Ruby-colored Line for Books by Eli Siegel

Williams Poetry Talked about by Eli Siegel, and William Carlos Williams Present and Talking: 1952
Edited by Martha Baird and Ellen Reiss
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As I said, there is very much to say about this work. I have talked lengthily on "The Red Wheelbarrow," which is an anthology piece now, but as Williams says (he uses cuss words very often), that doesn't mean a damn—it is still good, whether it's printed a hundred times. Even if it got on television, it would still be what it is. You can't spoil a thing simply because you repeat it often. Hamlet, for example, has gone through ever so many forms, but it's still as new as tomorrow's plums.

In "The Red Wheelbarrow" there is religion. There is a mingling, in short, of qualities: visual, musical, in a sense mystical. I think that Williams' poem is better, but I am going to read Tennyson's "Flower in the Crannied Wall" because the two poems have a similarity of purpose. This is very good, but it has some meretriciousness to it. The absence of the meretricious in the Williams poem is notable.— This is Tennyson:

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

Instead of putting it in rhyme, Williams says, "So much depends." That way is better. Tennyson begins with the flower and says, "Look, I would know what the whole world means if I knew what this flower is!" What Williams says is, "So much depends on this red wheelbarrow." The direction is different, but the trip has a similarity.

This is a great poem. It can be anthologized, and people can get sick of hearing it (in quotes) and Williams himself can get sick of hearing about it—the fact remains. Williams uses a phrase "saw the god" in A Voyage to Pagany; well, here all the gods are seen. And so it is only right that "The Red Wheelbarrow" be read once more. This is seemingly one of the most innocent little poems; it's just creeping like a waif into a big mansion.

so much depends

The value of the world depends upon that red wheelbarrow. It is in keeping with Williams' other ideas, that if one thing can be seen straight, we shall come to a notion of a world truly of us. The technique, however, is what makes it; technique in the best sense. Technique I define generally as a way of dealing honestly with an object, so that the utmost impression can be had by the person then seeing it. And there are various ways of doing this. In other words, to bring out the power of an object is the purpose of technique.

Now, the syllables here are different. It is hard to say why "depends upon" falls differently from "a red wheelbarrow," but from one point of view, it is very easy. "N" is a grudging sound, "upon" is grudging; "red" and "wheel," particularly, are more round. One is grudging and the other is luscious. And then we have the relation of the visual to the form. A circle is usually seen as quite pallid. A circle is geometric. But giving it red takes the eternity of the circle (the circle does stand for eternity—it is represented in the old legends by the snake with its tail in its mouth) and gives it motion. Consequently, to say that there is red in this wheelbarrow, and also the feeling of solidity, brings together all the weight and lightness that Williams has been looking for in his work. And it is done very subtly. I could talk about this a great deal, including the meaning of the wheel, also the relation of the wheel to the other part of the barrow, and the fact that it is handled by a person.

"Glazed with rain"—here again we have the feeling of polish and roughness. Take silk. Silk is admirable because it shines; tweed can be admirable because it doesn't shine. There is a relation between polish and roughness. The red wheelbarrow, of course, is still a wheelbarrow; then it's glazed with rain—which means that the roughness of the world, the ordinariness of the world, has taken on a polish. It takes on a Veronese quality.

All this has motion in it, but the word "beside" is very still; and then "the white chickens," whether they're white or not, are still very much in motion: they flutter around like those sparrows.

So this whole poem is a study in what the nature of reality is. I'm not trying to be portentous. I remember a statement in the New York Times Book Review that Williams was very much taken with this poem, "The Red Wheelbarrow." I read it, and I felt he had a right to be, as I said in my review.

This is a major poem, but again it should be seen as related to other poems. It is related to the flower poem of Tennyson; it is related to a poem that now sounds so old-fashioned, of T. E. Brown. Brown himself was a Manxman and he went around with the rough people of the Isle of Man, but this sounds awfully sentimental, and it has been used by the gardeners sickeningly. However, I don't care how a poem has been used, I want to see the poem itself. I don't care whether it says "God wot" or "God knows." This poem is not as good as the Williams poem, and it is not as good as the Tennyson poem, but it is in the same field:

A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!
Rose plot,
Fringed pool,
Fern'd grot—
The veriest school
Of peace; and yet the fool
Contends that God is not—
Not God! in gardens! when the eve is cool?
Nay, but I have a sign;
'Tis very sure God walks in mine.61

Well, God walked beside the white chickens—something like God.

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60. The whole poem was read. Text is in The Collected Earlier Poems of William Carlos Williams (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1951), p. 277.
61. T.E. Brown, "My Garden."

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