A Red Wheelbarrow : Poem Lines

//A Red Wheelbarrow : Poem Lines

So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens.

The sentence above, written out across the page in typical fashion, contains the words of a poem by the modernist poet William Carlos Williams. What do you think his actual poem looks like on the page, as he originally presented it?

Here’s one possibility: So much depends
Upon a red wheelbarrow
Glazed with rainwater
Beside the white chickens.

Now, at least, that looks like a poem, doesn’t it? And it has the virtue of four fairly evenly-matched lines, with four groups of words separated into lines according to grammar—two prepositional phrases in the second and fourth lines, and one line of description, the third. The first line sets up the others, which hang from it, so to speak.

Here’s another option: So much
Depends upon
A red

Glazed with
Beside the
White chickens.

What do you think of this version? What differences do you notice between these two structural possibilities for Williams’s poem? Stanzas, of course, and shorter lines. But for all that the versions aren’t really all that different.

Here is what Williams actually wrote:

So much depends

A red wheel

Glazed with rain

Beside the white
Now we have something interesting and surprising. We could not predict such an arrangement, as we could easily have predicted the first two options presented earlier.

What makes this arrangement of the words on the page—Williams’s actual poem—superior, more poetic, and why?

Here are a few thoughts: First, there is a very clear pattern—of stanza and word grouping. Each stanza’s first line contains three words and its second line a single word. The second line of each stanza contains two syllables, another structural pattern. But more important than these structural details, and actually resulting from them, is the way the poem forces our attention to particular details.

By breaking lines the way he does—in a surprising rather than a conventional way—Williams directs our attention, first to a question: “What depends,” we might ask? The word depends, literally means to hang from, and that’s what the word “upon” does in the first stanza—it hangs from “depends” visually.

In the second and third stanzas, Williams breaks the line over the words “wheelbarrow” and “rainwater.” Now why might he have done that? One possibility is that in doing so, he reminds us and helps us see that a wheelbarrow is actually an object made of two parts—a “barrow” on “wheel(s). Similarly, he emphasizes the “water” that makes up “rain” by dividing the two parts of the word, as he does, across lines of his poem.

The final stanza does something analogous with “white” and “chickens.” There would be no reason to split the word chickens into “chick” and “ens.” Williams, instead, emphasizes the whiteness of the chickens by highlighting “white” at the end of a line. And the whiteness of the chickens neatly complements the redness of the wheelbarrow to offer us the bonus of a pretty visual image, as well.

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