In 1923, poet William Carlos Williams penned a lyric verse entitled 'The Red Wheelbarrow'. Nearly a century later, the poem remains controversial, lauded and largely misunderstood.
Why is this poetic work subject to so much praise and scrutiny?
Williams was not only a poet, but a physician and 'The Red Wheelbarrow' was directly inspired while caring for a young patient in New Jersey whom he did not expect to recover. As he sat at her bedside contemplating her youth and possible passing, he gazed out an open window upon the classic scene which he described in the poem.
It is important to understand the context and the time in which the poem was written in order to appreciate why the poem is considered so relevant, a fact that is difficult to appreciate in the present day and age, simply because imagery itself is so incorporated into modern day poetry.
In 1923, poetry was quite different as an art form than it is today. Few poets diverged much from classical forms of traditional poetry. As a standard, the first lines of verses were always capitalized and poems were expected to employ some form of rhyme and meter. Williams eschewed these traditional expectations in favor of the imagist philosophy, 'No ideas but in things'.
Philosophically, the piece is important in relation to both the context of the writing and the contrast of what was being written at the time. This is much the truth for many poems that we take for granted in our day and age - prior to this poems publication, poetry tended towards the florid, European verse that is noted in more classical forms. 'The Red Wheelbarrow' diverged from the lengthy, structured verse common at the time to produce a piece that was closer to haiku than anything that Americans or Europeans were producing as poetry.
Relevant Points of Interest
The poem in its original published form was titled simply " XXII". Critics have since denounced both the treatment of the poem as an individual work and the subsequent renaming of it as adding a meaning to the piece that Williams did not intend.
Visually, the poem employs long lines at the beginning of each stanza subsequently followed by a shorter one which additionally renders a wheelbarrow-like silhouette to the poem, further expounding on the its subject.
So. Is it good?
It is. Even by contemporary standards, the poem stands alone for the beauty of its simplicity without the aid of simile, metaphor or symbol and for its ability to effectively paint an idea into the mind of the reader through its use of imagery. However, what is relevant is the poems importance. 'The Red Wheelbarrow' was one of many poems that helped to establish the imagist movement which changed the way that poetry was received as an art form, and which influences poetry to this day.