Study Guide

"The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams in New Criticism

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"The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams

A poem like William Carlos Williams's "The Red Wheelbarrow" seems to demand a close reading. It's so short that every word suddenly seems extremely important. So it's not surprising that the New Critics were the ones to really unpack this work's meaning. Those dudes were on this poem like Shmoop's staff on cookie sandwiches.

In the book that became the textbook for students of poetry (Understanding Poetry), Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren present their analysis of this poem. "The Red Wheelbarrow" can seem arbitrary and puzzling, but that's exactly the point, they argue.

In paying close attention to such a little moment, and describing it in such a few words, Williams's poem makes us see common objects in a fresh way. (Um, doesn't this sound a lot like what the New Critics did for us when they analyzed old works?) The piece has an effect on readers that's kind of like what would happen if you framed a random grocery list: Would you read it differently then?

The opening lines of "The Red Wheelbarrow" kick off the "pay attention now" puzzle with the "so much depends" line. So much depends on what, huh?

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