Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“The Red Wheelbarrow” is perhaps one of the shortest serious poems ever published by an American poet. The structure is rigidly formal. The poem consists of four miniature stanzas of four words each.
so much dependsupona red wheelbarrowglazed with rainwaterbeside the whitechickens.
Three images are involved: the wheelbarrow, described simply as red, the qualifying adjectival phrase “glazed with rain/ water,” which relieves the excessive severity of the second stanza, and the contrasting white chickens of the final stanza. The first line is colloquial and open in its invitation; the second line, the preposition “upon,” prepares the reader for the specifics to follow. Each two-line stanza has two stressed syllables in the first line and one in the second, and yet there is lively variation in where the stresses fall.
In “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Williams discovers an aesthetic pattern and sensory pleasure in an ordinary sight. The poem—or the moment of perception it reports—evokes no cultural traditions or literary associations. The absence of these is strongly noticed, however, for if the poem is an immediate experience, it is also a demonstration and argument. “So much depends,” it says, on the object being there, but it also means that so much depends on the reader’s response to what is seen. If one’s response is dull, the world takes on this quality, and the converse is also true. Thus, although Williams believed that the American environment offered a new challenge and possibility to poetry, his deeper meaning was that anything, however familiar or even drab, would become significant and moving when met with a full response.