On ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ and what Donald Davie had to say

When, in 1982, I first encountered William Carlos Williams’s now-famous 1923 poem ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, readable here, it was instantly inspirational and probably the first poem that I really loved. Like my devouring of the works of Kerouac, Ginsberg and the other Beats, this came about because my brother Adrian, four years older than me, had undertaken a poetry module as part of his American studies degree at Essex University. We both loved WCW’s poem for its directness, immediacy, exactness, brevity, shape upon the page, and absence of punctuation and upper-case lettering; so much so that Adrian, with no little pretension, asked our mum to knit him a jumper which featured a red wheelbarrow against a grey background. I don’t think anyone ever ‘got’ the image without prompting, but we knew – and somehow that sufficed. To us, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ seemed a significant advance on Ezra Pound’s 1913 poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’, which rather clumsily attempted to transmit the spirit of haiku into English poetry.

Over the years, my admiration for ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ has reduced, partly because my tastes have broadened to include poetry far more florid than Imagism and perhaps because, like WCW’s ‘This is Just to Say’ (which, due to the abundance of social media parodies it has spawned, has become more well-known than ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’), the poem has, within the poetry world, become famous to the point of infamy. In my own poetry, whatever concision and specificity they contain are qualities I first grasped from WCW’s poem. But by 1983, I’d discovered the Penguin Book of Japanese Verse and its translations of Bashō, Buson, Issa, Shiki and other haiku poets and retrospectively found Imagism to be verbose in comparison. Nevertheless, I retain a certain nostalgic fondness for my first love.

I’ve just read The Movement Reconsidered, edited by Zachary Leader and published by OUP in 2009, subtitled ‘Essays on Larkin, Amis, Gunn, Davie and Their Contemporaries’. It had a brief review in the Guardian, here. It’s a brilliant book, not least because of the range and quality of the contributors, including: Robert Conquest, the then last survivor of whatever collegiality the Movement possessed; Blake Morrison; Alan Jenkins; Anthony Thwaite (who had co-edited the Penguin Book of Japanese Verse); James Fenton; Craig Raine; Clive Wilmer; and the rather more leftfield Terry Castle, with her essay ‘The Lesbianism of Philip Larkin’ (about his soft-porn ‘Brunette Coleman’ stories). My interest in it was much more about Donald Davie and, above all, Thom Gunn than in their far more insular ‘colleagues’. In relation to Davie, what comes across so strongly is his critical acumen. This wasn’t news to me, because I’ve cherished his last main essay collection, Under Briggflatts, since I first read it 30 years ago; but some of his assessments quoted in The Movement Reconsidered jumped out at me. (Davie was, incidentally, the founding Professor of English at Essex, from 1964 until the sit-ins of 1968 drove him to the States. Not long after, Robert Lowell pitched up at Essex, where one of his students, albeit unofficially, was the haiku bard of Halifax, Keith J. Coleman, perhaps a distant cousin of Brunette.)

In particular, this throwaway remark, in an essay – ‘Donald Davie, The Movement, and Modernism’ – by William H. Pritchard, grabbed my attention: ‘Davie treated Williams as Modernism’s Dumb Ox, calling his most famous poem, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, a ‘trivial and self-preening squib’ – something that surely needed saying.’ It’s a devastating verdict, and Pritchard’s enthusiastic agreement, unqualified by any reasoning, further damns the poem. But the poem was published the year after Davie’s birth, a year after Modernism’s high-water marks, so it seems odd to dismiss the poem’s worth without any historical context and/or acknowledgement of how ground-breaking this apogee of Imagism was. (1922 was, coincidentally, also the birth year of Kerouac and Lowell, both great jazz fans, with polar tastes: they respectively adored and abhorred Charlie Parker.)

Is the poem trivial? The fact that it has its own Wikipedia page suggests otherwise. Carol Rumens chose it as ‘poem of the week’ for the Guardian in 2010, here. If, through its opening over-statement, it too squarely focused on what the poet could see, without any overt explanatory information regarding the location or its socioeconomics, then perhaps it didn’t, and doesn’t, provide enough meat for the critical reader. Yet the weight of the first stanza – both the poem’s brilliance and its undoing – surely raises it far above the trivial: explicitly it tells us that in that moment importance lies in what can be seen; that almost nothing else matters. It’s noteworthy, though, that WCW didn’t take that focus to its logical conclusion and write ‘everything depends / upon’.

Is it a ‘self-preening squib’? Let’s consider the noun first. The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as ‘a small firework consisting of a tube filled with powder that makes a hissing noise when it is lit’. Rarely does it appear without its best buddy, ‘damp’. Here, Davie implies that the poem’ explodes and burns itself out all but straightaway. The adjective – attributing a peacock quality to the poem – is, as Davie no doubt realised, rendered superfluous by the choice of noun, but it’s thrown in for good, overloading measure. There can’t be any question as to whether Davie understood what WCW was getting at. His objection must only have been based on the sheer bluntness of ‘so much depends / upon’. (Given that Davie was a Barnsleyite of Scottish extraction, one might have thought such bluntness would’ve appealed to him.) Again, though, we have to note that the statement that phrase contains is qualified and not absolute, so maybe it isn’t quite as blunt as it appears.

And what, if any, assistance to the reader of the poem does Davie’s value-judgement provide? Should we conclude that it’s a deliberately provocative snipe, born of jealousy, at a poet whose work inspired a generation of poets more experimental and, by the sixties and Seventies, mostly much more fashionable than him: Creeley, Ginsberg, Niedecker, Olson, Zukofsky. That Davie, like Gunn before him, loosened up his poetic approach due to prolonged periods in America makes his stance all the more extraordinary.

The poem might be considered the exemplar par excellence of WCW’s dictum of ‘No ideas but in things’, but to what degree is that really applicable here? Does it cohere within the idea that so much importance should be attached to the wheelbarrow? If so, is that because of its usefulness as a functional object or as one merely to be perceived? If the latter, does ‘so much depends / upon’ apply only to the wheelbarrow, with a primacy underscored by its primary colour, or also to everything which follows, i.e. that it is the whole scene, and its unity, to which WCW is pointing.

The wheelbarrow is, of course, the reddest red. Why? Because, the poems tells us it is ‘glazed with rain / water’ which sharpens the definition of the colour in the mind’s eye and because it stands in clear contrast to ‘the white / chickens’. Does the reader also perhaps sense that the chickens have red beaks?

To me the poem’s best, but least mentioned, attribute is the specificity of WCW’s word choices: not just the colours, but his adept use of prepositions and, moreover, the perfection of ‘glazed’ and ‘rain / water’: that he writes ‘rain / water’ rather than just ‘rain’ might be because a second stanza of ‘glazed with / rain’ would’ve looked less appealing and had one less stress than the other stanzas, but it also bestows the sense that the rain has stopped and moved on, leaving a lingering effect behind.

There are theories out there which read the poem as a subtle commentary on race relations, a show of solidarity to the African Americans in his patch: that the poem comes from a visit that WCW, Rutherford general practitioner, undertook to the home of a black farmer; that, just a few years after the lynchings and arson in Chicago, he kept to his Hippocratic oath, which included an obligation to all his fellow human beings.

If the inspiration for the poem came, either directly or via Pound, from early translations of Japanese haiku, then it’s tempting to wonder if WCW considered going the whole hog; perhaps something like:

white chickens . . .
the red wheelbarrow
glazed by rain

The word ‘glazed’ would be too much of a poeticism for haiku puritans who propound the use of unadorned language. Haiku, as they are properly conceived, wholly, or at least mainly, consist of what can be perceived by the senses, without a need to make an overt statement. In the last 10 years or so, though, explicit, abstract phrasing and statement-making, telling the reader too much, has become a regrettable, and regrettably widespread, practice in English-language haiku. In this day and age, nobody needs to be told some equivalent of ‘so much depends / upon’ whatever the objects are or the matter is; it is more than enough simply to isolate those objects, that matter, on the page, surrounded by white space. A century ago, things were evidently different: the spirit of haiku and the way of Zen, and what Eastern traditions generally expounded, had yet to exert much influence in the West, especially on its literature. With this poem, WCW, unwittingly to a degree no doubt, did as much in that regard with this one poem as anyone.

8 thoughts on “On ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ and what Donald Davie had to say

  1. A wonderful discussion of ‘so much’. It took you to some wonderful, and wonderfully educative places. Thank you!

  2. I enjoyed this, Matthew. Thank you. I was a teenager when I found The Imagists (the Penguin book), and was excited and moved enough to try to emulate them. The results were predictably bad. Fortunately, nobody was daft enough to publish any of them.

  3. I really enjoyed this, thank you Matthew. I need to get my hands on The Movement Reconsidered. (I have read the Castle essay, it’s genius). I will have to get ‘Under Briggflats’ too. I read ‘The Purity of Diction’ and ‘Articulate Energy’ for the first time a few months ago and haven’t stopped thinking about them since. Davies goes out of his way there to lay out the most charitable defence of imagist poetry, even while he’s building up the case for the alternative. But he does occaisionally ‘lets loose’ – I think e. e. cummings gets the brunt of it, but it might have been WCW. Perhaps he couldn’t help himself.

    1. Thanks, Jeremy. I suspect that the Imagists were just a proxy for his American contemporaries who who were influenced by them. The fact that Gunn, under Winters’s influence, took a liking to WCW and Creeley must’ve seriously cheesed him off, but it hugely helped Gunn’s poetry. Funnily enough, I need to read ‘The Purity of Diction’ and ‘Articulate Energy’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s