William Carlos Williams put wheelbarrows on the map. Seriously, because of this poem, wheelbarrows can no longer be considered ordinary farm things – we know them to be way cooler. After reading this poem, it's hard to see a red wheelbarrow or hear the words "red wheelbarrow" without thinking of William Carlos Williams. It's a pretty big deal. This poem may look short, but it's saucy. And it has a lot to say, or, rather, it has a lot of questions to ask. "The Red Wheelbarrow" first appeared in Williams's collection of poetry and prose entitled Spring and All in 1923. The poem describes a red wheelbarrow in the rain. But it is about so much more! Williams wrote it in the amount of time it takes to read the poem (i.e., less than five minutes). Talk about being on a poetic roll.
Williams was a doctor by day (a pediatrician/general practitioner to be exact), and a poet by night. Unlike most of us, he could have quit his day job, but he decided against that. Most of his patients didn't really know that he was a poet. It is rumored that he got the idea for "The Red Wheelbarrow" while tending to a patient. As he was treating her, he looked out the window and saw…a red wheelbarrow in the rain with some chickens. Maybe it was the sharp contrast between the beauty of the natural world and the pain his patient was experiencing, but Dr. Williams was moved by something.
Like many of his contemporaries, Williams was heavily influenced by Imagism, Dadaism, and Cubism, as well as a lot of other –isms. Many artists, poets, and thinkers sought to make sense of the irrational nature of war, which they witnessed in both World War I and World War II. Eventually, he stopped following these –isms and focused on his own goals as a poet. He sought to capture the unique sound of American speech rhythms in his poetry. He felt like this sound was being neglected in favor of a British sound, or, in other words, he felt like his fellow poets were mimicking the Brits. Williams said, "The American idiom has much to offer us that the English language has never heard of" (source).
William Carlos Williams earned the Pulitzer in 1963, two months after dying of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 79. "The Red Wheelbarrow" is one of his most famous poems for its ability to make the ordinary extraordinary.
"There is nothing sacred about literature, it is [cursed] from one end to the other. There is nothing in literature but change and change is mockery. I'll write whatever I [...] please, whenever I [...] please and as I [...] please and it'll be good if the authentic spirit of change is on it." – William Carlos Williams
Maybe you are walking into "The Red Wheelbarrow" as a young scholar who is brand new to the study of poetry. Maybe you are reading it as someone who has lots of experience with poetry. Maybe you are slapping your poetry book against your head, exclaiming, "Why? Why? Why?!" and feeling anxious in a way that you haven't felt since the second grade when your classmates were always able to find Waldo, and when you never could see his red striped shirt in a sea of penguins. Don't worry. In the case of "The Red Wheelbarrow," it's as though you've already found Waldo, even before you begin reading.
William Carlos Williams, as you'll come to know, happened to be quite a rebel. "The Red Wheelbarrow" is revolutionary because of its simplicity. While many of his contemporaries were writing poems that locked meaning away like precious jewels in secret rooms, Williams wrote poems that captured ordinary moments and ordinary objects, such as a red wheelbarrow. Think of "The Red Wheelbarrow" as a painting, rather than as a Where's Waldo puzzle. Think of it as an homage to a tool that is thousands of years old and that rarely is appreciated. You'll be writing poems about forks in no time.