The Red Wheelbarrow
William Carlos Williams
so much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens.
I have taught this poem many, many times and have always told students that it’s easy to read too much into it, that it is an image, a little snap shot and not much else. I do believe that is true, but that doesn’t explain the “so much depends” of the poem, not really. I have also always said that the most important word in the poem is “glazed” but I didn’t really think about why “glazed” is so important until recently.. until, to be exact, I was lying in bed in a dingy motel room in Casper, Wyoming, trying to go to sleep. I sometimes recite poetry to myself as a way of drifting off, but as I recited the Williams, I began to think about what, really have been inadequate analyses. ( I would like to insert here , that too often student do want to find the “deeper” or “hidden meaning” as if poetry is some sort of arcane code that requires “special knowledge” to decode. I always work to dissuade them of this notion, that the meaning of the poem is on the page, in the specific words, and that all a student needs to do is read carefully and thoughtfully.)
But now, as I was thinking, in the drifting moments before sleep, I thought again about why “glazed” is so important. First of all, it creates the glassy sheen on the wheelbarrow. “Slick” would not have done as well to create that window-like glassiness. However, “glazed” does something else. When we think about the word, it immediately brings to mind what potters do to pots. They glaze them, by covering them with substances that turn hard and “glassy,” creating a permanent finish on the pot. We have shards of glazed pots from ancient civilizations, and potters today are using techniques very similar to the ones used centuries ago.
Thus, Williams, with the use of this lovely verb, makes the red wheel barrow into something permanent and ageless, something that connects people of the twentieth century to people from ancient times. Not only is this connection made through the word “glazed” but it is reinforced by the implement itself, which is a lowly, and low tech tool used by farmers and gardeners throughout history.
Finally, Williams contrasts the glazed wheel barrow with the white chickens, also a part of human agriculture for millennia. These creatures are ephemeral, new chickens are hatched, adult chickens are eaten but the generic “chicken” connects humans throughout history.
So, now, we come back to the “So much depends upon,” that apparently cryptic statement at the beginning of the poem. If the chickens and the glazed wheel barrow take on the weight of millennia, (with Williams’ very light and imagistic touch), then civilization depends on these things, the simple tools, the animals that provide us with food. Indeed, much does depend on them. Yes, “glazed” is the most important word in this poem because without it, we wouldn’t understand the first stanza beyond except in the simplest way.
I find it interesting that it took a moment before drifting off to sleep to see this, and I am reminded again of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” Williams is telling us an enormous truth, but he is also telling it slant.