earlier than that for some of them. So when we thumb through the collected poems in the back of the book on the first day of class, “The Red Wheelbarrow” appears, and the inevitable discussion begins.

Is it any good?

Thomas Aarp makes the point that the appreciation of poetry isn’t a skill we all possess by nature. We have to acquire the vocabulary and the knowledge of poetic elements. The average person would look at Shakespeare’s “Winter,” and say it’s an ugly, bad piece of writing. A person trained in literature sees Will’s genius in almost every line.

So a person with no art appreciation sees a Picasso and sees nothing but a quirky, unintelligible collection of lines and color. A person with artistic appreciation sees genius.

A person with no appreciation for art sees the Mona Lisa and sees a woman’s face. An artistic aesthete sees one of the high points of human creativity.

My students read “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and almost all of them see nothing. The authors of their textbooks, however, the literary critics, see William Carlos Williams as a great artist. They see a poem of utterly simplistic depth, and a poem of almost unparalleled significance in the art of poetry. The keepers of the poetic flame see a poem that will endlessly stimulate students to consider the truth that poetry is the most compressed and compact of literary forms.

I know what’s going to happen, and it only took two days. I am lecturing on the need to develop poetic appreciation in order to critically and aesthetically engage with the poems we are going to read. I’m making the case that education itself includes a commitment to go beyond the ordinary person’s appreciation of a particular area of knowledge or creativity, and to be able to perceive that subject in such a way that the good, the true and the beautiful can be actualized through your contribution.

I’m throwing this rock, however, into the ocean of relativism where my students live. They would probably never argue with me about moral relativism….but “The Red Wheelbarrow?” That’s too easy.

One of my most gifted students is a girl named Vicki. She raises her hand.


“I’ll never believe “The Red Wheelbarrow” is any good.”

“I’m not surprised. Why do you say that?”

“Just because a professor somewhere says that there are all these great things about that poem doesn’t mean they are really there. He’s just educated himself so much he has to see things like that. It’s not that they are actually there. He simply needs to see them to feel smart.”

“You don’t think it’s possible that it’s a great poem, and you simply refuse to get to the place you can see it’s greatness by learning about poetry?”

She laughs at me. “It’s not a good poem.”

Of course, we’re both right on this one.

I could bring a brick into the classroom and most of my students would see nothing, but a historian of engineering would see the whole history of human advancement.

A glass of milk is the entirety of human dominance of the planet. A pencil is the triumph of technology. A button all of industry. And so on…

Did Williams see all of the human conquest of the world in that red wheelbarrow? Did he see our place in the world, and the world we have made? Or do readers and lovers of poetry stand in front of the wheelbarrow and say profound things so that there will always be books on poetry, and teachers teaching the mysteries of literature to the uninitiated?

What I want Vicki to see is that squirrels don’t think on such things. They see the red wheelbarrow as a thing. We see it as a piece of the puzzle of significance, and yes, there is something about human beings that wants to find the significance within the wheelbarrow and the button and the glass of milk.

Are we making up what is not there, or are we fulfilling our destiny and our created purpose by finding what is there, what should be there, and what can be there? Are the thoughts of literature teachers about poems describing red wheelbarrows so much dust in the wind, or are we exploring what it means to be made in the image of a God who made the world and made us in His image?

It will never be my favorite poem. Minimalism seems to tempt the trap door that Vicki is pointing at. Nonetheless, I see what Williams was doing in this and so many of his other poems. The evidences of our humanity are simple. They speak for themselves in their simplicity, and it is the calling of the poet to see, to listen, to stop, to speak.

And it is our duty to ask if anything- or everything has been said.

So in the beginning was the Word…..and the Word became flesh…and his own received him not.

God sent a Word, and we weren’t ready to hear the ultimate simplicity and clarity. There was, we say, nothing there.

Perhaps everything was there, if we were listening with the ears of poets.


  1. As an literature instructor of college sophomores who are at the same place, I fully sympathize with you on this one. They can see all sorts of significance in Williams’ poem, “The Young Housewife,” but can’t see a thing in that one. *sigh*

  2. Wow, I didn’t even have correct grammar in those two sentences *shamed*

  3. Jeremiah Lawson says:

    I can but, like you said, Michael, it’s an ACQUIRED ability. I’m more of a John Donne, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Robert Frost fan, myself. Perhaps more bloggers need to acquire poetic imagination to see that not all discussions have to procede with the literary style of Immanuel Kant. I won’t name `em but there’s one or two blogs I can think of off the top of my head that could use some more poetry. I don’t mean yours, Michael. 🙂 This poem is fun.

  4. I love poetry. But, to me, poems like this are more like a Rorschach inkblot. It invites the viewer to look deeply and find images, interpretations and his own personal meaning–but is it art? Some inkblots are interesting and beautiful. But the ‘art’ of an inkblot lies more in the mind of the person viewing it than in the creation of it.

    My first reaction to this poem was negative. But after lingering over it a bit, I found the thoughts and images it conjured up, interesting and even somewhat beautiful. But, we can find beauty in almost anything if we stop and really look and think about it. So I’m still not sure that the ability to inspire, stimulate thought or provoke a response should be the sole definer of great art. If it is, then your blog certainly qualifies, Michael! 🙂

  5. Hi, Michael. I’ve been reading your site for a while, but not commented before. I have to admit that, with this poem as with most poems, I Just Don’t Get It. But that doesn’t mean that I think there’s necessarily no “it” for me to get — one of my big discoveries in the last couple of years is that (a) if I “get” something that others don’t, that’s their loss; and (b) the obvious corollary, that if others “get” something that I don’t, that’s my loss.

    Well, I’d like to make up my loss. I’d like to understand what it is about poems like this that make them good, and I’d hope that your post was going to teach me that, but it didn’t (or: I just didn’t Get It). To help me understand what’s going on here, I wonder if you could answer a question: if instead of “beside the white chickens” he’d said “brown chickens”, would the poem be less because of that? Would the change destroy something fragile and perfect, or would the brown-chicken version be just as valid as the version he actually wrote?

    Let’s go further: suppose the chickens were geese. Suppose the wheelbarrow was green. Suppose it was a lawnmower instead of a wheelbarrow. Suppose the poem went like this:

    many things depend upon
    a green lawnmower
    glistening with dew
    beside the brown rabbits.

    Would that have the same qualities as the original? If not, why not? And if it would have been as good, then where is the craft in the original? And can there be art without craft?

    Not trying to be a smart-alec — genuinely trying to expand my appreciation. Any, by the way, I absolutely agree with you that this is part of the whole of being a Christian.


  6. This was a nice post. I was an English teacher for a little while and am a huge reader. I hated English class in high school because i found that teachers were often doing the opposite of good literature, by teaching me what to think not how to think. It is great to see that you are challenging your students to think, to use their mind as an instrument, rather than just teach them paradigms to think within.
    I managed to wake up a few students with Williams, something about his realism, but found that actually a lot of studens got the poetry from Shaskepeare, but it took patience. I agree with Jeremiah, I go with Donne and Frost (among others).

  7. May I ask what you mean by “Christian Humanism” Mr. Spencer? I delved into my own definition last Saturday in my post “Orphans of God” at my blog Satellite Sky. I actually used the term “Theistic Humanism,” but I think it may mean something similar. I am curious to hear your thoughts on it.

  8. Thanks iMonk, for bringing a little peace and beauty to an otherwise dreadful day on the blogosphere.

    To paraphrase Neitzche:

    First, humanity created the internet.
    Then, the internet killed the last bit of humanity left in us.

    I remember the first poetry unit that my class did in highschool. I was not popular, not athletic, not handsome, and an acedemic underachiever. Interpreting the language and beauty of poetry came easy to me. All of the sudden I had wings, and that small classroom was filled with light. Thanks for teaching our kids the value of truth and beauty.

  9. I never understood people who don’t like poetry. That was always one of my favorite subjects in school. I still like to hang out with friends who enjoy reading poetry aloud. Sadly, I only have one or two friends that enjoy this.

    Admittedly, I was never too comfortable with the tendency among many of my teachers to find all sorts of meaning in poetry (and prose). The problem is, we don’t usually have the author around to ask what he meant, and, even if we did, people would continue to read beyond what the author said (often employing some sort of pseudo-psychology to pretend like the interpreter knows the author better than the author knows himself). As Freud once allegedly said, “Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.”

    So, aside from intellectual teachers reading their favorite world-views into Shakespeare or Frost, I love poetry. 🙂

    And you are exactly right: poetry, like any other art, takes learning to appreciate. I never really appreciated painting (beyond, “it’s a pretty picture”) until I took an art class at college. My girlfriend has a better appreciation for music than I do (despite us both being musicians to some degree) because of her greater understanding of what’s going on (I’ve recently started taking piano lessons, and my teacher has also been going over theory, so I’ve been developing a greater appreciation of music).

    With poetry, it’s the same thing. I appreciate Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Bells” because I have some idea of how his use of alliteration and other poetic devices causes the reader to speed up or slow down, and affects the way the poem is written.

    Of course, just as you can have a person who technically plays all the notes Back wrote perfectly, yet never plays the music, you can have someone read all the words Poe wrote, yet never recite the poem.

    Of course, you can also have someone live by all the words written in Scripture, yet never live the Spirit in/by which they were written.

    Congrats in trying to teach this appreciation to your students! May God give you grace!

  10. I think Mike Taylor’s excellent question has helped me to understand this type of poetry a little better. Perhaps it would be more accurate to compare this type of poetry to photography. In other forms of art much of the awe inspired comes from the skill that is required to paint or sculpt the artwork. Technical skill does not a true artist make, but great art usually involves great talent and skill. But with photography, the artistry comes mainly from the photographer’s ability to see and capture beauty or drama with the click of a button. Like a poet, he sees things in a way that most others can’t or don’t.

    So in William’s poem we have no obviously great ideas communicated or skilled rhyme or meter but simply a captured moment–that can inspire deep thought or emotion. Sort of literary ‘photography’. Like a photographer choosing just the right subject, angle and lighting, Williams chooses a red wheelbarrow and white chickens and that makes it very different from Mike’s green lawnmower and brown rabbits.

  11. I agree Debra, Taylor’s post was (perhaps unintentionally) useful.

    I’m not much of a poetry fan but I liked this Williams piece (which I’ve never even heard of before). He is clearly painting a nostalgic farm scene (where else do you find chickens?) and many of us urbanites get unbidden warm fuzzies from such scenes, thank you Normal Rockwell. Digging a little deeper though, the red wheelbarrow is clearly an instrument (and a metaphor?) for human labor. But it is glazed with rain, and accompanied by a domesticated animal, both gifts of God. The poem makes me realize that the wheelbarrow, useful as it is, wouldn’t really have any use without the gifts of divine Provision. The wheelbarrow becomes more, then, as it represents the way that humans appreciate and partake of God’s common grace. So much does depend upon that wheelbarrow, but fortunately it (and we) are indeed designed to carry a certain amount of weight.

    By contrast, Taylor’s lawnmower represents our need to confine nature to a convenient square green patch so that our neighbors will be fooled into thinking we lead orderly lives. It’s glistening with dew because the homeowner is too lazy to put it away at night. The rabbits are probably a 4H project or something but they really aren’t very useful because nobody but a heartless wretch would actually eat Bouncy the Rabbit. So ultimately it’s not true that many things depend upon that lawnmower, unless we take the first line in a satirical sense, and then the rest of the poem is just a mess.

    Michael, I react with annoyance to maybe 60% of what you write in general, but for this post – thank you. There’s a lot more poetry in the Bible than we realize, and perhaps heightening our awareness of poetry in general will help us to appreciate inspired poetry all the more.

  12. Here’s a collection of excerpts from critical essays on Red Wheelbarrow.


  13. I must confess that when it comes to poetry I am a lot like your student Vicki. I just don’t see how that poem could be any good, except that my English teachers all said it was good.

    Thanks for sharing some from the teaching side of your life. Feel perfectly free to forget that there are TR dragons to slay; I would not mind hearing more from you on this area of your life.

  14. Michael,

    Thanks for the post on poetry. Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow” was my first exposure to imagist poetry, and to this day I greatly enjoying H.D. and other (now unfashionable) imagists. I use Perrine in homeschooling my children, and I rather wish I had had as good a grounding in how to read a poem as Sound and Sense offers before I was bulldozed by theory in college. It amazed me how many English majors were afraid of poetry, and tended to treat it like prose with line breaks. I hope to do better by my children, and if they don’t grow up to be English majors (perhaps opting for something that earns a living instead), I’d like them to grow up to continue reading and enjoying.

  15. “… greatly enjoy H.D. …”

  16. In response to Mike Taylor, taking cues from rastassin:

    In order to understand why this poem works, and why it requires craft, here are a number of factors to consider.

    1) Spend some time thinking about what actually does depend on that wheelbarrow. (As Kaffinator points out, it’s very different from what depends on a lawnmower).

    2) Think of the “characters” in the poem. There’s a wheelbarrow, chickens, and possibly rainwater. What are they like? How are they different? If you walked in on the scene, how would you react to each of them?

    3) Think about when this poem was written. I’ll give you this one: it was 1923. What was big in the world then. And forgive me for being a little too leading here, but we’ve got a contrast set up between red and white. What event, still recent in 1923, placed great significance on the colors red and white?

    4) I haven’t gotten very far with the rain water myself, so if you come up with anything there, I’d love to hear about it.

    Now run through the same or similar thought exercises, using a green lawnmower and brown rabbits.


  17. I am very interested reading this web. I have to write a journal from “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams for my college class. I am speaker of two African languages and English is my third language. My first language is “Somali” culturally; poetry is a great thing that even we use it to change the future of a person. I remember one of the worst poetry was that made a woman not to get chance of her second marriage until she died. She asked her husband to divorce her. He said I would never do, but if you and your relative force me to do it, I will make a poetry that will lead you to death and you will never get a second marriage. After consulting with her relatives she asked him to do whatever he want but divorce her. He divorces her and made a poetry that created the two tribes of the husband and wife to meet for the remedy of the poetry. The ex-husband tribe pays for the woman family 50 camels counting as he killed her. She lived long without good respect in the community and at the end she died without having second chance for marriage because of that poetry. Having this culture in mind, how do you think if change some words of this poetry into their meaning such as “Wheelbarrow” into a ‘Container’, “Glazed” into ‘varnished’, “Beside” into ‘at the side of”, and “Chickens” into ‘Cowards”. So we can build a sentence like this ‘So much depends upon a red container, varnished with rain water at the side of white cowards’ and can we reverse second and third time using some other words with their meaning of the original words.

  18. This poem is amazing for many reasons. I think the ultimate reason is it shows how a poem can appeal to more than one type of reader (from a casual reader of poetry to a well versed reader to poetry to a highly erudite academic).

    To a casual reader, this poem shows a truly Americana scene from that time (1920’s), and sharp images are blazed into the mind. One can easily see the “red wheelbarrow” and the “white chickens”.

    To a well versed reader, you gain the appreciation of what Williams was trying to derive with his amazing choice of line breaks. Look at the relationship of
    depends/upon, wheel/barrow, rain/water; all of which are in direct upwards and downwards connection. Depends comes from the latin “to hang”, which is a downward idea and upon is from the Old English meaning simply “up”, which give a contradicting upward idea. We see the same similarity in wheel (a thing that rolls upon the ground) and a barrow (which sets atop this wheel), as well as rain (the water that falls downward from the sky) and water (the liquid sitting on the earth). White emphasizes the chickens, which is a whole other story.

    Finally, with the erudite ideals; this poem was written my Williams when he was visiting a sick girl, and he saw this simple, beautiful scene outside her window. There we can jump off to many interpretations of life, death, and the brilliance of what is the good life, and what is important to us.