Monday with Michael Spencer: September 30, 2019
The Red Wheelbarrow Debate
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
- William Carlos Williams, “The Red Wheelbarrow”
And so once again, my AP English IV class begins its two-quarter study of poetry. I love this part of my course. Teaching poetry is easily my favorite part of being a teacher. Lecturing on poetry, reading it aloud and teaching my students to appreciate it are rare and sublime pleasures for me.
Each year, we visit many of the same poems, and I assign the same essays, questions and readings from “Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound and Sense.” Unlike Mr. Keating’s orders to tear out the “What is Poetry?” essay in his lit book, I have my students spend several days working through the characteristics of poetry and the nature of poetic language and art.
Which brings us to Mr. William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.” My students know it’s there. It’s always there in their literature books, waiting for them. It’s there in the English III study of American poetry. I assume it goes back earlier than that for some of them. So when we thumb through the collected poems in the back of the book on the first day of class, “The Red Wheelbarrow” appears, and the inevitable discussion begins.
Is it any good?
Thomas Aarp makes the point that the appreciation of poetry isn’t a skill we all possess by nature. We have to acquire the vocabulary and the knowledge of poetic elements. The average person would look at Shakespeare’s “Winter,” and say it’s an ugly, bad piece of writing. A person trained in literature sees Will’s genius in almost every line.
So a person with no art appreciation sees a Picasso and sees nothing but a quirky, unintelligible collection of lines and color. A person with artistic appreciation sees genius.
A person with no appreciation for art sees the Mona Lisa and sees a woman’s face. An artistic aesthete sees one of the high points of human creativity.
My students read “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and almost all of them see nothing. The authors of their textbooks, however, the literary critics, see William Carlos Williams as a great artist. They see a poem of utterly simplistic depth, and a poem of almost unparalleled significance in the art of poetry. The keepers of the poetic flame see a poem that will endlessly stimulate students to consider the truth that poetry is the most compressed and compact of literary forms.
I know what’s going to happen, and it only took two days. I am lecturing on the need to develop poetic appreciation in order to critically and aesthetically engage with the poems we are going to read. I’m making the case that education itself includes a commitment to go beyond the ordinary person’s appreciation of a particular area of knowledge or creativity, and to be able to perceive that subject in such a way that the good, the true and the beautiful can be actualized through your contribution.
I’m throwing this rock, however, into the ocean of relativism where my students live. They would probably never argue with me about moral relativism….but “The Red Wheelbarrow?” That’s too easy.
One of my most gifted students is a girl named Vicki. She raises her hand.
“I’ll never believe “The Red Wheelbarrow” is any good.”
“I’m not surprised. Why do you say that?”
“Just because a professor somewhere says that there are all these great things about that poem doesn’t mean they are really there. He’s just educated himself so much he has to see things like that. It’s not that they are actually there. He simply needs to see them to feel smart.”
“You don’t think it’s possible that it’s a great poem, and you simply refuse to get to the place you can see it’s greatness by learning about poetry?”
She laughs at me. “It’s not a good poem.”
Of course, we’re both right on this one.
I could bring a brick into the classroom and most of my students would see nothing, but a historian of engineering would see the whole history of human advancement.
A glass of milk is the entirety of human dominance of the planet. A pencil is the triumph of technology. A button all of industry. And so on…
Did Williams see all of the human conquest of the world in that red wheelbarrow? Did he see our place in the world, and the world we have made? Or do readers and lovers of poetry stand in front of the wheelbarrow and say profound things so that there will always be books on poetry, and teachers teaching the mysteries of literature to the uninitiated?
What I want Vicki to see is that squirrels don’t think on such things. They see the red wheelbarrow as a thing. We see it as a piece of the puzzle of significance, and yes, there is something about human beings that wants to find the significance within the wheelbarrow and the button and the glass of milk.
Are we making up what is not there, or are we fulfilling our destiny and our created purpose by finding what is there, what should be there, and what can be there? Are the thoughts of literature teachers about poems describing red wheelbarrows so much dust in the wind, or are we exploring what it means to be made in the image of a God who made the world and made us in His image?
It will never be my favorite poem. Minimalism seems to tempt the trap door that Vicki is pointing at. Nonetheless, I see what Williams was doing in this and so many of his other poems. The evidences of our humanity are simple. They speak for themselves in their simplicity, and it is the calling of the poet to see, to listen, to stop, to speak.
And it is our duty to ask if anything- or everything has been said.
So in the beginning was the Word…..and the Word became flesh…and his own received him not.
God sent a Word, and we weren’t ready to hear the ultimate simplicity and clarity. There was, we say, nothing there.
Perhaps everything was there, if we were listening with the ears of poets.