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.

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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!]

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bullgatortail eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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. 

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mwestwood eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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...

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