"No ideas but in things" was an Imagist philosophy that embraced the idea of written expression in clear, sharp, minimal words, and Williams' poem exemplifies this philosophy very well. "The Red Wheelbarrow" is just a very few lines describing a common field implement sitting "glazed with rain," and represents Williams' belief that the journey to truth began with the most ordinary of objects, and that a human's ultimate search for reality would be found in these same items. The reader is immediately confronted with reality in the first line, "so much depends," and is led to wonder what (and who) might depend on this particular red wheelbarrow. Williams' career was relatively young when he wrote this poem, and the Imagist philosphy that influenced him was relatively young, about a decade old.
In A sort of Song and in The Red Wheelbarrow, Williams confronts "how" a poem should be written. It should not be used as a vehicle for expressing ideas but showing the essence of things. He was one of the first imagist poets. His poem The Red Wheelbarrow also confronts the way a poem should be written. In his poem he is saying that the subject matter of a poem should be in the things, themselves, not in ideas or beliefs or any abstract concept. He shows us, as readers, how to really see a thing, especially in The Red Wheelbarrow. That poem achieves a way of "seeing" or perceiving a thing, and a way of writing a poem.
While caring for a sick child at the child's home Williams, a paedtrician by profession, looked outside the window and saw the wet red wheelbarrow. He wrote this poem quickly in less than five minutes just like an impressionist painter would paint quickly in order to capture the precise quality of light of a particular moment: "glazed with rain/water" - if he had delayed writing the poem the wetness would have dried up and the glaze would have disappeared.
"The Red Wheelbarrow" (1923) is one of Willaims' early poems and is influenced by 'Precisionism' an artistic movement in America which peaked during the interwar period. 'Precision' artists shunned European influences, and as the term itself suggests their paintings were very objective and clearly defined almost like the 'photorealists' of the next generation. Just before Williams wrote this poem Williams had met Charles Sheeler the photographer journalist and a self-proclaimed 'precisionist.'
The poem expresses in the starkest and simplest manner possible the practical usefulness of a wheelbarrow on a farm. There is a sharp ironic contrast-almost haiku like- between the sick room 'inside' and the daily routine of the practical affairs of the farmhouse 'outside.'