Back To CourseEnglish 102: American Literature
13 chapters | 132 lessons | 11 flashcard sets
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Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.
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.
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.
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
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
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.
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!
Though 'The Red Wheelbarrow' is the most famous of Williams' poems, he has many others. One of them, 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,' has some elements in common with 'The Red Wheelbarrow.' Specifically, like 'The Red Wheelbarrow,' it is a poem that contains simple language, a description of a scene, and a message that's not spelled out for the reader. Let's take a closer look at this poem and then delve into some of the similarities and differences between it and 'The Red Wheelbarrow.'
'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
the whole pageantry
of the year was
the edge of the sea
sweating in the sun
the wings' wax
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
This poem is about a Renaissance painting by Pieter Brueghel, which is about the Greek myth of Icarus.
In the Greek story, Icarus and his father Dedalus manage to fly using wings made of feathers and wax. Icarus ignores his father's warnings and flies too close to the sun, which melts the wax of the wings. As a result, Icarus plunges into the sea and dies.
The interesting thing about the painting is that despite the title referring to Icarus, the scene is not focused on him at all. In the front of the painting is a farmer, and then there are large boats on the sea. But Icarus himself is just a tiny set of legs sticking out of the water. No one in the painting seems to have noticed him at all. In fact, many people looking at the painting might not notice him, either!
Williams' description of the painting in his poem observes the fact that Icarus dying is such a small part of the painting. He notices that Icarus dying is 'a splash quite unnoticed' by the world around him: the farmer ploughing, the spring. He even says that the sea is 'concerned/with itself.' Even the thing that kills Icarus is too self-absorbed to pay attention to him!
Like 'The Red Wheelbarrow,' this poem uses the simplest language possible. There are no fancy words here. Williams describes things as if he was talking to someone who didn't have much education. The language works well with the idea of the poem: just as Icarus is stripped bare of his wings by the sun, so too Williams strips his language bare of any embellishment.
There's a major difference between this poem and 'The Red Wheelbarrow,' though: this poem has a lot of emotion in it! Williams uses phrases like 'concerned/with itself' and 'a splash quite unnoticed' to make the reader feel sorry for Icarus. Whereas in 'The Red Wheelbarrow,' Williams uses sparse language to avoid evoking any strong emotions, here he really tries to get the reader to feel something. It's as if he's talking to the people in the painting and saying, 'Hey! Pay attention! This poor guy's dying!'
But the fact that the world isn't paying attention to Icarus' death is the point of both the painting and the poem. Both are pointing out that the tragedy of death is that it doesn't matter to the world at large. People die all the time, and the world keeps moving on. Both Brueghel and Williams point this out in their art.
William Carlos Williams is an important figure in American modernist poetry. He exemplifies the rebellious nature of the modernist movement in the early 1900s with his use of simple language and his focus on description of images as the main part of his poetry. He also forces the reader to think and interpret his poetry, instead of just saying the meaning outright.
The poems 'The Red Wheelbarrow' and 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' both highlight these key elements of Williams' poetry.
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Back To CourseEnglish 102: American Literature
13 chapters | 132 lessons | 11 flashcard sets