03 June 2008

The 'barrow and Me - I

Why "The Red Wheelbarrow"?

Why do I adore this poem? Why have I taken it as a kind of emblem?

Why, for goodness sake, have I put a recording of WCW reciting the poem as my outgoing answering machine message? And why (I hear choruses of friends and family members asking) have I left it there, as my sole and only message for years now?


Many years.

I could say a lot about why I love this short American gem, and I intend to in upcoming posts. You will find that I have lots to say on this subject, indeed.

For now, let me just say a little about how I got to know "The Red Wheelbarrow."

I was not taught this poem in school. In that way the public school system failed me.

I probably first read it in an old hardback copy of The Oxford Book of American Verse which a relative had innocently sent to our house in a cardboard box with a bunch of other books, none of which I remember. I can't be sure I read it there, but that wonderful book was really my gateway to poetry. I would have read the William Carlos Williams poems, because they were short and easy to read and clever. I remember reading "This is Just to Say," but not "The Red Wheelbarrow."

I first really noticed the poem many years, let us say decades, later. There was this great PBS series about American poets called "Voices and Visions." Each one-hour segment was a beautiful and cleverly-done portrait of one of America's great poets. Whitman was there, naturally, as was Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost and Ezra Pound and Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath and Marianne Moore and, well, William Carlos Williams.

The programs were fantastically creative and visual in their presentation, products of the New York Center for Visual History. They used filmed segments and animations and an array of other techniques to give you a really good basic knowledge about and feeling for each individual poet. Each program was unique in the way it communicated. I highly recommend them to any English teacher trying to turn her students on to poetry.

The WCW segment had a lovely section on "The Red Wheelbarrow" where the filmmakers took handheld cameras to the streets of New York City, and filmed a wonderful selection of New Yorkers reciting the short poem. It was great hearing this poem from all of these variously nervous and laughing and strutting characters!

That was where "The Red Wheelbarrow" first made an impression on me, to tell the truth.

I am a big fan of recordings of poets reading their own works. I used to comb the shelves of lps at the old downtown Main Library to glean records like the Caedmon Treasury of Modern Poets Reading Their Own Poetry. I collected poets reading on cassette, and I now have several good collections of cds with a variety of poets reading.

Including, of course, WCW doing "The Red Wheelbarrow."

So, one time I was searching for a new idea for an answering machine message, and I thought of putting recorded poetry on there.

And it had to be something short.

I remember putting e e cummings' "next to of course god America I" on my machine once. There were other poems.

But "The Red Wheelbarrow" was always my favorite. Short and sweet. No waiting on the part of the callers.

So it always came back.

And there it is today.

So, it has been years of living with this poem for me, and I have thought about it a lot.

Some of those thoughts will appear in future posts.

And once I figure out how to link a recording to a post, I'll put the poem up here, so you can hear it, too!


  1. Hello! Jim:

    Congratulations! on your 1st Blog. I loved that when it opened, your first posting was about The Red Wheelbarrow. After scrolling down, it was actually your 3rd posting, so I'm thinking that it would be fun for you to have this as a regular part of your blog, maybe once a month, like when Gene Amole used to revisit his radio days for his newspaper column.

    A few questions about TheRedWheelBarrow.blogspot.com:
    Can you build a distinct button for COMMENTS (vs. the underlined keyword)?
    Can you edit a post after it's already been released (i.e. fix spelling of Label "origin" and change sex of English teacher to "their")?
    I wonder where you will have access to the COMMENTS you receive - does the system automatically email it to you or do you open up your blogspot and find new comments within it?

    I went to send this and was required by Google to initiate an account or a blog. I made a blog. Now, an hour later, I have oneduckling.blogspot.com. Please comment on mine too.

    Look forward to your future blogging!


  2. For William Carlos Williams
    by Galway Kinnell

    When you came and you talked and you read with your
    Private zest from the varicose marble
    Of the podium, the lovers of literature
    Paid you the tribute of their almost total
    Inattention, although someone when you spoke of a pig
    Did squirm, and it is only fair to report another gig-

    gigled. But you didn't even care. You seemed
    Above remarking we were not your friends.
    You hung around inside the rimmed
    Circles of your heavy glasses and smiled and
    So passed a lonely evening. In an hour
    Of talking your honesty built you a tower.

    When it was over and you sat down and the chair-
    man got up and smiled and congratulated
    You and shook your hand, I watched a professor
    In neat bow tie and enormous tweeds, who patted
    A paint praise of the sufficiently damned,
    Drained spittle from his pipe, then scrammed.