"The Red Wheelbarrow" is a single sentence, 16-word poem by William Carlos Williams, originally published in his 1923 collection "Spring and All." The poem is simple and easy to read, but contains deep messages that deal with personal identity and finding your place in the world. Williams states in his autobiography that the four stanzas are like a "piece of cloth, stretched on a frame." The structure creates powerful visual images and gives each word meaning.
Williams wanted his poems to parallel the real world. He chose to use simple, common language and everyday vocabulary words to describe objects and ideas in "The Red Wheelbarrow." Williams respected contemporary poets, such as Robert Frost, and wanted his poems to have a modern appeal, suggests poet and author Craig Morgan Teicher at the Poetry Foundation. For example, he simply and elegantly describes the red wheelbarrow as being " glazed with rain water."
"The Red Wheelbarrow" affects readers because the limited number of words carry a wealth of meaning. The introductory phrase of the poem -- "so much depends" -- forces readers to evaluate why the red wheelbarrow is significant. It might be because the wheelbarrow is a necessary tool for work, or because the wheelbarrow, rain and chickens are critical to the farmer's survival. Williams breaks the compound words "wheelbarrow" and "rainwater" into separate, smaller words to add emphasis. Readers must slow down and think about the wheel separate from the barrow and rain separate from water, suggests author, poet and literary critic Carol Rumens in "The Guardian."
Powerful Visual Images
Williams creates powerful visual images without using punctuation to separate his thoughts. Williams "dissolves the traditional boundaries between one thing, or idea, and another," says Teicher. The poem is abstract and emotional, yet the major nouns -- wheelbarrow, rainwater and chickens -- interconnect to form one fluid idea. The rural setting, wheelbarrow and chickens aren't symbolic and don't represent metaphors or similes. They offer a purely authentic picture of a wheelbarrow, stationed in the rain beside white chickens. The utilitarian image is ordinary, serene and comforting and establishes a happy tone, suggests Rumens.
Text Organization Supports the Themes
The organization of the words on the page add to the dynamic nature of the poem. The text is organized into two-line stanzas, and the second line of each couplet contains only one word. The reader's attention is drawn to the isolated single words -- upon, barrow, water and chickens -- which create a strong visual image by themselves. Williams wants readers to identify with the scene and understand that the most important things in life aren't complicated or glamorous. Personal identity is often found in the simple, ordinary things in life.
- Poetry Foundation: William Carlos Williams -- “The Red Wheelbarrow”
- Poets.org: On “The Red Wheelbarrow”
- The Guardian: Poem of the Week -- The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams
- The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams; William Carlos Williams; 1967
- Spring and All; William Carlos Williams
- Photo Credit Konstantin Sutyagin/iStock/Getty Images
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