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So Much Depends…

So Much Depends….

so much depends

upon

a red wheel

barrow

glazed with rain

water

beside the white

chickens.

(“The Red Wheelbarrow,” by William Carlos Williams.)

The poem is brief and startling and vivid, evoking a rain-streaked red wheelbarrow and some white chickens, and somehow embuing them with elusive meaning. The article takes me back to graduate school, where we read and analyzed William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot; where we learned that a poem was an object in itself, like a well-wrought urn, and referred to nothing in the “real” world. Context, the author’s life, his beliefs, where he lived, didn’t matter. These were all fallacies: pathetic, intentional, historical, biographical. A poem is an artifact built of words. It is not about feeling, unless it be the rarified joy of perceiving something carefully crafted. A joy that has nothing to do with the author’s color or gender or what he (almost always a he) may have lost or lived through, nothing to do with his aspirations or desires, nothing to do with laws, elections, wars, judgments, poverty, riches, pregnancies, lynchings, shipwrecks, economic crashes, fortunes lost or made, except that they might be turned into an artifact to gaze upon and marvel at.

These are ideas about poetry that I’ve now abandoned. (Hello, slam poetry, farewell, modernism!) Poets now do what Homer and the singers of the tales of Beowulf, Rodrigo Diaz el Cid, and High John the Conqueror did: rage and whisper, howl and chuckle, spin tales to mesmerize and horrify and delight, get us to hiss, roar with laughter, wipe away tears, and leap to our feet cheering. We now care a lot about who the poets are and what their lives are like, what they have known and how it has gone into the crucible of their nerves and synapses and memory cells to come out in words.

I don’t often remember that time in my life when I studied those carefully crafted edifices of words by white men, taught by professors who claimed that their whiteness and maleness didn’t matter (but somehow it did too, because everyone who was not white and male just couldn’t manage to create such perfect edifices, no matter how many white chickens and red wheelbarrows they described.) Years of feminism, antiracism, political study and activism have come between my young English-major self and who I am now.

Some of the modernists were Southern Agrarians, poets who loved the sensual beauty of their land and what they convinced themselves were its rural virtues. They saw the beauty and turned their faces away from the horror and injustice of its past and present. They said they would take their stand, echoing the song “Dixie,” a song that famously recalls, not any cause nor abstract belief, but a frosty morn, a field of cotton, and undescribed old times that are not forgotten. It could be sung by any exiled Southerner, and has been. (“American Trilogy,” by Mickey Newbury and popularized by Elvis Presley, soulfully weaves it with two other songs from the Civil War era.)

A poem is an artifact without context, without history or biography, supposedly. How can anyone say that? How can you write poetry to support your political stances, but follow theories that say your political stances don’t matter? Maybe the theory erases your political stance, makes it the norm, just like your gender (male) and your color (white).

The man whose red wheelbarrow and white chickens were frozen into a modernist poetic artifact by William Carlos Williams was actually an African American street vendor who lived near Williams and had been his patient (Williams was a physician as well as a poet). He does not appear in the poem next to his wheelbarrow and chickens, but he does appear in a grainy photograph recently published in the New York Times along with an article (a link is below).

He kept chickens in his back yard in a coop. Since he was a street vendor, he probably used the wheelbarrow to carry his wares as he went about his day calling people to come and buy (the article doesn’t say exactly what he sold, perhaps chickens or eggs). As my partner said, so much did depend on that red wheelbarrow; the vendor’s livelihood.

When I think of the poem from now on, I will see his tall, thin frame, his face serious, his moustache like a bushy rake (my grandfather’s looked similar). I will see him pushing his red wheelbarrow along the streets of Rutherford, New Jersey. I think of the stone that will be placed on his formerly unmarked grave. I will think of his name: Thaddeus Marshall.

Years after the poem was written, Williams acknowledged the person, the context, that inspired the poem. He said in an interview that it “sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a fisherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. He . . . had to work in the hold in freezing weather, standing ankle deep in cracked ice packing down the fish. He said he didn’t feel cold. He never felt cold in his life until just recently. I liked that man, and his son Milton . . . . In his back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.” (quoted by Sergio Rizzo in “Extra-poetical Contexts and the Racial Other in ‘The Red Wheelbarrow,’Journal of Modern Literature 29.1 (2005): 34-54.)

The modernists took their stand and now are gone. The white chickens and red wheelbarrow remain. And now Mr. Marshall too remains, standing next to them, an archway over his head oddly like a niche curving over a saint’s image in a cathedral, his lean frame and dark shadowed face and moustache now part of the whole, now made visible. So much depends on knowing, on revealing, on uncovering what has been lost.

This blog post was inspired by an article in the New York Times online, “The Forgotten Man Behind William Carlos Williams’s ‘Red Wheelbarrow'” by Jennifer Schuessler.

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