I don't know where William Carlos Williams was when he wrote his famous poem about the red wheelbarrow - probably in some fertile farmyard. But even in this South African semidesert in which I have lived for the past seven years, his words have a universal ring. This overtly simple eight-line poem has brightened my life ever since I first encountered "The Red Wheelbarrow" more than 10 years ago.
I won't try to explain it, because Carl Sandburg once quoted William Butler Yeats as saying, "What can be explained is not poetry." But I can say that it does what a good poem should do: Shift your viewpoint. Having read it, can one ever take a wheelbarrow for granted?
I, too, own a barrow, but mine isn't red; it's cement-gray, colored by its original occupation on building sites. It came to me when a contractor doing alterations to my previous home left it behind. It had a hole in it as big as a fist.
I phoned the man and said, "You've left your barrow behind."
He said, "Keep it."
I was about to reply that I didn't want his punctured old barrow, but the words wouldn't come out.
Today, I am pleased. In addition to being workmates, the wheelbarrow and I have become firm friends - especially since I patched it with galvanized iron.
Another difference between the subject of Williams's poem and my barrow is that mine doesn't often get rained on. (Rain is scarce in the African Karoo, which means "place of great dryness.") And white chickens (domestic fowl of any color, in fact) would be incompatible with this garden of delicate semidesert plants. As a youth, I had close contact with white chickens: My father raised leghorns on his farm. So I know how pristine they can look, and I love the poet's word-picture of white chickens in front of a rain-glazed red barrow.
Williams's words are often with me when I go into my garden and see, among the greenery, my barrow's beaten but ever-ready frame, or when I'm using it for carting compost and stones. Stones, large and larger, are a big part of the Karoo, and, therefore, dominate my garden. When I think of all the hard work this barrow has done carting stones, I wish I could write a choral piece in its honor. However, except for this modest essay, my barrow will probably continue to cart unsung.
Carting, I feel, was foremost in the poet's mind when he put so much weight on the word "depends" at the end of the first line. But he doesn't develop that thought, which is probably just as well, because then he would've written an essay, not a poem; and I'd rather have the poem. His muse wisely led him into giving us that lovely word-picture about glazing and chickens.
Did Williams ever consider the barrow a thing to sit in? There is no more portable or more comfortable garden chair, especially when you put your feet on the handles. Not those broad-beamed barrows. You flop around in them like a waterless hippo. Construction-site barrows offer a snug fit, in which you can spend hours thinking about what to do next.
I have also observed that birds are tamer with barrow-sitting humans. Perhaps they mistake us for a bag of compost. Once, a familiar chat (a wild bird) alighted on my shoulder and remained there for several seconds before my breathing alerted him to his mistake.
Williams probably had a new barrow, which is why it had a remarkable ability to glaze. Mine is very old. No amount of rain could conjure even a gloss. Its moving parts are so worn, the whole structure rocks and mutters in motion, and a supporting bar on the right has snapped.
I could weld the wheelbarrow together, but perhaps the barrow will be retired when the left bar goes. Then I shall anchor it in a good observation post and use it only for sitting.
I'll buy a brand-new wheelbarrow that will be red; and, after rain, I'll rush out to check the glazing.
Copyright issues prevented our reprinting William Carlos Williams's poem. It's in many poetry anthologies.
The Academy of American Poets features it on their web site at: