[(essay date fall 2005) In the following essay, Rizzo provides an in-depth analysis of the aesthetic and socio-political content of Williams's "The Red Wheelbarrow," focusing on issues of race and gender.]
Although once at the center of debates about modern poetry, the canonical status of William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow," along with the imagist and objectivist practice it represents, now seems beyond dispute. If anything, the poem runs the risk of becoming, as Denise Levertov described it, one of those "tiresomely familiar and basically unrevealing anthology 'specimens'" (263). By the same token, the tendency to treat the poem as an "anthology specimen" owes something to Williams' efforts to remove it from its original context in Spring and All. For despite the intense critical scrutiny the poem has received over the years, very little attention has been paid to what Williams said about it and the different frameworks he provided for it. As if transfixed by its telescopic power, critics see through these frames and, in the process, keep a dark figure in the poem's biographical history--Marshall, the red wheelbarrow's African-American owner--at the poem's margins.
To my knowledge, Williams only mentions the owner of the wheelbarrow on two occasions. One is in an article, "Seventy Years Deep," written for Holiday magazine (1954) and the other appears in an introduction to the poem in an anthology entitled Fifty Poets, An American Auto-Anthology (1933) edited by William Rose Benét.
The article "Seventy Years Deep" is a human-interest story in which Williams presents himself as a poet of the people. The article's subtitle describes him as "A physician who is considered by many to be America's greatest living poet ... [who] attributes his success to what he has learned from the people of his home town--Rutherford, New Jersey" (54). Stressing his connection to the community, Williams presents himself through what is, for the most part, a sentimental condensation of incidents found in his autobiography. He works to reassure the reader that his two roles as doctor and poet were not in conflict with one another, and in his effort to attribute his success to what he has learned from the people of his hometown, he gives his fullest account of the emotional and personal significance of "The Red Wheelbarrow" for him. What he remembers about the poem is that it
sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a fisherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. He used to tell me how 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 almost as much. 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.
Marshall's story helps Williams illustrate that as a doctor he "served all kinds of people" (78)--a fact for which he has every reason to be proud. Beyond that, though, the biographical connection between Marshall and "The Red Wheelbarrow" illustrates how Williams' dual roles as doctor and poet "formed a whole" in which his "patients have been food for [his] muse" (55). However, Williams' desire, late in his life, to say that his "affection for the old man somehow got into the writing" suggests his muse had trouble digesting Marshall and the black working-class experience he represents. Undoubtedly, Williams has a genuine affection for this man and sympathy for his plight that "somehow" get into the poem.1 But the question to ask is how they got there, because the poem, and Williams' lifelong relationship with it, would suggest that every effort was made to erase from the poem not only Marshall but, perhaps more importantly, Williams' feelings for him.
Exposing the emotional roots of "The Red Wheelbarrow" is in keeping with the Williams of the fifties. This is a decade of intense personal recollection for him, reflected in the publication of his autobiography (1951), a novel based on his marriage and in-laws, The Build-Up (1952), his Selected Letters (1957), an autobiographical commentary on his publications, I Wanted to Write a Poem (1958), and a memoir of his mother, Yes, Mrs. Williams (1959). In addition, his poetry of the fifties reflects his evolution from the spare modernism of his earlier imagist (1910-20s) and objectivist (1930s) phases, through his epic Paterson I-IV (1946-51), and culminating in the more personal or even "confessional" voice found in such works as Asphodel, That Greeny Flower (1955) and Paterson V (1958). Williams' poetic development implies a critique of his earlier modernism, whose anti-aestheticism, it could be argued, only succeeds in replacing one form of aestheticism with another. Moving away from the notion of the poem as an image depicting "'an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time'" (Kenner in Pound 185), in Ezra Pound's words, or what Louis Zukofsky called a "'strictly objective estimate of all the class forces'" (Von Hallberg 146), or his own notion of the poem as a "machine made of words" (CP [Collected Poems] II 54), his poetry of the late forties and fifties sought verse forms that could better accommodate history and personal feeling. Likewise, his attempt in the Holiday article to locate Marshall in his remembrance of "The Red Wheelbarrow" is an effort to reassert feelings and associations circumscribed by the poem's modernist formalism.
When Williams first mentions "The Red Wheelbarrow" he reveals that its technique is not far from his remembrance of the poem or Marshall. Despite evidence to the contrary, Williams asserts, "I am not good at remembering what I have written. I just want to get rid of it. I don't recall any particular poem except perhaps the brief, the very brief one, called 'The Red Wheelbarrow'" (75). As part of his presentation of himself as a busy doctor-poet writing in between patient visits and making notes at moments of inspiration on prescription pads, he wants to avoid being seen as a "man of letters;" recalling "the brief, the very brief one" helps him do that.2 Nonetheless, "The Red Wheelbarrow" also serves as an example of the "technical mastery" (55) the poet must have in order to grasp the seemingly insignificant details of everyday life and thereby creatively transform them into art. However, perhaps the poem's brevity is itself suspect. On the one hand, its brevity is the mark of the poem's "success," which becomes the trademark of Williams' distinctive synthesis of European imagism with his American place--what Louis Zukofsky, speaking of Spring and All, praised as Williams' "exclusion of sentimentalisms, extraneous comparisons, similes, [and] overweening autobiographies of the heart" (141). On the other hand, it marks Williams' failure to identify, at least in any critical fashion, feelings and people associated with the poem until thirty years after its first appearance.
Criticism of Williams for his brevity is not new. In contrast to Zukofsky or Kenneth Burke, who famously praised Williams as "the master of the glimpse" ("First Law" 47), a number of reviewers found fault with his brevity or at least saw it as a point of diminishing return. In Conrad Aiken's review of Williams' Collected Poems: 1921-31, he criticizes Williams for a "conscious avoidance of completeness, whether of statement or form ..." (290). In the same year, Babette Deutsch in her review says, "The reliance on the eye, the singling out of the brief moment, however intense, is a limitation upon his words" (130). Randall Jarrell, in his introduction to Williams Selected Poems, says: "Williams' imagist-objectivist background and bias have helped his poems by their emphasis on truthfulness, exactness, concrete 'presentation'; but they have harmed the poems by their underemphasis on organization, logic, narrative, generalization--and the poems are so short, often, that there isn't time for much" (xv). By the time of Jarrell's introduction, Williams was already correcting for the "underemphasis" of his "imagist-objectivist background and bias" with his epic project Paterson, which Jarrell admired as his "most impressive single piece" (xviii).
We need to look more carefully at Williams' "imagist-objectivist background" and how "The Red Wheelbarrow" relates to it. Although easy to classify as an imagist poem, the work it appears in, Spring and All, is something else altogether. Published when Williams was forty, Spring and All is a threshold work between the "young" imagist Williams of The Tempers (1913) and Al Que Quiere! (1917) and the "mature" Williams of objectivism and Paterson. In its Dadaesque mixing of prose and poetry, here Williams moves beyond the boundaries of his earlier imagism, leading Zukofsky to include Spring and All on his list of essential reading in his "An 'Objectivist' Anthology" (1932). However, as Paul Mariani in his biography of Williams points out, "unfortunately almost no one saw Williams' book in the original edition. ... In effect, Spring and All all but disappeared as a cohesive text until its republication nearly ten years after Williams' death" (209). Instead of Spring and All, most readers came to understand "The Red Wheelbarrow" through the anthologies and first collections of his work that helped to establish his reputation in the thirties--most importantly the Collected Poems: 1921-31, published by Carl Rakosi's Objectivist Press, and the Complete Collected Poems (1938), published by James Laughlin's New Directions Press--which became the standard for the various collections that followed. In the process of recontextualizing the poem, Williams provides a complex commentary upon it, most of which has been ignored.
One line of commentary can be found in the different titles Williams gives "The Red Wheelbarrow." Like all the twenty-seven poems in Spring and All, its original title was simply a Roman numeral, XXII, establishing its similarity with the other poems published with it. Compare the typographical effect of the Roman numerals with the title given to it in anthologies and the Collected Poems where the full capital letters sit atop the tiny poem like an over-sized crown: THE RED WHEELBARROW. The title "XXII" gives no indication which of the stanzas or which of the poem's elements carries more weight. Not only does the later title destroy the poem's compositional equipoise, its use of the definite article takes "a red wheel / barrow" out of the in(de)finite world of the imagination and into the (de)finite world of real wheelbarrows. Or, at least, the poem's title reasserts the kind of referentiality or illusionary realism--what the prose sections of Spring and All inveigh against as the "plagiarism after nature" (CPI 198)--that influential critics like J. Hillis Miller, Joseph Riddel, and Marjorie Perloff see Spring and All's radical modernism as rejecting.
Four years after the 1934 publication of the Collected Poems, the poems from Spring and All appeared in the Complete Collected Poems with Roman numerals as their only titles. This suggests that in the later collection Williams wanted to return to something more in line with their original presentation in Spring and All, where the Roman numerals emphasize the poems' interdependence. This feeling is reinforced by the fact that in the Complete Collected Poems the poems are nearly run together, with the Roman numerals making only slight transitions. However, a footnote by A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan in their The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume 1 mentions the fact that in the Complete Collected Poems Williams reversed the order of "The Red Wheelbarrow" (XXII) with the poem that came before it in Spring and All, "Quietness" (XXI), so that the "better poem," as Williams called "The Red Wheelbarrow," would "have the better presentation and not be cut in half by the page" (501). Although Spring and All's sense of discrete poem sequences separated by prose sections is already undermined by stringing the poems together one after the other, the original distinct four-poem sequence of which "The Red Wheelbarrow" is a part (XIX-XXII) is further undermined by Williams' concern for the poem's appearance. Even as Williams attempts to restore the poems to something like their original context, he is thinking of them, "The Red Wheelbarrow" especially, as separate units. What is paramount is that the "better poem" be preserved as a discreet and autonomous entirety.
By the time of the 1951 publication of The Collected Earlier Poems, the last printing of Spring and All's poems supervised by Williams, he settles for a "compromise" which results in the publication of the Roman numerals along with the verbal titles. So, for its 1951 publication, the poem's title becomes "XXI. The Red Wheelbarrow." The history of the poem's titling through the collections of 1934, 1938, and 1951 (typo)graphically depicts Williams' own attempt to decide whether the poem was about something or whether the poem was a thing-in-itself whose primary relationship was with those other verbal "things" found interspersed between the prose sections of Spring and All. Williams' indecision is reflected in the criticism about the poem that takes one side or another or tries to reconcile the difference through various dualisms: idea-thing, subject-object, universal-particular, metaphor-metonymy, etc. However, with or without the Roman numerals, the title, "The Red Wheelbarrow," works against the poem's compositional equipoise and its interdependence with the other poems and moves the poem towards the conventional symbolism and referentiality that Spring and All's modernist praxis rejects.
Williams' last published mention of "The Red Wheelbarrow" occurs in his discussion of Spring and All in his memoir I Wanted to Write a Poem (1958). He discusses the poem specifically in terms of the different approaches taken in titling the prose and poetry sections of Spring and All. Written when "all the world was going crazy about typographical form," the titling of the prose sections "is really a travesty on the idea" (36). The nonsensical titling of the prose sections or "chapters" that "are numbered all out of order, sometimes with a Roman numeral, sometimes with an Arabic, anything that came in handy" (37) not only pokes fun at the concern for typographical form, it is also in keeping with what the prose has to say: "The prose is a mixture of philosophy and nonsense. It made sense to me, at least to my disturbed mind--because it was disturbed at that time--but I doubt it made sense to anyone else" (37). In contrast to the hurly-burly of "philosophy and nonsense" found in the prose, Williams explains:
But the poems were kept pure--no typographical tricks when they appear--set off from the prose. They are numbered consistently; none had titles though they were to have titles later when they were reprinted in Collected Poems. Here, for instance, on page 74 are the eight lines later to be known as 'The Red Wheelbarrow'--here, without a title, simply a number on a page:Some of the poems were considered good. 'By the road to the contagious hospital' has been praised by the conventional boys for its form.So much dependsupona red wheelbarrowglazed with rainwaterbeside the whitechickens
Although one other poem receives mention, Williams suggests that "The Red Wheelbarrow" is the purest of Spring and All's pure products. In discussing the titling of the prose and poetry in Spring and All, he only recalls the poem's original numeric title and the later title, "The Red Wheelbarrow," given to it in Collected Poems (1934). He doesn't mention his attempts to preserve the numeric title in the Complete Collected Poems (1938) or the compromise combination of the two titles in the Collected Earlier Poems (1951). In fact, he doesn't seem to see the numeric title at all. He says that as "simply a number on the page" the poem is "without a title." This is consistent with the view that the poetry, unlike the prose, is presented without any "typographical tricks." The significance of the "trickery" involved in giving the poems numbers--especially Roman numerals with their intended or unintended connotations of classicism, Western civilization, and imperialism--disappears from his remembrance of Spring and All. By showcasing "The Red Wheelbarrow" as an island of serene order, simplicity, consistency and transparency in an otherwise chaotic world of prose, the product of a "disturbed mind," where Roman numerals mix indiscriminately with Arabic ones, Williams helps to separate the poem from its original context. Once again, in his concern for the "pure" poem, he is willing to revise the original and more radical context of Spring and All.
As Williams sought different titles for the poem, little or no regard seems to be given to Marshall's role in the poem and even less to the black working-class experience he represents. Nonetheless, in so far as the title, "The Red Wheelbarrow," works to make the poem's "a red wheel / barrow" the wheelbarrow upon which so much depends, one could argue the definite article indicates its owner. In a certain way, it does, although the owner is usually read in terms of some abstraction--mankind, primitive man, rural life--not in terms of a historically specific individual.3 More than Marshall or these other owners, though, what the title's definite article indicates is Williams' ownership or authority, stating in effect: here is the red wheelbarrow I discovered and turned into "a red wheel / barrow." As Williams removes the poem from Spring and All and finds new contexts for it, he seeks to establish both his authority to speak for it, and, more importantly, its authority to speak for him. At some points in this process the emotional significance of Marshall all but disappears. At other points, however, Williams opens the poem up to the sort of symbolism and sentiment--those "extraneous comparisons, similes, [and] overweening autobiographies of the heart" that Zukofsky praised Williams for avoiding in Spring and All--that allow the figure of Marshall to appear.
Just as Williams' Holiday article reveals a tension between the African-American source of the poem's inspiration and its technical mastery, a similar tension appears in the introduction Williams writes for the poem in Benét's 1933 anthology, Fifty Poets, An American Auto Anthology. Benét's introduction makes it clear what the anthology wants from Williams in the way of "inspiration" and "highly original work" (60). He wants Williams' pure poetry, free of the "left wing" and "theorizing" (60).4 And, Williams is willing to oblige him. The following is Williams' introduction to the poem in its entirety:
I am enclosing a favorite short poem of mine for your anthology with the paragraph to accompany it which you ask for. It's a nice idea.The wheelbarrow in question stood outside the window of an old negro's house on a back street in the suburb where I live. It was pouring rain and there were white chickens walking about in it. The sight impressed me somehow as about the most important, the most integral that it had ever been my pleasure to gaze upon. And the meter though no more than a fragment succeeds in portraying this pleasure flawlessly, even it succeeds in denoting a certain unquenchable exaltation--in fact I find the poem quite perfect.
Williams' choice of "The Red Wheelbarrow" is motivated by more than his desire to put his best foot forward. He probably has the anthology's title, An American Auto-Anthology, in mind. He sees "The Red Wheelbarrow" as the quintessential expression of himself as an American self, man and place fused into one--much as he does in his recollection of the poem in his Holiday article twenty years later. The recognition of racial difference that helps to define this experience as noteworthy is not as personally revealing as the account he gives of it in the Holiday article. Here the "old negro's house" is merely part of the "local color." As such it is meant to convey a sentimental feeling to the (white) reader. Otherwise, why mention the race of the owner of the house at all? The introduction emphasizes Williams' ability to derive an "integral" aesthetic feeling of "pleasure" and, even, "a certain unquenchable exaltation" from the humble materials he has to work with. The anonymous owner of the house is out of the picture as is Williams' affection for him. Or, if these elements are there, they are subsumed by Williams' efforts to present a "perfect" poem.
In contrast to the subjective experience Williams presents in Fifty Poets, elsewhere he presents the poem as a formal exercise in the objective apprehension of the external world.5 These two approaches have been extended by the long critical reception the poem enjoys, arguing possible interpretations not only in terms of Williams' poetic practice, but also as part of broader epistemological debates around such dualisms as subject-object, mind-matter, form-content, poetry-prose and metaphor-metonymy. In taking one side or another of an opposing dualism or synthesizing/transcending both, critics have tended to split between those who see the poem's significance as residing in its content (what the poem says or means) versus those who argue its significance is found in its form (what the poem makes or does).
Dissatisfied with thematic and formalist approaches, Allen Dunn, in "Williams' Liberating Need," recognizes that the critics tend to ignore the context(s) Williams' first provides for "The Red Wheelbarrow" in Spring and All--both the theory of its prose sections and the poetic sequence of which the poem is a part. In his reading of the poem's relationship to the prose sections and its poetic sequence, he argues "The Red Wheelbarrow" illustrates the revolutionary force of the imagination engaged in the paradoxical exercise of "a change without a difference" (55). While Dunn's focus on the poem's struggle with society's hierarchical values defining art, reality, and the self is useful, one has to ask in the world of lived experience and social struggle--or "the world of human values" (50) that Dunn says the poem's critics have ignored and that he wants to reconnect the poem with--what would be the value of "a change without a difference"? Furthermore, once we acknowledge the Other political realities informing the poem and its contexts we can appreciate another ideological struggle going on--one that would qualify, although not deny, Williams belief in the power of the imagination.
Following Dunn's lead, I would like to begin with the poem's role in its original four-poem sequence in Spring and All (XIX-XXII or "Horned Purple," "The Sea," "Quietness," and "The Red Wheelbarrow").6 In Dunn's reading of the sequence, he sees "The Red Wheelbarrow" as occupying the tail end of a spectrum of erotic intensity beginning with the "Dirty satyrs" of "Horned Purple" which is "diffused into the world of ordinary objects" (57) represented by the "lascivious" leaves of "Quietness" and, finally, the red wheelbarrow. For Dunn, a vestige of erotic desire remains in "The Red Wheelbarrow"; however, he argues, the trace of desire exists only as part of a strategy of imaginative destruction that "alleviates consciousness of the desire which always precedes and exceeds its object," culminating in the paradoxical resolution of "change without out a difference" (58). Dunn quite rightly locates "The Red Wheelbarrow" in the context of erotic desire, a context that is largely lost in the poem's recontextualization into anthologies and poetry collections and ignored by most critics. However, once we see how Williams' erotic desire is racialized, one has to be skeptical about any transcendence "The Red Wheelbarrow" provides, or any claims for the power of the imagination to alleviate "consciousness of the desire which always precedes and exceeds its object." In fact, these claims are contradicted.
In the explicitly erotic theme of "Horned Purple," the "Dirty satyrs" are identified by their gender and age, "boys of fifteen and seventeen," class, "drivers for grocers or taxidrivers," and race, "white and colored." In their uncouth courting rituals--"vulgarity raised to the last power"--they trespass, breaking off the limbs of lilac bushes to stick them in their caps or over their ears. Their phallic display gives expression to the elemental life forces of spring, which puts them at odds with the community that is defined in terms of property and capitalism. They tear the bushes apart "with a curse for the owner." Then "They stand in doorways / on the business streets with a sneer / on their faces." Outside the business interests that govern the other members of the community, they recover something of a primitive and mythological past as they turn themselves into "Dirty satyrs." The satyr, a creature that blurs the line between the human and the animal, represents and amplifies the group's racial mix of "white and colored." It is not a matter of which half is which, just that Williams imagines racial difference giving access to a primitive sexuality represented by their "dark kisses--rough faces" in the poem's final line.
In "The Sea" the primitive boundary crossing begun by the "Dirty satyrs" is radically advanced. Here the human form, "her young body," breaks apart in "the sea of many arms," just as the words of the poem threaten to dissolve into the onomatopoeia of the sea, "ula lu la lu."7 In the orgiastic coital pull and push of the sea, the energies of Eros and Thanatos are indistinguishable. While the "dark" forces of nature are potentially liberating in "Horned Purple," in "The Sea" they threaten to wipe out the most fundamental distinctions between Self and Other: "Underneath the sea where it is dark / there is no edge / so two--." In this last stanza, the "dark" place found beneath the sea echoes the "dark kisses" in the last stanza of "Horned Purple." But here the experience of primal energies takes the poet's consciousness to the edge of "no edge," where the distinction between Self and Other almost disappears.
In "Quietness," after the climactic near-dissolution of the Self, the poet awakes "one day" to find himself/herself "in Paradise / a Gipsy." In this quiet post-coital "Paradise" the gender identifications with the aggressive masculinity of "Horned Purple" and the passive femininity of "The Sea" are transcended in the gender-neutral "Gipsy." A person from nowhere and anywhere, the racial and ethnic ambiguity of a Gypsy, defined in Webster's as a "dark Caucasoid," also resolves and neutralizes the threat of racial difference and the dark forces represented by it. In this New World Eden the "Gipsy" doesn't need the leaves to hide his/her nakedness. There is no shame because there is no God (nor anyone else for that matter). Consequently, the "Gipsy" is free to admire "... the blandness / of the leaves--/ so many / so lascivious / and still."
It may be without God, but the New World Eden still needs its saints, as Williams makes clear in an earlier prose passage of Spring and All. In discussing the need for a modern art that moves beyond the "'beautiful illusion[s]'" of past art, he says that "the great works of the imagination" live "... by their power TO ESCAPE ILLUSION and stand between man and nature as saints once stood between man and the sky--their reality in such work, say, as that of Juan Gris" (CPI 199). Worthy of Juan Gris or any number of the modernists that have been cited by the critics, "The Red Wheelbarrow" is Williams' attempt to translate modernism's new visual "reality" into poetry. In so far as his art has the power to "ESCAPE ILLUSION" Williams sees it standing "between man and nature as saints once stood between man and sky ..." While the new sainthood is able to question and perhaps escape the "beautiful illusions" of past art, it still has its own illusions, not the least of which are the ways in which these saints define (or fail to define) such concepts as "man and nature." For the modern artists Williams is emulating, their new mode of seeing--for example, the cubist's "mobility and indeterminacy" (129) that Perloff mentions--is heavily indebted to the Euro-centric anthropological and archeological projects of the early twentieth-century and their quest for Primitive Man.8
As the finale to its four-poem sequence in Spring and All, "The Red Wheelbarrow" takes the reader even further in the aesthetic resolution of the dark erotic forces that first emerge in "Horned Purple." In the poem preceding "The Red Wheelbarrow," the last trace of these dark forces is the Gypsy who enjoys the quiet contemplation of "lascivious" leaves. In "The Red Wheelbarrow," Williams takes the reader to an even quieter place of visual contemplation where the words on the page become like paint on a silent canvas or objects suspended in mute space. The human figures that people the previous three poems disappear. The Gypsy's contemplation of nature is replaced by a disembodied consciousness concentrating on the man-made wheelbarrow. Focusing on this homely object, Williams hopes to create a modern artifact that transcends the last vestiges of romantic association contained in the persona of the "Gipsy" and the erotic associations contained in the "lascivious" leaves. In the modernist tour de force that concludes the sequence there is little or no room for Marshall; however, what Williams perceives to be his primitive essence does make it into the poem.
Williams has quite a bit to say about primitives in the prose sections preceding the four-poem sequence of "The Red Wheelbarrow." Before examining those comments, though, we can look more closely at how the poem might relate to the larger thematic structuring of Spring and All in terms of race and gender. In a brilliant reading of Spring and All's final poem, "The Wildflower" or "Black eyed susan," Perloff reveals how the "Arab / Indian / dark woman" in all of her "'rich ... savagery' has been at the core of Spring and All from the beginning" (136). On a thematic level "Wildflower" is the final expression of a sexual desire for a "dark woman," that Perloff claims is "ubiquitous in Williams' text" (137). The discovery and promise of sexual union with the "dark woman" is what promises redemptive contact for the poetic consciousness trapped within the otherwise colorless landscape of contemporary life. On a metonymic level, "Wildflower" is connected to prior poems through the colors of the "Black eyed susan" that represent the "rich ... savagery" of the "dark woman" in contrast with the "white daisy" that represents the "Crowds" of white "farmers / who live poorly" (CPI 236). Perloff sees the coda poem's "white daisy" echoing the "white / chickens" found in "The Red Wheelbarrow." As well, she sees the vibrant red of the wheelbarrow as representing the lifeblood of the "dark woman" which connects it to all the other "bleeding reds [that] emerge from the dreary landscape of the 'Interborough Rapid Transit Co.'" (147) in Spring and All.
Concerned to prove that the referentiality of Spring and All's images is "subordinated to their compositional value" (138), Perloff reads the "dark woman" as a Kora motif metonymically linking the other poems. However, more could be done with the metaphorical value of race in Spring and All. The first question to ask is how does Williams appreciation for the "rich ... savagery" of the "dark woman" that finds its way into the poem relate to the absent presence of Marshall's black masculinity? Combined with the thematic and color associations Perloff draws out, perhaps one could see Williams' admiration for the red wheelbarrow's black owner as lifting the poem's technical virtuosity into a whole other realm of social commentary and irony. The comment that "so much depends / upon" the wheelbarrow could be an acknowledgement of the precarious nature of Marshall's life of manual labor. And the vibrant red of the wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater could embody Marshall's blood, sweat and tears, silently condemning "the white / chickens" beside it. However, if these feelings are in the poem, they can only begin to emerge with the discovery of Marshall thirty years later in William's account of the poem in his article for Holiday. In the context of Spring and All, any sympathy for Marshall is overwhelmed by the more pressing needs of the psycho-sexual forces behind Williams pursuit of an "anti-poetic" modernism.
In its opening pages, Spring and All sets itself up as an extended defense of a modern antipoetry. In the voice of an uncomprehending and outraged public, an anonymous critic asks, "Is this what you call poetry? It is the very antithesis of poetry. It is antipoetry" (CPI 177). The critic's outrage at "You moderns!" makes clear their art is an affront in terms of content "There is nothing appealing in what you say but on the contrary the poems are positively repellent." With regards to form: "Rhyme you may take away but rhythm! Why there is none in your work whatever" (CPI 177). Thirty-five years later in his memoir I Wanted to Write a Poem, Williams recalls the opening pages of Spring and All with the modern poet's response to the critics as reading like "a manifesto" and "important enough to quote":
Perhaps this noble apostrophe means something terrible for me. I am not certain, but for the moment I interpret it to say: "You have robbed me. God, I am naked. What shall I do?"--By it they mean that when I have suffered (provided I have not done so as yet) I too shall run for cover; that I too shall seek refuge in fantasy. And mind you, I do not say that I will not. To decorate my age.
The poet's "manifesto" doesn't try to defend itself against the charge of being antipoetic. Indeed, his/her modern antipoetry provides a "naked" truth that others can't handle. Although the poet is careful to admit that in the face of the reality his/her antipoetry reveals he/she too might "run for cover," "seek refuge in fantasy," or "decorate," this response would only be a sign of the artist's failure. However, Williams' commitment to a modern antipoetic "realism" reveals racial and sexual fantasies that provide their own problematic "cover" and "refuge."
Outing Williams as a closet romantic in his famous preface to Williams' first volume of collected poems published in 1934, Wallace Stevens identifies the central dynamic in Williams' poetry as the struggle between "sentimental" and "anti-poetic" impulses.9 What is important to stress is that both impulses are central to "The Red Wheelbarrow" and both are related to gender difference as it plays itself out in sexual activity. As Stevens explains:
Something of the unreal is necessary to fecundate the real; something of the sentimental is necessary to fecundate the anti-poetic. Williams, by nature, is more of a realist than is commonly true in the case of a poet. One might, at this point, set oneself up as the Linnaeus of aesthetics, assigning a female role to the unused tent in 'The Attic Which Is Desire,' and a male role to the soda sign; and generally speaking one might run through these pages and point out how often the essential poetry is the result of the conjunction of the unreal and the real, the sentimental and the anti-poetic, the constant interaction of two opposites. This seems to define Williams and his poetry.
Two noteworthy readings of "The Red Wheelbarrow" implicitly using the terms and dynamic Stevens identifies come from Roy Harvey Pearce and Hugh Kenner. Pearce says that "At its worst," the poem's "pathos and sentimentalism" results in "togetherness in a chicken-yard. At its best it is an exercise in the creation of the poetic out of the anti-poetic" (97). With his usual flair for ridicule, Kenner makes the gender dynamics of the poem's "pathos and sentimentalism" more explicit. Illustrating how the poem's form turns its prosaic subject matter into art, he asks the reader to consider the poem's sixteen words as a sentence: "So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens." From this, he concludes, "Try it over, in any voice you like: it is impossible. It could only be the gush of an arty female on a tour of Farmer Brown's barnyard" (Homemade 60). Although using the term with trepidation, Stevens at least sees sentiment as a necessary and active force in Williams' poetry. For both Pearce and Kenner, the imposition of masculine form, his anti-poetic modernism, is what saves Williams' poetry from sliding into a feminine sentimentality--"togetherness in a chicken-yard" or "the gush of an arty female."
In his unintentional role as a "Linnaeus of aesthetics," Kenner puts his finger on the soft feminine center of "The Red Wheelbarrow"'s muscular modernism that makes something ("il miglior fabbro"). In the implicit value system of both Williams and Kenner, it is this (masculine) making that turns the (feminine) saying into art. Furthermore, this remaking of a feminine essence into a masculine form occurs on the visual level. Through the use of enjambment Williams cuts and suspends the snake-like sentence expressing feminine sentiment into what Kenner, quoting Stevens, describes as a "'Mobile-like arrangement'" (Homemade 59). The silent space of visual non-narrative art helps to stifle the feminine emotion that is simultaneously so central to the poem and so unseemly.
At this level, "The Red Wheelbarrow" is caught up in "the sexual politics of enjambmental form" (50) that Sharon Dolin finds in her essay "Enjambment and the Erotics of the Gaze in Williams's Poetry." Although focusing on just three poems from Spring and All (XI, "In passing with my mind," XVIII, "To Elsie," and XXVI, "At the Ball Game") we can extend her thesis:
The phallic gaze, finally, dominates many of the Spring and All poems, asserting itself through enjambmental interest in eroticized visual detail. Irigaray (1985) has written that the extreme 'oculocentrism' of our culture privileges the penis because it can be seen; 'Nothing to be seen is equivalent to having no thing. No being and no truth ... [V]isual dominance therefore carried out in actual fact' (48, her emphasis). Perhaps the obsession with vision, with fixing the particularity of objects, in Williams's poems is so the I/eye, fearing castration, can reconfirm its phallic dominance through visual dominance.
Dolin's thesis gives a new meaning to Burke's explanation of Williams' objectivism: "For all of his 'objectivist' accuracy, Williams' details are not in essence descriptions of things but portraits of personalities" ("Williams" 56). And in "The Red Wheelbarrow," the personality that is most vividly portrayed, much more than the wheelbarrow's black owner, is Williams' own.
As a portrait of castration anxiety, however, it is necessary to recognize that the sources provoking the fear of castration in "The Red Wheelbarrow," and hence the fetishistic scopophilia attempting to control that fear, are racialized. Stevens, again, suggests how Williams' anti-poetic is connected to race, or the "primitive,"10 as well as gender. Although not using the term explicitly, it is easy to read from Stevens' description of Williams' "passion for the anti-poetic":
His passion for the anti-poetic is a blood passion and not a passion of the inkpot. The anti-poetic is his spirit's cure. He needs it as a naked man needs shelter or as an animal needs salt. To a man with a sentimental side the anti-poetic is that truth, that reality to which all of us are forever fleeing.
As a "blood passion," the anti-poetic is an assertion of a primitive (masculine) need, like a naked man's need for shelter or an animal's need for salt. For "a man with a sentimental side" confronting contemporary life--"as one looks out of the window at Rutherford or Passaic, or as one walks the streets of New York" (213)--the anti-poetic is "a source of salvation" (213). Consequently, the feminine gives access to a primitive experience, or as Stevens puts it, "something of the sentimental is necessary to fecundate the anti-poetic," which provides a "truth" and "reality" amidst the shallow and transitory commercial values of modern consumer capitalism.
Understanding how Williams' anti-poetic modernism incorporates mythical dualisms involving both race and gender, we can return to the poem's role in Spring and All with a new understanding of the erotic forces it tries to resolve. The trajectory of the erotic forces from "Horned Purple" to "The Red Wheelbarrow" tries to suggest they have been tamed and can be safely contemplated in the zone of a "thing made," as Kenner calls it, "a zone remote from the world of sayers and sayings" (Homemade 60). But the "dark" forces Williams sees as empowering his anti-poetic seem to want to drag the made thing back into the "world of sayers and sayings." One axis along which the primitive tries to speak its silence occurs in the metonymic links Perloff uncovers in the poem's color scheme--the red of the "red wheel / barrow" which links it to the vital blood of the "Arab / Indian / dark woman" in contrast with the "white / chickens" which links them to the ghostly "Crowds" of white "farmers / who live poorly." Through the narrative impulse of Spring and All, in its desire to say more rather than show more, the figure of the "dark woman" partially emerges within the framework of "The Red Wheelbarrow." A "rich ... savagery" outside the established economic order restates the conflict found in the opening poem of the sequence, "Horned Purple," with its "white and colored" boys whose phallic display flouts the (primarily white) business interests of the community. Besides suggesting that the initial tensions of the four-poem sequence have not been transcended, her bloody metonymic appearance within the poem suggests her mutilation. Like Philomela, another mythical other, it is a double mutilation, a repetition with a difference. The bloody "castration" of Philomela's mouth works to both silence and make visible her rape, which was motivated by castration anxiety in the first place, the desire to prove phallic dominance through the sexual conquest of (an)other woman outside the boundaries set by the Law of the Father. Likewise, in Williams' desire to express his phallic dominance through sexual contact with the other woman in Spring and All, the phallic gaze of his anti-poetic modernism in "The Red Wheelbarrow" both works to silence and make visible the native other's historical rape.
The "dark woman" is sister to another distinct set of mutilated beings in the poem who are also cut out by Williams' modernist representation of the primitive forces he admires and fears. In "Horned Purple," for example, the poet identifies with and draws strength from the phallic display of the "Dirty satyrs." However, as the power of their "dark kisses" threaten the poet's ability to distinguish between Self and Other, the phallic gaze that seizes upon the wheelbarrow completes the excising of phallic black masculinity first glimpsed in "Horned Purple." Dismembered, the primitive life force that begins the poetic sequence can become a tool or, as Mary Ellen Solt aptly calls the wheelbarrow, "a primitive machine" (26). The ability to turn "primitive peoples" into "primitive machines" was central to the colonial mindset as was the emasculation of the black man. A more sentimental portrait of the wheelbarrow as a symbol of the reification of black (masculine) labor occurs in Williams' acknowledgement of the wheelbarrow's owner as the "old negro" in the Fifty Poets anthology and as Marshall in the Holiday article. But even the more sentimental recognition of black humanity by whites often requires the castration or asexualization of the black male (Uncle Tom as the classic example). So the castration anxieties the poem's fetishistic scopophilia tries to control are provoked by two distinct primitive forces within the poem--black masculinity and black femininity. In the former, it is a masculinity that must become feminized or castrated, in the latter, femininity is already seen as a "castrated man." Far from allowing the imagination to alleviate "consciousness of the desire which always precedes and exceeds its object" the poem's fetishistic scopohilia marks its "object(s)" as the site of an unspeakable primal scene.
What Williams says about primitives in the prose section "introducing" the four-poem sequence I've been discussing helps illustrate what Williams is trying to achieve in the poems. The notion of primitives comes in when Williams explains the difference between old modes of art, "prose painting, representative work" (CPI 220) and the new modes, or the poetry of a "new form dealt with as a reality in itself." While conceding that the old mode will continue, he insists that the "jump from that to Cézanne or back to certain of the primitives is the impossible" (CPI 220). Here the new mode is defined as a combination of a sophisticated newness (Cézanne) and, as the preposition "back" suggests, an unsophisticated oldness (the primitives). However, the primitive as concurrent with the present is a point he insists upon in the following paragraph:
The primitives are not back in some remote age--they are not BEHIND experience. Work which bridges the gap between the rigidities of vulgar experience and the imagination is rare. It is new, immediate--It is so because it is actual, always real. It is experience dynamized into reality.
(CP I 220)
It is hard to tell whether these contemporary primitives are primitive peoples who find themselves in a present not entirely their own,11 or whether the reference is to the artists who make use of primitive subjects and/or forms. This uncertainty might be intentional and speaks to Williams' notion of a fusion or integration of the artist ("the imagination") and his or her subject ("vulgar experience"). Whether it is through unsophisticated primitive peoples or sophisticated use of primitive forms, the primitive gives access to a timeless and universal truth, as the following paragraph suggests: "Time does not move. Only ignorance and stupidity move. Intelligence (force, power) stands still with time and forces change about itself--sifting the world for permanence, in the drift of nonentity" (CPI 220). Elsewhere, Williams makes the commonality between primitives and artists in their ability to uncover the universal more explicit: "'The only universal is the local as savages, artists and--to a lesser extent--peasants know'" (Tomlinson vii).
After asserting the timelessness of the primitive, Williams relates the story of Pío Baroja, a class parable with clear autobiographical resonance for Williams. Boroja leaves his medical profession and the "so called intellectual class" (220) to open a bakery in Madrid. Despite his dissatisfaction with the lack of imagination he finds in his middle-class existence, Boroja, like Williams, nonetheless "sees no interest in isolation" (220). Williams' belief in the artist as a social being earns him much deserved praise and respect. However, in rejecting isolation and turning to others as a solution to his class predicament he relies upon a notion of primitive contact that reinforces the assumptions of class privilege he wants to overcome. The moral Williams extracts from Boroja's renunciation of class privilege (and responsibility) is that: "Here it seems to be that a man, starved in imagination, changes his milieu so that his food may be richer--The social class, without the power of expression, lives upon imaginative values" (220). In the middle class artist's quest for richer "food," the "social class" the artist turns to is described in terms of a puzzling paradox--while it "lives upon imaginative values" it lacks the "power of expression." Williams tries to explain further in terms of "primitive types":
I mean only to emphasize the split that goes down through the abstractions of art to the everyday exercises of the most primitive types.there is a sharp division--the energizing force of the imagination on one side--and the acquisitive--PROGRESSIVE force of the lump on the other.
(CP I 220)
What starts out being a difference in class turns into a more essential difference, a primal difference. In the process of moving from a "social class" to "primitive types" their "imaginative values" disappear. Now he returns to the earlier notion of the prose section where he says there is a "gap" between "vulgar experience" (the primitives) and the "imagination" (the artist) that only rare works of art can bridge. It is only through these paradoxically (un)imaginative primitives that Williams can imagine an escape from the confines of his own class position. This paradoxical view of the (un)imaginative primitive is behind what Williams describes in more abstract terms as the "jump between fact and the imaginative reality" (CPI 221) or what Miller in his influential reading celebrated as Williams' imaginative "leap into things."
Williams is using the artist's supposed access to an enduring primitivism to get beyond what he sees as the transitory and superficial divisions of class. Imaginative contact with the primitive or the elemental--and not the dialectics of "class consciousness"--is what provides civilization with true progress. However, the poetic sequence that follows this theorizing paints a vivid portrait of what "the energizing force of the imagination" can do to those it sees as part of the "PROGRESSIVE force of the lump." The "fact" of these essential categories demarcating Self and Other in the prose section isn't deconstructed by the "imaginative reality" of the poems that follow it. From the phallic display of the "Dirty satyrs" to Marshall's wheelbarrow, the black working-class experience is reduced to an essential primitivism. The racial and sexual categories energizing the four poems are kept intact, if not reinforced. As the prose paragraph immediately following the conclusion of "The Red Wheelbarrow" says: "The fixed categories into which life is divided must always hold. These things are normal--essential to every activity. But they exist--but not as dead dissections" (CPI 224). This succinctly states the "plot" of the four-poem sequence and its conclusion with "The Red Wheelbarrow." The distinction of Self and Other threatened by the blurring of racial and gender categories in "Horned Purple" and "The Sea" is both reaffirmed and stabilized by their aesthetic resolution or objectification within "Quietness" and "The Red Wheelbarrow." But "The Red Wheelbarrow" can't deliver on its promise of a new relationship to things, moving beyond the "dead dissections" of the past, as long as its reliance upon the old relationships between people is not acknowledged.
To his credit, Williams keeps his understanding of race and gender open to revision. Indeed, Spring and All can be read as an attempt to move beyond the earlier and cruder theories of race found, for example, in his letter, "A Criticism of Miss Marsden's 'Lingual Psychology'," written for The Egoist in 1917.12 After Spring and All, through his poetry and fiction of the thirties he continues to express his concern with sympathetic portraits and characters. His most complex and productive attempt to comprehend racial difference occurs within the liberal inclusiveness of his epic Paterson. There are other noteworthy if problematic efforts--Man Orchid, for example, an unfinished collaboration with Fred Miller which was going to be an improvisational novel inspired by black jazz and whose protagonist was based on a white man they mistakenly took for "'a light-skinned negro'" (Mariani 514). A comment Williams makes late in his life in an interview with Walter Sutton suggests such fundamental misunderstandings continued to dog his liberal sympathies. Discussing his dissatisfaction with the beat poets and their self-conscious "primitivism," Williams says: "I've known many primitive people, but they are surprisingly complex when you get to know them. Their primitive natures disappear. They become quiet. We value them as individuals not because of their beat characteristics but because they are capable of becoming more like us" (Interviews 56). Perhaps it is a liberal identification complex such as this that explains how the red wheelbarrow's owner (dis)appears from the poem, setting up Marshall's reappearance some thirty years later, as the poet tries to find room for him, and his affection for him, somewhere in the context of his art.
1. Carl Rapp, based on an account of the poem's occasion attributed to the director of the Rutherford Public Library, considers the possibility that "... Williams glimpsed the wheelbarrow during a lull in a medical emergency in which one of his young patients lay between life and death ..." (William Carlos Williams and Romantic Idealism. Hanover and London: Brown UP, 1984: 89).
2. Thomas Whitaker mentions a comment by Williams that the poem was "'written in two minutes'" (William Carlos Williams. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989: 46).
3. In his elegant reading of the poem, Charles Altieri says, "no poem in English is more spatial and timeless. The objects seem to have no history ... we become aware by the end that they represent a form of rural life whose essential habits and dependence on natural processes have never really changed" ("Objective Image and Act of Mind in Modern Poetry." PMLA 91 [Jan. 1976]: 112). Altieri and other critics who read the poem as representing "rural life" ignore the fact that in the Fifty Poets anthology, Williams identifies the "old negro" who owns the wheelbarrow as living in the same suburb as he does. However, the critics' ability to disregard the poem's suburban setting, I would argue, has much to do with Williams' notion of the primitive that informs and surrounds the poem.
4. Many of those on America's left wing would've been surprised to learn that Williams was one of their own. It seems to me Benet makes the mistake of connecting aesthetic radicalism with political radicalism; nonetheless, his comment illustrates the suspicion with which Williams was regarded by the literary establishment.
5. See, for example, his "A Note on Poetry" that introduces "The Red Wheelbarrow" along with other poems he includes in the Oxford Anthology of American Poetry (Eds. William Rose Benet and Norman Holmes Pearson. NY: Oxford UP, 1938: 1313-4), in which he explains his poetic practice in terms of objectivism.
6. All citations of Spring and All and the four-poem sequence mentioned above come from A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan's The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I (New York: New Directions, 1986: 221-4).
7. The reference to Edgar Allan Poe suggests the poet as alienated artist who drowns or "goes under." Earlier in Spring and All, Williams says the following about Poe: "From the time of Poe in the U.S.--the first American poet had to be a man of great separation--with close identity with life. Poe could not have written a word without the violence of expulsive emotion combined with the in-driving force of a crudely repressive environment. Between the two his imagination was forced into being to keep him to that reality, completeness, sense of escape which is felt in his work--his topics. Typically American--accurately, even inevitably set in his time" (CP I 198).
8. As early as 1928, anticipating such critics as Perloff and Riddel, Gorham Munson links the poetry of Williams' Spring and All to cubism. Unlike Perloff and Riddel, though, he sees the connection not in terms of a shared appreciation for indeterminacy. Instead, he finds a similar sense of "primitivism" in their work, although he seems uninterested in the Euro-centric nature of the term: "[Williams] is attempting to leap straight from contact (sharp perceptions) to the imagination (order in the highest sense) without working through culture (the attempt to grasp reality practically, emotionally and intellectually). Thus to my mind his primitivism is leading him back to sophistication, the sophistication of a Parisian cubist painter" (William Carlos Williams, The Critical Heritage. Ed. Charles Doyle. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980: 104).
9. See Mariani's account of Williams' discomfort with Stevens' introduction, in particular Stevens' reading of his poetry in terms of an antipoetic, which only increased through the years. In fact, despite the clear antipoetic orientation of Spring and All, late in his life Williams could say: "'I didn't agree with Stevens that it [the antipoetic] was a conscious means I was using. I have never been satisfied that the anti-poetic had any validity or even existed'" (A New World 340).
10. Although once a more common term in discussing Williams' poetry, with such critics as Gorham Munson, Yvor Winters (Primitivism and Decadence [NY: Arrow Editions, 1937]), Mary Ellen Solt (William Carlos Williams: Poems in the American Idiom." Folio 15 [Winter 1960]: 3-28), Robert Kern ("Williams, Brautigan, and the Poetics of Primitivism." Chicago Review 27.1 : 45-57) and Dickran Tashjian (Skyscraper Primitives [Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan UP, 1975]), the term has disappeared from contemporary scholarship on Williams.
11. Several years after the publication of Spring and All, Williams makes another comment in the Embodiment of Knowledge (Ed. Ron Loewinsohn. NY: New Directions, 1974) that tries to explain the primitive modernity of certain groups: "People cannot get used to the Jews: it is the persistence of a type out of phase. The Negro is another. In each case it is a phase which happens to coincide but roughly, by accident with the present--somewhat out of line" (51-2).
12. In this attempt by Williams theorize gender he says: "It is well established that primitive man--that is the tribesman--when not busied with women and when free to perform his own will is either hunting, fishing, loafing, or drunk. Man will only work when forced to do so, or when inveigled into it by a woman, or at least by a predominant female psychology" (The Egoist 4.7 [Aug. 1917]: 111).
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