The Poem

“The Red Wheelbarrow” is a brief lyric written in free verse. It is composed of four stanzas, each consisting of two short lines. The entire poem contains only sixteen words, four words in each stanza. The lyric “I” does not appear, placing the reader in direct contact with the images of the poem. These are presented one by one in short lines, which slow the reading and focus the reader’s attention on each bit of information in a sequence that suspends completion of the scene until the very last word. The surprise implicit in this arrangement is particularly present in the poem as it was first published, without a title, as poem number “XXII” in Spring and All. In that book William Carlos Williams alternates passages of prose expressing his theories of poetry with groups of poems illustrating those theories.

The poet begins with an impersonal statement, composed of abstract words: “so much depends/ upon.” This stanza creates suspense by raising the question, What depends on what? This is partly answered in the second stanza: “a red wheel/ barrow.” In contrast with the words of the first stanza, each word here, except for the article “a,” evokes a sense of impression. By dividing the word “wheelbarrow” into its parts, “wheel” and “barrow,” and by breaking the line after “barrow,” the poet slows the reading, which helps to imprint the image on the reader’s mind. It also makes a wheelbarrow less familiar...

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Forms and Devices

Williams has excluded most of the forms and devices traditionally associated with poetry in the composition of this poem. He rejects the convention of beginning each line with a capital letter; he does not employ a traditional form; he avoids writing in an established meter; and he does not use rhyme. He does not use words for their connotations or associations or write in elevated language. He excludes similes, metaphors, and symbols. Even the subject of the poem is mundane, a wheelbarrow not being the sort of thing likely to inspire aesthetic contemplation or reveal great truth. The term “anti-poetry,” sometimes applied to Williams’s work, is valid only in reference to characteristics such as these.

Williams relies almost entirely on images to communicate the meanings of “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and the poem exemplifies the principles of Imagism, a literary movement originated in London by friends of Williams, the American expatriate poets Hilda Doolittle (H. D.) and Ezra Pound. Imagist poetry presents things directly, using only words essential to the presentation, and is composed in free verse. Although Williams sometimes used the term “Imagism” and “free verse” in reference to his work, he was intent on creating an American poetry distinct from English poetry, and he distanced himself from the expatriates, substituting the term “Objectivism” for “Imagism” and developing his conception of the variable foot to distinguish his...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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