William Carlos Williams's Poems: 'The Red Wheelbarrow' and 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'

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Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

William Carlos Williams was a famous American modernist poet. His poems 'The Red Wheelbarrow' and 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' illustrate several aspects of modernist poetry. Read on to find out more about Williams and his poetry, and test your understanding with a quiz.

William Carlos Williams and Modernism

At the beginning of the 20th century, a group of writers changed the way that poetry was written. They focused less on traditional forms of meter and rhyme. They wrote from a less optimistic point of view. And they gave as much importance to images and describing a simple item as they did to talking about big themes like love and beauty. To these writers, called modernists, everyday items or scenes could mean as much as a lot of philosophical discussion about life.

One of the new modernist poets was William Carlos Williams, the son of immigrants who grew up in New Jersey. Williams was a doctor as well as a poet, and one thing that set him apart from the writers who came before him was the way he used language. Before the modernist movement, poetry was filled with flowery language. Modernist poets decided to do away with pompous phrases and extra descriptions. They saw a new way to express their ideas in the simple language of everyday writing.

Modernist poet William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams

But Williams took this a step further. While his peers were writing with simplified, but still intellectual, language, he decided to write in the language of everyday, American speech. Because his poems contained language that was even less academic than other poets, he was sometimes criticized for not being as smart as his contemporaries. But Williams' poems reflect the idea that even ordinary things can be important.

Let's look closer at a couple of poems by Williams to see how he communicated his message that the ordinary can also be extraordinary.

Language in 'The Red Wheelbarrow'

The most famous poem by Williams is called 'The Red Wheelbarrow.' He wrote it one day after seeing a red wheelbarrow and white chickens in the backyard of an old, poor man who had worked hard his whole life. Let's look closer at the poem.

'The Red Wheelbarrow'

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens

The first thing you might notice about this poem is that it doesn't have any long words. Because Williams was writing about an everyday scene, he used everyday language. The lines sound like Williams might have said them to a buddy if they were just standing around observing the scene in the yard.

Again, this is an example of Williams using simplified language. But why not use highfalutin phrases with long words that would make him sound smart? Think about the description in the poem: it's of something ordinary, a red wheelbarrow in a backyard, and Williams is trying to show how even something normal like that can be special. The language he uses is just like the scene he describes: both ordinary and important.

Content and Challenge of the Red Wheelbarrow

We've already seen one important theme in 'The Red Wheelbarrow:' that ordinary things are important, too. But there are two other important aspects of the poem. These lie in the content of the poem and the challenge that Williams offers his readers.

As we saw, the content of the poem is little more than a description of a scene in someone's backyard. A red wheelbarrow, a little rainwater, some chickens...not much else is there. So what's the point then? Where's the big philosophical discussion that poems of the 1800s had in them?

Williams was part of a subset of modernism called imagism. Imagist writers believed that describing images was even more important than talking about big philosophical ideas. In Williams' own words, imagists believed that there are 'no ideas but in things.' In other words, the images a poet uses are what give meaning to the poem.

As a poem, 'The Red Wheelbarrow' reflects these ideas of imagism. Its focus is almost entirely on a simple, bare description of a tableau, or scene. The only part of the poem that isn't a part of this description is the first two lines, 'so much depends/upon.'

If you're wondering why you should care about a poem that's just about a red wheelbarrow, these two lines offer you a reason: it's not just about a red wheelbarrow - it's about something else. And with these opening lines, Williams issues a challenge to his readers. He dares them to figure out what else the poem is about.

There are lots of theories. Some people believe that Williams is commenting on the functionality of the wheelbarrow - the way it allows people to move things from one place to another easily. Others think it has to do with things seeming fresh and glowing after a literal or figurative storm. Still others believe that it's about how hard the old man who owned the wheelbarrow worked during his life.

How can so many people disagree on what the poem is about? That's because Williams leaves it vague. Whether you agree with one of the above interpretations or whether you have your own idea of why 'so much depends upon' that red wheelbarrow, the point is that Williams doesn't make his poem clear. He's issuing a challenge to his readers: 'You figure out why the red wheelbarrow is important, because I'm not going to tell you!'

This attitude became very common in poetry; even almost a century after Williams wrote 'The Red Wheelbarrow,' poets still use this type of writing. Poems today are often deliberately left vague and open to interpretation. So if you find it hard to understand what poets are talking about, you can thank William Carlos Williams for making readers think!

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