“The Red Wheelbarrow, Imagination,
and the Christian Poet”
A Review of Spring and All
by William Carlos Williams
Review by Joel E. Jacobson
Spring and All: Poems.
William Carlos Williams
Paperback: New Directions, 2011.
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At some point in their academic career, most liberal arts college students will be required to read William Carlos Williams’s poem about the red wheelbarrow:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
My own experience proves to be no different, as I first met the red wheelbarrow as a college freshman. My professor blathered on for 45 minutes regarding the essential images and the mastery of sound and syllables in the terse lines. My response was typical of many students I have worked with since: the red wheelbarrow is pointless; what a stupid little poem.
Years later I find myself reading as much of Williams as possible, being repeatedly drawn to the same poem I so despised as a student. I realize now that my professor failed to contextualize the poem as part of a larger, groundbreaking work exploring imagination and creativity, context which, when missing, beheads the chickens. Thus, evaluating the greater work of Spring and All leads us to a better understanding of the wheelbarrow, creativity, and the origins of both.
Originally published in 1923, Spring and All, Williams’s manifesto of imagination and poetry, became one of, if not the most, influential works for mid to late twentieth-century poets. Produced on the heels of the Great War, Williams calls for new forms, new images, new beings, and new cultures because all previous forms and ideas had led us into destruction and death. Today, we again find our American selves faced with war and economic and food crises. In a country where politicians are calling for thousands of math and science teachers [i], where standardized tests and business skills trump imagination and art, Williams’s monumental work yet again stands at the threshold of form and tradition, begging for a savior.
Williams, in true modernist fashion, uses Spring and All to destroy prior forms of poetry, art, grammar, and thought in order to, as he claims, free the imagination from the despotic rule of tradition. He first destroys said forms through sporadic chapter placements, beginning with Chapter 19, moving to Chapter XIII—whose label is printed upside down—to Chapter VI, to Chapter 2. Then, he uses commas as quotation marks and vice versa. Sentences run on and fragment at will. Capital letters are bound to neither proper nouns nor the beginning of sentences. In essence, the reader is forced to abandon stereotypes and common knowledge, to follow consciousness over order, to be content with the lack of organizational continuity. In style alone, Williams shatters the common way to write a book and demands we eliminate our own preconceptions. Williams suggests that in order to truly engender the modernist ideal of newness, mankind must understand that “the imagination is supreme” (5), which is only made possible by wiping the planet clean of countries, politics, wars, traditions—or in essence, humanity. “Then at last will the world be made anew. . .Order and peace abound” (6). Williams channels his inner Emerson, suggesting that by murdering our preconceptions and prejudices we can be “agglutinated in one enormous soul” (6). Williams’s assertion is more hyperbole than a call to terrorism, yet he prudently postulates that creativity and imagination can never truly prosper when we, both mankind and the poet, are tripping over our own feet. Mankind must be freed from the winter of tradition and be reborn into new lives. Therefore, spring, the metaphoric and seasonal beginning to all things new, becomes the perfect catalyst for such a demanding work.
Each poem builds on this idea of something new rising from the old, of planting seeds and watering them, of cultivating newness. As part of a larger manifesto, the wheelbarrow poem becomes strikingly pertinent. Williams gently directs our distant gaze towards things in our own yard, as blindness towards such common objects casts us into the sulfurous pit of uncreativity and unimaginativeness. The rain water splattering the wheelbarrow also matters because of the third poem in the collection, where a farmer “is pacing through the rain / among his blank fields” (16), searching his mind for a new poem, a new expression of imagination and creativity. In light of the context of the greater work, what depends upon a wheelbarrow? On rain? On chickens?
Everything. And that is why the wheelbarrow poem matters to the modernist poet. But can that same wheelbarrow, those chickens and rain drops matter to the Christian poet who acknowledges that the balance of life itself depends solely on the blood of Christ? Williams himself speaks of “imagination as a force, an electricity or a medium, a place” that is supreme and undeceived (92, 5, 10). In rejecting “religious dogmatism” and only feeling free “in the presence of works of imagination” (42), Williams clearly establishes imagination itself as mankind’s savior. Regardless of his theological intentions surrounding Spring and All, Williams’s work actually reveals Christ’s redemptive character casting off the old and making man new. If all things were created in and through Christ, then Christ himself is embodied through creativity and imagination. The great irony then is that Christ and creativity are present in Spring and All, even if rejected and abandoned by Williams himself. The wheelbarrow, chickens, and rain drops are therefore not only things for the muse, but beautiful creations—both manmade and natural—acting as lenses to direct our attention to the Creator himself.
Despite his plea for newness and uninhabited imagination, William Carlos Williams failed to change the human condition. Though Spring and All brilliantly led to new poetic forms and schools such as language poetry, imagination is no more valued in America now than in Williams’s time. While time has solidified Spring and All as an integral part of the American poetry cannon, it has also betrayed Williams’s work, calling into question whether or not we truly can employ imagination save us from ourselves.
[i] In his 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama expressed the need to train 100,000 teachers in math, science, and technology. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/01/25/remarks-president-state-union-address
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com