William Carlos Williams

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How would you describe the style and content of "The Red Wheelbarrow" and "This is Just to Say" by William Carlos Williams?

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"The Red Wheelbarrow" and "This is Just to Say" are works of Modernism. The former work relies on color, freshness and simplicity, whereas the latter poem focuses on the act of writing itself. Both poems are characterized by their spare use of language and economy of statement.

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William Carlos Williams was one of the leading poets of the Imagist school, a branch of Modernism that aimed to break with the sentimental, elaborate style of late Victorian poetry and focus on hard, clear, pared-down images. The Imagists were particularly influenced by Chinese and Japanese poetry, especially the way in which a short poem would present the reader with a simple image, free from commentary or context.

In "The Red Wheelbarrow," I would point out that Williams presents us with just such a simple image in a bright primary color, glazed with rain and beside white chickens. This is a picture anyone can visualize immediately. By telling us that so much depends on it, he fixes the image in the reader's head, identifying it as important without suggesting just what we ought to think and feel. In "This is Just to Say," he makes a poem out of the type of note that people who share a house are always leaving for each other. With the possible exception of the final stanza, the language is so completely straightforward and quotidian that if it were laid out as prose, one might easily accept it as an actual note. Even the last stanza is identifiable as part of a poem mainly because of the lack of contrition expressed, rather than by virtue of the diction. The simple description of the taste of the plums creates an image as vivid as the red wheelbarrow, celebrating the simple and the familiar.

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William Carlos Williams is an American modernist who is well-known for his short, powerful poems, among other literary works. "This is Just to Say" and "The Red Wheelbarrow" are two well-known poems by Williams. Each conveys a message in very few words but uses strong descriptive language to make an impression on the reader. Both show his interest in writing about clear, real subjects that create an image in the reader's mind.

If I were describing these poems to students, I would point out how Williams doesn't have to use a lot of words to make his point. Instead, he's able to convey a feeling or experience in as few words as possible. This sparseness makes each individual word really matter when you're reading the poems. I would discuss his use of words and ask which words in each poem the students found the strongest and most evocative.

I would also point out how he describes the images he creates in his poems so that a reader can imagine them clearly. I'd point out that he describes the color of the chicken and the wheelbarrow, that he explains that the wheelbarrow is coated with rainwater. I might ask them how they'd feel different about the poem if it left out these images. Then I'd ask them how they'd feel about "This is Just to Say" if Williams hadn't described the plums as delicious, sweet, and cold. I'd ask whether the description helps them understand why he might have eaten the plums even though he shouldn't have.

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I would describe these poems as minimalist and imagist.

The entire "The Red Wheelbarrow" is minimalist in being only sixteen words and stripping away all extraneous details:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

It is imagist in simply being a series of images—description which uses any of the fives senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. This poem is stripped down in that it uses only a few plain words. It only relies on visual images, and it chooses only a few elements of a scene. It doesn't interpret , tell us what to think, or express emotion as a lyrical poem would. It simply shows us a series of images and in so doing, illustrates how the red of the wheelbarrow and the white of the chickens are enhanced by their proximity to each other. It invites us to resee what is around us: not reinterpret its meaning, but just see it.

In "This is Just to Say," Williams is again minimalist and imagist. He explains his eating of the plums by describing them with sensual imagery that makes them seem irresistible:

they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold
At the same time, the imagery is minimal and quite stark, the poem only 28 words. Each word stands out in such a simple format.
Some have also called "This is Just to Say" found poetry, arguing it is simply a note pinned to a refrigerator converted into a poem.
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In these two examples, Williams writes in the sparse style of the Modernist, conveying an image and leaving the interpretation open to his readers. 

In "The Red Wheelbarrow," point out to your students that Williams asserted that "a poem should be shaped like an object."  If you turn the poem sideways, you will see both literally and symbolically, the "handle" of the wheelbarrow and the "dip" of the bin.  Ask them to consider color, shape and juxtaposition of objects, and why Williams might choose to elevate the everyday to the poetic. 

In regard to "This is Just to Say," Williams once said that poems must consider "those things which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses, close to the nose."  Thinking of that statement, encourage students to examine the relationship of the speaker and his unnamed mate.  What do the senses have to say about their relationship?  What inferences can be made?  In another telling comment, Williams remarked:  "To refine, to clarify, to intensify, that eternal moment in which we alone live there is but a single force -- the imagination."  Here the speaker is overtaken by his senses, acts without the other knowing his motives, and turns the moment of confession into poetry. 

In both poems, although the lines seem fragmented, like a haiku, each is dependant upon the other to complete the idea.   

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