Tuesday, July 7, 2015

It’s still WCW’s wheelbarrow

The New York Times reports on Thaddeus Marshall, “the forgotten man behind William Carlos Williams’s ‘red wheelbarrow.’” Interesting, certainly. But the wheelbarrow of “The Red Wheelbarrow” has been abstracted — removed from its source, dissociated from its surroundings (save for some chickens), lifted into the zone of the imagination, whose work upon things is the focus of Spring and All, the 1923 volume in which the poem (known only as XXII, an exhibit number of sorts) first appeared. To say (as the Internets now say) that Mr. Marshall owned the wheelbarrow in Williams’s poem is to make a category mistake about the relation between life and art.

Williams’s poem, like so much modernist art, is above all a work of juxtaposition: of the made and the natural, the one and the many, the red and the white. As Hugh Kenner observes, the poem forms “an ideogram of the barnyard.” “The Red Wheelbarrow” has small surprises: the broken words “wheel / barrow” and “rain / water,” the mysterious word glazed, which turns the wheelbarrow, if only for a moment, into a work of art, glazed like, oh, say, a Grecian urn. And the poem has a haiku-like economy of form: four two-line stanazas, of four syllables and two, three and two, three and two, four and two. Reading the poem at Princeton University in 1952, Williams invoked the opening line of John Keats’s Endymion : “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

It’s good to know where things come from. (It was Hugh Kenner who discovered that “Prufock” was the name of a St. Louis furniture company.) But it’s also possible in English studies to contextualize a work into oblivion — in other words, to miss what’s most important about it . What’s most important about “The Red Wheelbarrow” is its presentation of an everyday, unpoetic reality as the material of poetry. Not a Grecian urn: a wheelbarrow. Not nightingales and skylarks: chickens.

Related reading
All OCA William Carlos Williams posts (Pinboard)

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