Two William Carlos Williams – or should that be Williamses?

No idea if this is going to work. The WordPress Gnomes have been messing with things so how I could import a picture into text seems to have changed.

I wanted to look at two William Carlos Williams poems to illustrate why I think one is powerful and the other vacuous.

First it’s worth observing that despite The U.K. and the U.S. having almost the same language, the difference in fashions for poets between the two is enormous. For once perhaps the U.K. is more insular, since most Americans seriously into poetry seem to be familiar with a number of U.K.-based poets while there are many excellent American poets virtually unknown in the U.K..

Many Americans speak of William Carlos Williams in awed tones, just as Hemingway seems to be a Godlike figure. Neither have the same status across the Atlantic. Probably this has something to do with diverging literary fashions.

Here are probably WCW’s two most famous poems:

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

The second first, to be perverse. It’s pretty clear that the aim is to strip away all philosophy, all claims to depth, and to concentrate on vivid description. It works unless you don’t like plums. You can almost taste those plums. It’s done with great economy. Williams does this sort of thing very well and I admire it: my only problem with it is if people asserts this is how poetry should be, so something very different (say Yeats’ “Byzantium”) is a mistake. As my poetry is almost completely different from this kind, I’d object, but I’m delighted the plum poem exists.

Now the first, which is even more famous. There is one image of two things – a wheelbarrow and chicken. To me the description doesn’t seem particularly vivid and whereas plums engage me because I know how they taste, wheelbarrows and chicken engage me no more than any two other random things, say drawing-pins and cabbages. The layout of the poem seems precious, with even “wheelbarrow” split so “barrow” has its own line. I don’t think the word “barrow” can support a line.

The poem had a big impact in America (and a small one in the U.K. and Ireland). Why? People still puzzle over this and I’ve seen a knowledgeable commentator assuming it’s some kind of code. If that were true it would be a case of amazing arrogance, since very few people would work out the code and those who did would either be crossword freak types or utterly convinced the decoded message was worth the effort. But surely it isn’t code. Ordinary things are flatly mentioned except for those key words “so much depends upon”. And this is the trick. Williams TELLS us what he’s going to say is hugely significant and we politely believe him. What precisely depends on this wheelbarrow? Why? Don’t ask. This is like a politician who tells us it’s enormously important to do what he says, but can’t or won’t explain why. We assume that dratted wheelbarrow and chicken must be important. They aren’t.

If the poem just read “A red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens” would it have much impact? I doubt it.

Now let’s try:

So much depends
a brass drawing
touched by house
beside the green


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  1. Miranda Stone

     /  July 11, 2014

    I agree with your analysis here. I remember reading the first poem in high school and thinking, “And…?” But the second poem is superb. I’m actually a bigger fan of his short stories than his poems.

    • Thanks, Miranda. I haven’t read his short stories. I can see skills in his poetry that could be very effective in short stories.


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