Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"She just read it to us": On the importance of seeing "The Red Wheelbarrow"

Image found here (along with a pretty good commentary on the poem).

so hard to talk

"The Red Wheel

to one's smart

by phone and not
see it.

In all my excitement about envisioning middle-schoolers building a bed of nails, I forgot to mention that G. related to me that her language arts class is in the midst of a unit on poetry and that as part of one day's discussion her teacher read (and, apparently, only read) William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" to the class. Now, G. is not immune to feeling delight in the pleasures of words. For all I know her teacher isn't immune, either; but I do wish she had lingered a little longer, or at least in a different way, over Williams' poem.

Maybe what follows below the fold is a useful way to think about this poem. Your mileage may vary. All I know is that it works for me in the classroom.

G. began telling me all this by asking a question that, I strongly suspect, everyone who has taught this poem has heard many, many version of: "Why is this poem so important?" She said her teacher told the class that college professors make their students read "The Red Wheelbarrow" all the time, and then she read the poem to the class. End of discussion, apparently. So G. asked me what the big deal was about this poem, and as we talked she revealed that they hadn't actually seen how the poem is laid out, either on the page or on the board: "She just read it to us."

It may sound a bit odd to say of a poem justly famous for its single intense image that seeing the poem itself is important as well, but I think this is the case with "The Red Wheelbarrow." At least, I know that in my classes we talk its layout a fair amount. Though not technically a concrete poem, the temptation is strong to see the layout of each two-line stanza as schematized wheelbarrows. I wonder if that fact works at a subconscious level in the reader: the stanzas' visual shape quietly aids in reinforcing the image created by the poem's words. In addition to talking about that, we focus on the second stanza:
a red wheel

Notice how Williams breaks into its original pieces a compound-word that has existed in printed English since at least the 14th century: just for an instant, we read/see "a red wheel" and then "barrow." We thus have to spend a bit of time in mentally assembling and re-painting this thing (usually, it's the barrow's color and not the wheel's that determines the wheelbarrow's "color") and, in so doing, have the image reinforced in our mind's eye yet more.

As G. pointed out and as I confirmed, wheelbarrows are ordinary things. But they are so ordinary precisely because so much depends upon them--yet, human beings being what we are, we take them for granted: we leave them exposed to rain and chickens. But just saying that isn't enough, either. So the poem itself--its appearance on the page--is engaged in a kind of work analogous to the wheelbarrow's: almost unnoticed yet, if it weren't present, that work wouldn't get done. This fact serves as a reminder to me--someone who is always encouraging his students to read their assigned poems out loud--that seeing the poem itself and not just what the poem describes matters too.

Now: whether talking about all of this would have helped a few hormone-addled 8th graders to a greater appreciation of the poem is another matter. I do wish, though, that G.'s teacher had given it a shot by, at the very least, letting her students actually see the poem. You never know what might have happened.


R. Sherman said...

My guess is that most eight graders would see the poem as evidence one can write poetry with only a few lines and still get an "A" on a writing assignment.

Fortunately, G. seems more inquisitive.


John B. said...

Thanks for noticing, Randall. I get the feeling she doesn't ask Big Questions in her classes, but she doesn't seem to be shy about raising them with me.

I am glad for this.

Amy said...

The Red Wheelbarrow always makes me think also of Anecdote of the Jar.

John B. said...

Nice, Amy. I hadn't made that association before, but it is the case that focusing on the wheelbarrow has that same transformative effect on the landscape--that which is evoked by "so much" being the landscape in this case.

Amy said...

Sometimes I go out to take a pretty picture of trees and lawn and pond and I find that whatever view I choose has something in it that my husband left there, like the boat wrapped up for the season, or a broken rake, or a pile of freshly turned smokin' mulch, or (my favorite) the concrete stairs with black railing still attached dragged out there from when we renovated. And then that object has an effect on the landscape, but not in quite the same way as a jar or pretty red wheelbarrow. :)

Ashley said...

Well, I just have to thank you for this entry. Although I read the poem in college, it was never discussed in any of my classes. Admittedly, I just didn't "get it." Ironically, if I would have had a greater grasp on it, I am certain I would have used it in my pre-student teaching (an 8th grade class).

This poem, is in one of HBO family shows called (I think) "Classical Baby." A precious little boy reads it and remarks on the how the poem has its own rhythm.

Anyways. Thanks again!