Describe how the poem, "The Red Wheelbarrow" evokes emotions of surprise.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I think that one of the most striking elements of Williams' poem is how a sense of surprise at something so common.  The common element of a red wheelbarrow is constructed to be something more than ordinary in the way it is described in the poem.  The "glazed with rain water" brings out an image of something covered with an other- worldly quality.  This helps to bring out emotions of surprise in how it stands in the world and how fortunate one is to be in witness of it.  At the same time, the condition of the wheelbarrow as a part of the world in which it exists, "beside the white chickens" helps to illuminate the sense of surprise that the reader is seeing something in the world that seems to be a part of it.  In this description of the red wheelbarrow, the distinct feeling that a common object can possess extraordinary qualities is a part of this experience of surprise in the poem.  The viewing of the wheelbarrow and the sensation experience associated with it are realities that are ones which evoke emotions of surprise, to ensure that such an experience is not taken for granted.

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kevinthevous | Student

William Carlos Williams' work, as it is with all good poetry, demands the reader's full attention be paid to the words, the line construction and cutting, the punctuation (or in this case, the lack thereof), the sound that all these things produce, and most importantly, the images they conjure in the mind, followed swiftly by wisps of meaning.

The poem begins with a comment from the persona: "so much depends/ upon". Notice that that initial line cut is already a deviation from natural speech. That half-breath pause caused by the cut between "depends" and "upon" already has the reader mimicking what it would be like to work on and live in the setting of the poem: a farm, introduced by "a red wheel/ barrow" with all of its quick connotations.

In this next verse, it seems the persona wants us to a) vividly imagine the redness of that wheelbarrow; b) take a similar half-breath pause as if exhausted between the words "wheel" and "barrow" (yet another deviation from natural speech and writing); and c) somehow separate the wheel from the thing that it is attached to--to deconstruct it, and subsequently deconstruct the language used as well.

The persona goes on to describe the object further with the simplest, yet absolutely precise verse, "glazed with rain/ water". The word "glazed" was used intentionally--it is obviously an unfamiliar term to describe a machine that is wet. It is this unfamiliarity that the reader now has a clear image of a kind of moisture that remains still. It is "glazed with rain…" and though one might be tempted to see rain or even just a slight drizzle in the mind's eye, this line construction ("rain" being separated from "water") implies that this is the moment after the rain, when everything seems to be still, refreshed, even made new by this "glaze."

And just as we see no other living things in this poem, we are then shown that this object, with all its precise description is set "beside the white/ chickens". Clearly an image of life, bustling in its own little way, amidst the stillness.

How does all this evoke emotions of surprise? This is a rather unremarkable scene yet made divinely surprising by the attention paid to the language of it all. William Carlos Williams along with Ezra Pound and contemporaries are two of the main heroes of a literary movement called Imagism, and it made the simplest images become surprising because of how unfamiliar the language makes it to be. Yes, one can simply read this as a poem that suggests how humanity depends on tools survive as a species, but one cannot say that that's all that it invites us to explore. The familiar becomes defamiliarized through language, and it is a manner of thinking that opens oneself up to new ideas, which ultimately was I suppose, what all artists aspire to inspire in one way or another.