Reactions to "The Red Wheelbarrow"Here's a question prompted by just having answered a question about William Carlos Williams' famous poem "The Red Wheelbarrow": why does this poem often frustrate...

Reactions to "The Red Wheelbarrow"

Here's a question prompted by just having answered a question about William Carlos Williams' famous poem "The Red Wheelbarrow": why does this poem often frustrate readers who would not be frustrated by a painting depicting the same scene? I have my own theory, but I'd be curious to hear what others think.

Expert Answers
Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The difficulty--the potentially frustrating difficulty--is that there are no identifying clues to the speaker of the voice. The voice is clear: there is a tone of frustrated (ah ha!) deferment of hope and a tone of feeling downcast indicated by the specificity of certain words: upon, red, water, white. The tone is also clear because of the phrase "so much depends / upon" being in juxtaposition to "glazed with rain / water". Rain is universally recognized as an impediment to productivity ("Game called for rain."). What we do not know is the originator of the voice and tone.

Two possibilities struggled against each other in my mind until I settled upon one. The first is that the speaker is an adult male who has serious work to do that depends upon the use of the red wheel barrow. I rejected this because the resulting angst and depression did not accord with the simple ("red") unemotional vocabulary and expressions, e.g., "beside the white chickens." The second, and the one I chose, is that the speaker is a little boy who had great plans for the wheel barrow, "so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow". This speaker accords with the simple statements that are unclouded by sentimentality, angst, emotionalism or judgement. This speaker also accords with something upon which so much depends being (1) left out in the farmyard and (2) strangely inaccessible because of rain: rain would stop a little boy, not a grown farmer.

In summary, readers may feel frustrated because [the "ah ha!" first] the speaker feels frustrated and that mood is wonderfully conveyed so well with so little and because (2) the speaker is unknown and because (3) so much is dependent upon something so important being stopped by so little (a little bit of rain).  [Ha! Great question!]

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As one who uses a wheelbarrow nearly everyday, cleaning up after a horse, "so much does depend" upon a wheelbarrow.  This may be a waste disposal question....after all, the red wheelbarrow is beside the white chickens. Perhaps, then, it is an existential question since all life involves those necessities implied. 

Sorry, I could not resist the parodic response. However, I have often wondered if Williams is not himself toying with the proclivity of people to find greater meanings, and existential ones at that, in the mundane and banal--something like the movie starring the inimitable Peter Sellers, Being There, whose screenplay was adapted from the novella written by Jerry Kosinski. [Sellers's character, Chance the gardener, is a mentally challenged man whom a multimillionaire and president mistake for a brillant man who quotes Voltaire's passage about one's tending one's figurative garden when he is only speaking of his garden in back of the house in which he dwells in the beginning of the film.]

One thing I enjoy about this poem:  Watching for the students to raise their heads from reading it with, to put it mildly, a myriad of expressions.

booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I cannot say for sure; perhaps readers are puzzled or frustrated because of the lack of stanzas, a wealth of mixed and memorable details, or a rhyme scheme. They may see the poem's simplicity and take it for a lack of meaning, for poetry even for those of us who love it, can sometimes be a challenge to work through.

For me the simplicity seems to be what would frustrate readers because as a painting, I can see it clearly. What makes the poem able to evoke such a strong response as we envision it, are the perfect details that he does use: the colors impress me, as does the glaze of the rain. I think, too, that readers who haven't learned to look beneath the surface of things (esp. literature) may miss the irony, that the wheelbarrow that does SO much work, is neatly defined in just a few words covering a few lines. How could something so powerful be presented so simply? It's simplicity seems such a contradiction to its power, but it is perfect.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I first heard of this poem when my younger brother was in hate with his HS English teacher for assigning it...

I think it's frustrating because there is so little to it in terms of words yet, at the same time, the words imply that we should be getting something from the poem.  If we just saw a painting of the scene, it would be easily understood.  But with the "So much depends upon..." we now have to try to figure out what is so important about the chickens.  We wouldn't be challenged that much by the painting because we could just look at it and not have to figure out the importance.

Looking forward to your take on this.

e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Maybe we can look at this poem, for some folks, as a puzzle offering no clues to the solution.

When the poem is seen as an object which can be subjectively viewed, it becomes accessible, like an abstract sculture, maybe. Viewing poetry as an art akin to sculpture is not very common though. People tend to read according to the idea that the meaning is already existent in the text and finding it requires a strictly objective/deductive reading.


accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I remember reading this for the first time and feeling absolutely frustrated about the complete lack of obvious meaning to the poem. In a sense it is too simplistic and we are left looking or trying to find meaning that it appears might not actually be there in the first place. This is something that we can use to actually help our analysis of the poem when we begin to see the way that the poet is talking about meanings and how we form them.

bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I remember that my first reaction after reading Williams' poem was "what the heck?" or something similar. It is a similar reaction for most of the students who first read it in my classes. When teaching the poem, I usually don't initially give any explanation for it and allow my students to go home and sleep on it for the night. Then I relate my own flabbergasted view upon first reading it before entertaining a discussion. 

kiwi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The poem creates an image which is easy for us to visualise, but there is a question as to the purpose and relevance of the scene from the opening line. The scene is given, but the context is left to the reader: some find this frustrating, others like the possibilities that are opened up by the enigmatic introduction.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think people expect a poem to be a certain way.  They want it to be longer, more specific and more, well, poetic!  The poem drives some people simple because there does not seem to be much to it, and it makes them think, but not in the way a poem usually does.

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The Red Wheelbarrow

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