The poem can leave you scratching your head. William Carlos Williams creates a scene with a wheelbarrow and little context. A first-time reader can be left questioning what the object means and why he should even care about it. If that’s how you feel, you’re actually on the right track. Your frustration is in part the visceral, honest, focused response Williams was driving for when he penned this 20th century classic.
Williams’ poem is influenced by Imagism. The Imagists rejected Romanticism with its flowery language and emotional longing for a lost ideal. Ezra Pound, a proponent of the Imagist movement, called on poets to focus on objects in and of themselves. He limited his word usage and cut out descriptors that did not contribute directly to the presentation of the poem’s subject. Excessive words, in the view of poets such as Williams and Pound, only blur the reality they seek to focus -- hence the brevity of Williams’ “Wheelbarrow.”
In the poem’s third and fourth lines, Williams splits "wheel barrow" into two words. By doing this, he’s calling on you to focus in on fine details. He’s evoking a clear image in your mind. And it’s a red wheelbarrow. It’s not rusty or dilapidated. It’s not something that’s been contemplated upon at length and spun around in your mind only to have its form ultimately distorted. Red is a pure color, an attention-getter. Williams wants his readers focusing on the instant -- the object in and of itself.
If you try to back away and gain perspective on your position in the community or your place in history, you can lose sight of the reality in front of you. The wheelbarrow and the chickens are out in the countryside, away from the city. Williams is purposefully focusing attention on the wheelbarrow because it lacks urbanity, sophistication and all the baggage that comes with art and culture. Poems are often seen as something only the highly educated can appreciate. Williams disagrees. The image of the wheelbarrow is, and must be, accessible to everyone.
When you see the wheelbarrow in Williams’ poem, you see a moment frozen in time. A poet sets words to paper to try to capture an idea, and yet the meaning of that idea and the author’s focus inevitably blurs with the passage of time. This is the paradox at the heart of Williams’ poem. When Williams says so much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow, he’s calling on you to do your best to seize this ultimately unseizeable moment. He wants you to see the wheelbarrow, and poetry, in a way you were never able to see them before.