Help me understand poetry

Here is the well-known poem The Red Wheelbarrow, by William Carlos Williams:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

That’s the whole thing. The line-breaks are as in the original.

People have said good things about this poem. For example, Peter Baker wrote “one critic has recently called it a poem by someone afraid of his own thoughts […]  Williams is saying that perception is necessary to life and that the poem itself can lead to a fuller understanding of one’s experience.”

I 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. An example of the first category is Stewart Lee; an example of the second is, I must assume, Bob Dylan.

So I’d like to make up my loss. I’d like to understand what it is about poems like this that make them good. To help me understand what’s going on here, I wonder if commenters 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 rabbits. Suppose the wheelbarrow was green. Suppose it was a lawnmower instead of a wheelbarrow. And suppose we joined up the seemingly-arbitrarily broken the lines. 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.

18 responses to “Help me understand poetry

  1. I’m not particularly one for poetry either, but this compilation of comments about the poem seems helpful (or, at least, enough of the statements seem helpful that the page is valuable in the aggregate — there are several that I don’t, “get”).

    For example:

    [I]n twentieth-century verse, an enjambment can occur without interest in shock or abruptness as a mimetic effect by itself. . . . A paradigmatic case is from William Carlos Williams in a well-known poem which uses the device almost as if in a manifesto. . . .

    The rigorous metrical convention of the poem demands simply three words in the first line of each couplet and a disyllable in the second. But the line termini cut the words “wheelbarrow” and “rainwater” into their constituents, without the use of hyphenation to warn that the first noun is to be part of a compound, with the implication that they are phenomenological constituents as well. The wheel plus the barrow equals the wheelbarrow, and in the freshness of light after the rain (it is this kind of light which the poem is about, although never mentioned directly), things seem to lose their compounded properties. Instead of Milton’s shifting back and forth from original to derived meanings of words, Williams “etymologizes” his compounds into their prior phenomena, and his verbal act represents, and makes the reader carry out, a meditative one. The formal device is no surface trick.


    No title, without punctuation, minimal diction, tilling rhythm, and modestly internal rhyme (depends/upon, wheel/barrow, beside/white/chickens): it’s not much of a poem, an English formalist might object. What makes it tick? What catches in the eye, cocks the ear? Three modest prepositions—upon, with, beside–place these barnyard minims in visual apposition, or a kind of contingent spatial rhyme, as in Alexander Calder’s counter-gravity-balancing mobiles. Syllable to syllable the ear rolls (wheels) iamb upon trochee, the eye composes (glazes) red with white, as the mind centers (depends) on a barrow beside the chickens. It’s elemental—a figure / ground design scanned in twenty-two slim syllables.

  2. I am not sure if the poem is fraudulent, but I am pretty sure that those comments about it are fraudulent.

    I think that a poem of sixteen words can possibly be good, but it is very difficult for a lengthy essay about the same poem to be good.

  3. Honestly I’m not sure what’s going on either.

    That being said I quite like the poem. It’s striking, I can really picture the scene. And I think what’s great with a poem like this is precisely that you can picture something and then project your own meaning onto it. I’m not sure I would read too much in any one interpretation of it. The whole point is that it’s personal. You can of course share your interpretation, but that’s what it is: an interpretation.

    That being said, the comment about “Williams is saying that perception is necessary to life and that the poem itself can lead to a fuller understanding of one’s experience” might precisely be about the fact that the poem evokes a scene very vividly. A rather mundane scene, it must be said; but by the fact that the poem exists, it calls attention to the scene. It’s the whole idea of mindfulness; perceiving instead of thinking, etc…

    About the line breaks; I didn’t take them into account in my reading. Actually trying to put pauses on line breaks when reading the poem makes it sound like really bad elementary school poetry (just like obsession with rhymes).

    About why the different poem doesn’t work (at least for me): it paints a scene that is at the same time much less striking, and much less realistic. A wheelbarrow is something you might leave outside, unlike a lawnmower (which is something with an engine in my mind). It’s also something that is much more intemporal than a lawnmower with an engine. The color red makes the scene striking. You picture it red over the green (grass/vegetation) and grey/blueish (rain/sky) background. And it’s just much more likely to have chicken move around in a courtyard than rabbits, which are either caged or wild animals. It reminds of a familiar old farm setting.

    Brown chickens instead of white would a bit reduce the colorimetry of the scene, but it would still work for me.

    Anyway, that’s my 2 cents.

  4. I definitely don’t find the deep meaning and nuance that these other authors seem to find.

    Nonetheless, I do like the poem and I can say that, to my ear and eye, your rendition doesn’t quite live up to the original. Sorry, Mike.

    I am wondering, are there are other poems, perhaps less sparse, that you do enjoy?

  5. For whatever it’s worth, here’s how I “mentally hear” it:

    So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow
    Glazed with rainwater
    Beside the white chickens

    Disclaimer: the following is me spewing nonsense. I don’t especially “get” poetry, and I don’t know that I’ve ever searched it out.

    I also notice, on reflection (! Thanks for that), that now I wonder what depends on the wheelbarrow, and why does it depend on the wheelbarrow so much?

    I know your condensed version doesn’t work for me, and now I notice that loosing the “depends” effect necessarily kills it. I don’t know if the other changes could have killed it alone. Could other things be depended upon? ie, could you put some other thing or things after “so much depends” and have it still work? I have only the audiobook of The Fault In Our Stars, not a hardcopy, so I can’t pull from there.

  6. The breaking up of the poem reflects a breaking up into pieces of the scene, the fragmentary nature of the glimpses we get reflected in the reflections in the rainwater glaze; it highlights how we see so few pieces of something that we can have no idea whether the scene deserves the freighting of importance the first stanza attempts to give it, even though it seems so innocuous.

    Each component contributes to the scene being mundane and vivid; tweaking it slightly throws off the timelessness or mundanity or colour contrasts that help it resonate.

    You probably could write a very similar poem with different components, though; it just wouldn’t have as much impact on _me_ because I first saw this one.

  7. Thanks to all who have commented — I am finding this helpful. Keep ’em coming!

  8. Being Irish I’m supposed to appreciate poetry. My wifle loves it and reads it regularily. I find most poetry dull and un-imaginative and un-engaging. Well written prose I find much more effective. One of the few poets I do like is John Cooper Clarke (funny and smart). He can also be moving (check out Beasley St., in particular the version with music by the Invisible Girls).

  9. Thinking about this a little more, I’d add two things:

    1) In poetry, like pop-music context matters. Poets are often writing in tribute to or in the shadow of other poets and, like music there are various different genres and it can be difficult to understand why a poet would chose one word over another without having some sense of the genre that they’re working in.

    In this case, the fact that the poem is short and simple, makes it seem like it should be easy to figure out why it’s structured the way that it is, but that isn’t necessarily the case. [Looks up a list of short pop songs], imagine having minimal knowledge of pop music and being asked to explain why Breaking Glass works.

    2) If you’re just thinking about poetry in general, rather than that specific poem, it might be interesting to look at something like this page which contains several different translations of the same poem. It’s provides an opportunity to compare several different sets choices side by side, and I immediately find some of them more successful than others (the first one, for example, seems annoyingly stilted).

    Here are the different translations of the first sentence of the linked poem.

    The kind-hearted servant of whom you were jealous,
    Who sleeps her sleep beneath a humble plot of grass,
    We must by all means take her some flowers.

    Now the great-hearted servant, who aroused
    Your jealousy, in humble earth is housed,
    Let’s take, at least, some flowers for her relief.

    My old nurse and servant, whose great heart
    made you jealous, is dead and sleeps apart
    from us. Shouldn’t we bring her a few flowers?

    The servant that we had, you were so jealous of,
    I think we might at least lay flowers on her grave.

    The differences in emphasis are striking. I’d say the first emphasizes the rhythms of language and a certain sort of convention — “humble plot of grass” being less emotional, for me, that some of the other choices it feels like it calls up the formality of, “we take flowers to the grave, because that’s what we do”.

    In the second, I think the emphasis is on the contrast between her death and the inadequacy of flowers as a response. The language in the first half of the sentence (“great-hearted”, “aroused”, “humble earth”) is the language of epic poetry, but then the contraction in, “let’s take” feels small and begrudging.

    In the third, it foregrounds the relationship. The dead woman isn’t just a servant, she was the nurse of the person who is speaking.

    The final translation is the opposite of the second, in that it de-emphasizes anything unique or special about the servant and, therefore, foregrounds the relationship between the person speaking, and the person they are addressing in shared guilt.

  10. That was me, I’m not sure why it lost my username again . . .

  11. I like Pomes, even some modern Pomes but I don’t quite get this one either.

    Running the lines together (“So much depends upon the red wheel barrow”) would make it a fairly banal observation: so the line breaks must be pretty much the point of it.

    So the writer is interested in how sentences very subtly and almost imperceptibly change their meaning when you put pauses into them…

    Except we’re not quite talking about pauses. I don’t think you would pause at the end of each line if you were reading it out loud.

    So you are sort of meant to read it sequentially (“So much depends upon the red wheel barrow”) but think of it with breaks

    So much depends

    A red wheel

    So it’s sort of about the fact that language happens on a page, and in your head, at the same time.

    The poem without pauses “glazed with rain water beside the white chickens” doesn’t seem particularly metrical. (In the way that “I pray you in these letters when you shall these unlucky deeds relate speak of me as I am nothing extenuate nor set down aught in malice…” has a definite rhythm and rhyme however you print it.) But by printing it the way he has, he’s brought out a rhythm you might not have noticed. Three words; followed by one word. The single word has two beats (upon, barrow, water, chickens); the three word lines make three beats. That’s one way your poem is different: you couldn’t split it up in that perfect way.

    many things depend

    a green lawn

    glistening with

    beside the brown

    So it’s making us recognise the little rhythms in very ordinary sentences.

    If I had to summarize the poem, I would say something like: “This poem makes us slow right down; attend to every word in a sentence; separate the words we see from the words we hear; notice the sounds of the words; remind us that language is a subtle and fragile thing. That was just what happened when the poet saw the wheel barrow in the farm — it made him stop, and look at it, and be surprised about what it was as if he’d never seen it before.”

    Again, it is not really the sort of pome I get, and I don’t especially like it.


  12. Well, Andrew, for someone who claims not to get this poem, you have certainly done a storming job of explaining it.

    Many thanks again to Andrew and the other commenters who have really helped me to see what this is trying to achieve — and, by extension, what other (good) poems are doing behind the scenes that I have been missing.

  13. It’s a descriptive poem. The words are supposed to evoke a scene. In some cultures this is a big thing. Japanese haikus, for example, are supposed to evoke some scene in nature.
    George Orwell called poetry the “least tolerated of the arts”, probably because it makes the reader or listener do a lot of the work.

  14. I guess what I meant was that there is other “difficult” writing — the Waste Land, say, or Godot — which excited and moved me the first time I read it, even though I’d have a tough time explaining what it means. This one does nothing for me, although with a bit of thought I think I can see what it’s doing. I suppose I like it more now I’ve sat down and tried to explain it…

    My one take-away from an English Literature degree is that the chances are a bit of writing is doing what it seems to be doing. If you read something which is puzzling and obscure, you don’t say “I obviously don’t understand it; I suppose if I read all the notes it will stop being puzzling and obscure” but “Ah — so the writer set out to be puzzling. I wonder why he did that? Maybe because he thinks the world is a puzzling place etc etc”. (The first question to ask about Waiting for Godot shouldn’t be “Who is Godot? If I knew that I would understand the play!” but “Aha…The important thing here is that no-one knows who Godot is.”)

    Genuinely bad poetry can often be obscure, unfortunately…

    Also: Historical context probably comes into it. If all the well regarded poets are writing long, complicated, decorated poems on great big philosophical subjects then writing a little short one that describes something ordinary in as few words as possible might be quite a powerful, political act.

  15. futilelaneswapper

    Genuinely bad poetry can often be obscure, unfortunately…

    viz. Bob Dylan

    To me this is a simple poem about re-enchantment. The subject seems banale but the structure and gentle rhythms urge the reader to pause and re-calibrate: to observe an ordinary scene in a entirely different way. By doing so, the profane activity of looking is transformed into a sacred one of seeing – perhaps with the eyes of that small child from long ago, when white chickens and (red wheelbarrows/red-wheel barrows) were wondrous and magical to behold.

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