October 14, 2019

Monday with Michael Spencer: The Red Wheelbarrow Debate

 

Monday with Michael Spencer: September 30, 2019
The Red Wheelbarrow Debate

 

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

  • William Carlos Williams, “The Red Wheelbarrow”

 

And so once again, my AP English IV class begins its two-quarter study of poetry. I love this part of my course. Teaching poetry is easily my favorite part of being a teacher. Lecturing on poetry, reading it aloud and teaching my students to appreciate it are rare and sublime pleasures for me.

Each year, we visit many of the same poems, and I assign the same essays, questions and readings from “Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound and Sense.” Unlike Mr. Keating’s orders to tear out the “What is Poetry?” essay in his lit book, I have my students spend several days working through the characteristics of poetry and the nature of poetic language and art.

Which brings us to Mr. William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.” My students know it’s there. It’s always there in their literature books, waiting for them. It’s there in the English III study of American poetry. I assume it goes back earlier than that for some of them. So when we thumb through the collected poems in the back of the book on the first day of class, “The Red Wheelbarrow” appears, and the inevitable discussion begins.

Is it any good?

Thomas Aarp makes the point that the appreciation of poetry isn’t a skill we all possess by nature. We have to acquire the vocabulary and the knowledge of poetic elements. The average person would look at Shakespeare’s “Winter,” and say it’s an ugly, bad piece of writing. A person trained in literature sees Will’s genius in almost every line.

So a person with no art appreciation sees a Picasso and sees nothing but a quirky, unintelligible collection of lines and color. A person with artistic appreciation sees genius.

A person with no appreciation for art sees the Mona Lisa and sees a woman’s face. An artistic aesthete sees one of the high points of human creativity.

My students read “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and almost all of them see nothing. The authors of their textbooks, however, the literary critics, see William Carlos Williams as a great artist. They see a poem of utterly simplistic depth, and a poem of almost unparalleled significance in the art of poetry. The keepers of the poetic flame see a poem that will endlessly stimulate students to consider the truth that poetry is the most compressed and compact of literary forms.

I know what’s going to happen, and it only took two days. I am lecturing on the need to develop poetic appreciation in order to critically and aesthetically engage with the poems we are going to read. I’m making the case that education itself includes a commitment to go beyond the ordinary person’s appreciation of a particular area of knowledge or creativity, and to be able to perceive that subject in such a way that the good, the true and the beautiful can be actualized through your contribution.

I’m throwing this rock, however, into the ocean of relativism where my students live. They would probably never argue with me about moral relativism….but “The Red Wheelbarrow?” That’s too easy.

One of my most gifted students is a girl named Vicki. She raises her hand.

“Yes.”

“I’ll never believe “The Red Wheelbarrow” is any good.”

“I’m not surprised. Why do you say that?”

“Just because a professor somewhere says that there are all these great things about that poem doesn’t mean they are really there. He’s just educated himself so much he has to see things like that. It’s not that they are actually there. He simply needs to see them to feel smart.”

“You don’t think it’s possible that it’s a great poem, and you simply refuse to get to the place you can see it’s greatness by learning about poetry?”

She laughs at me. “It’s not a good poem.”

Of course, we’re both right on this one.

I could bring a brick into the classroom and most of my students would see nothing, but a historian of engineering would see the whole history of human advancement.

A glass of milk is the entirety of human dominance of the planet. A pencil is the triumph of technology. A button all of industry. And so on…

Did Williams see all of the human conquest of the world in that red wheelbarrow? Did he see our place in the world, and the world we have made? Or do readers and lovers of poetry stand in front of the wheelbarrow and say profound things so that there will always be books on poetry, and teachers teaching the mysteries of literature to the uninitiated?

What I want Vicki to see is that squirrels don’t think on such things. They see the red wheelbarrow as a thing. We see it as a piece of the puzzle of significance, and yes, there is something about human beings that wants to find the significance within the wheelbarrow and the button and the glass of milk.

Are we making up what is not there, or are we fulfilling our destiny and our created purpose by finding what is there, what should be there, and what can be there? Are the thoughts of literature teachers about poems describing red wheelbarrows so much dust in the wind, or are we exploring what it means to be made in the image of a God who made the world and made us in His image?

It will never be my favorite poem. Minimalism seems to tempt the trap door that Vicki is pointing at. Nonetheless, I see what Williams was doing in this and so many of his other poems. The evidences of our humanity are simple. They speak for themselves in their simplicity, and it is the calling of the poet to see, to listen, to stop, to speak.

And it is our duty to ask if anything- or everything has been said.

So in the beginning was the Word…..and the Word became flesh…and his own received him not.

God sent a Word, and we weren’t ready to hear the ultimate simplicity and clarity. There was, we say, nothing there.

Perhaps everything was there, if we were listening with the ears of poets.

Comments

  1. What a great piece of writing this is!!

    –> “Of course, we’re both right on this one.”

    This. This needs to be more people’s realization, that No, not everything is “I’m right and you’re wrong,” but that we are both right, just with philosophical differences.

    • …or we’re both wrong. 😉

      • maybe it’s the freedom to express ourselves that matters more than being ‘right’ OR ‘wrong’

        when that freedom is gone . . . . . . .

      • I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, especially when I’m one of the people involved…LOL.

    • I love this poem, and I love William Carlos Williams work in general. I’m very glad that his poetry was introduced to me in those anthologies I read as a high school student, and then later on as an undergraduate in college by exposure to his more extensive body of work in classrooms and workshops. But I think there is another issue here than whether or not everything needs to be an either/or. That issue revolves around the authority of the literary establishment and educators who include this poem, as well as others by Williams and many other poets, in the anthologies and present it in the classroom as a great poem. The issue is: do they have any more authority to do so than Spencer’s student, other than that they can; do their opinions, and the opinion of the consensus of the literary critical establishment, have any more weight than anyone else’s, other than the weight that comes with having been able to wrangle a professional position that confers the ability to include rather than exclude the poem in the anthologies and classrooms? Do they know what they’re talking about when they say this is a great poem, and this is a great poet, or is it all just their opinion, which is no better than the opinions of their students or anyone else? Because if it’s all just equally valid opinion, then they are playing a big con game, and have no more right to include some and exclude others than anyone else, apart from their power to do so. Transfer this same issue to the matter of religion, say the Bible and its interpretation and evaluation by experts and authorities of every kind, and you see how important this question is.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > The issue is: do they have any more authority to do so than Spencer’s student

        Or that of the squirrels (squirrels don’t think on such things); both the squirrels and the professors end the same way. 🙂

        > or is it all just their opinion, … all just equally valid opinion

        Yep. An opinion is not an opinion; there really isn’t an equality. Not that this recognition helps simplify things.

        It is also a lot about to ask young people to grasp. The depth of see-ing isn’t something they are likely to have yet experienced; or how beautiful or lonely deep see-ing can be. And if you try to explain deep see-ing to them it will likely sound arrogant. But deep see-ing is something that comes with time, experience, and study (no magic) – so rarenes sin the young is to be expected.

      • Your questions are very important, Robert. It used to be – long before you and I were in school – that public education, particularly a Liberal Arts education, was seen as the means to be able to learn how to **meaningfully** answer your questions, or at least consider them. Education today is all about Getting A Job (economics) and/or directions on being virtuous as defined by partisan spokespeople (politics).

        I’m not sure your questions would even be allowed in many Liberal Arts academic settings these days.

        Dana

        • so many questions
          have gone unanswered
          yet the years are full

        • The idea of the legitimacy of a canon of literature, or Western literature, has been dismantled in modern and postmodern literary theory. I understand the reasons why this has happened, and partially agree with them, but since nature abhors a vacuum, something must take the old canon’s place, and to a degree something already has. But the representatives of the newly forming canon don’t seem to acknowledge its existence, nor do they seem to want to own up to their part in forming it. Perhaps that is because they are at least unconsciously aware of how easy it would be for the tools that were used to dismantle the old canon to be turned on them.

  2. I think it’s a lovely poem, myself – insightful and showing a human being opening himself up to really *see.*

    It probably helps to have done some reading of haiku and other sorts of Japanese poetry, as that was one of Williams’ jumping-off points.

    But really, there’s more than room enough in the world for a multplicity of opinions. The thing is, we can argue those so vigorously that we don’t do what the poem is urging us to do: to stop, to actually hear, to truly see. The mundane is often transfigured when we stop doing and choose to *be* for a while.

    (Note: if you’re unfamiliar with Will8ams’ poem about plums, id encourage you to do some Googling and then just take it in. A whole world can open up to us in this kind of poetry, as both readers and writers and just plain “be-ers.”

  3. Iain Lovejoy says

    I’m not sure you necessarily need to have some great knowledge of poetry to think it’s a great poem: I don’t have, and I do think this. I think knowledge of poetry would mean I knew better how and why it does what it does, and see things I now don’t, but I don’t think it’s necessary to get the gist of it. I am, a bit, with Vicki on one thing: if a poem can’t convey what it’s intended to convey without copious notes and author’s statements, that is a weakness in the poem.
    Another problem with understanding the poem (unless, of course I have completely misunderstood it myself) may be that it seeks to call to mind that sudden sense of importance in everyday things and an everyday moment which I am not sure everyone has in fact experienced: it merely calls to mind or invokes rather than attempts to explain or describe it, so to someone unfamiliar with this experience, the poem is necessarily meaningless.
    If it were me trying to explain the poem, I would start by identifying who was familiar with the event described, before diving to analysis of how the poem goes about describing it.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > so to someone unfamiliar with this experience…

      This. Why I suspect so much poetry fails on the young. Give them time.

      > if a poem can’t convey what it’s intended to convey without copious notes
      > and author’s statements, that is a weakness in the poem

      Tue a point. As the distance between the reader and the author – chronologically, culturally, etc… – grows having to supply more context is reasonable. See the interpretation of Scripture. 🙂

  4. Michael was into poetry? I didn’t know.

    He also touched on symbolism, typology, the wheelbarrow having more significance than meets the eye. The Cross representing God’s love and our salvation; every tree representing the Cross.

    Any Orthodox folk out there? I’m only just hearing of this stuff.

    I also love Williams’ poem about the plums: forgive me, they were delicious, so sweet and so cold.

    • Michael wrote this:

      “When I was twelve years old, my father bought a small aluminum boat, just enough for two people to use for fishing in the local lakes. He put it in our backyard. It had a tiny motor that sat in our shed. He bought the boat so we could go fishing together, father and son. It was his dream, a father’s dream that I can now relate to as I share ball games and movies with my own son.

      The boat never took us fishing. In fact, it never got in the water. It remains there in the back yard, photographed by my memory, waiting for a fishing trip that would never happen. In my tendency to personify objects in my world, I picture that boat as eager and expectant, then confused, and eventually depressed. Its purpose- its joy?- was not to be fulfilled.”

      TED, here is the link to the entire post:
      https://internetmonk.com/archive/imonk-classic-the-boat-in-the-backyard

    • Ted, what I was thinking as I was reading this post is, “I wish I could have been in Michael’s poetry class!” Finn said that we need to mature before we can really understand poetry, and I think he’s right. But beyond that I never had a really good poetry teacher until college, and even then the poetry section was part of a broader survey of literature, so not enough time spent to learn what I needed to. I get poetry better now that I’m older, for sure – but I still have kind of a “tin ear” for it and really need to concentrate, read out loud, etc. Understanding it doesn’t come easily to me, and so I grow impatient and miss some beautiful stuff.

      The other thing I was thinking is, “Michael is sounding SO Orthodox in this!!!” Yeah, that’s St Maximos – macrocosm and microcosm. And this: “…to be able to perceive that subject in such a way that the good, the true and the beautiful can be actualized…” can be an Orthodox explanation of the results of experiencing what being in communion with God entails – both our perception that the good, the true and the beautiful as God himself, and also something that is happening inside us, if we are in any degree seeking to be pure in heart so that we can ***see*** God.

      Dana

    • I replied to you, Ted – stuck in mod. If it doesn’t come through soon I’ll try again.

      Dana

    • So second try, Ted.

      The first thing I thought on reading this was, “I wish I could have taken Michael’s class.” I only had one good poetry teacher, in college in a literature survey class, so not enough time to learn what I needed to learn to understand poetry better. I feel like I have a “tin ear” and have to really work on understanding poetry, and sometimes I get impatient and just skip it, to my detriment.

      The second thing I thought was, “Michael sounds so Orthodox in this piece!” Macrocosm and microcosm – that’s St Maximos the Confessor. Yes, typology – through and through. And this: “to be able to perceive that subject in such a way that the good, the true and the beautiful can be actualized.” Not only apprehending the good, the true and the beautiful as God, but also the actualization of communion with God through that experience.

      I think I said it better the first time. Maybe it will show up…

      Dana

  5. There are opinions in the west about a faith that has evolved out of the belief in enchantment that it had in youth. This enchanted belief is still the opinion in the east and south. The former is more educated, leaves room for doubt, is the experience of many, has been called progressive. The later is more supernatural and miraculous, doesn’t doubt faith so much as it does authorities, is the experience of many, is often called fundamental.
    I’m probably stumbling into what Robert F can say much better than me.

  6. senecagriggs says

    I wonder if Vicki is married

  7. Burro (Mule) says

    If poetry is the communication of emotion via language, then William Carlos Williams’ Red Wheelbarrow is masterful, and Plums is transcendent. William Shakespeare’s Winter also. Wow.

    On the other hand, unpacking unicorns like William Blake or Charles Williams is a hard slog

  8. Up on the hill
    lumberjacks axing everything in sight
    Down along the stream
    crimson flowers burn

    -Chin do ba.

    It is difficult to get the news from poems
    yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.

    ? William Carlos Williams

  9. “The evidences of our humanity are simple. They speak for themselves in their simplicity, and it is the calling of the poet to see, to listen, to stop, to speak.”
    Michael Spencer’s gift of words. A beautiful legacy for the Church.

    across the mists of ancient places, over millenia, the oral traditions of many peoples witness to their existence by use of ‘story’, ‘myth’, ‘saga’, and ‘legend’ . . . . . . a way of saying ‘we were here; we existed’ . . . . language was their medium
    . . . . unlike the silence of ‘La Cueva de Los Manos’ (The Cave of the Hands) in Patagonia Argentina
    wherein only the handprints witness to the existence of an ancient people who once lived and also made their mark, not orally, but silently, on the walls of the cave in hope that it would be known that they, too, once lived

  10. Klasie Kraalogies says

    I think we also confuse personal taste with skill. There is no obligation to love great skill. At the same time, you can love something even though it is not generally admired, without wanting to claim that you are right and everyone else wrong!

    I, for instance can acknowledge Gerald Manley Hopkins or ee cummings as important poets with great skill. But I don’t love their poetry. Personally, Dylan Thomas is much more to my liking. Same with fiction – none of my favourite writers are regarded as great by the academics (at least to my knowledge) – Gaiman, Pratchett, Adams, le Guinn etc. Many admire Hemingway, but I can acknowledge that and say that I can’t stand his writing style. And that is perfectly ok.

    • Klasie Kraalogies says

      The almanac of time

      The almanac of time, hangs in the brain;
      The seasons numbered, by the inward sun,
      The winter years, move in the pit of man;
      His graph is measured as the page of pain
      Shifts to the redwombed pen.

      The calendar of age hangs in the heart,
      A lover’s thought tears down the dated sheet,
      The inch of time’s protracted to a foot
      By youth and age, the mortal state and thought
      Ageing both day and night.

      The word of time lies on the chaptered bone,
      The seed of time is sheltered in the loin:
      The grains of life must seethe beneath the sun,
      The syllables be said and said again:
      Time shall belong to man.
      -Dylan Thomas

    • One of the high points of my junior high years was attending a reading of “Under Milk Wood” in an enclosed garden of an antique hotel on the coast where I grew up. It was dusk and the fog was rolling in – so magical and in the mood of the piece. Although I don’t identify much with Thomas or his poetry, I think there are few things more sublime than simply listening to the music of Thomas’ language read aloud.

      Dana

  11. Ah, poetry. Though some of you might acknowledge that this is a poem, few of you will acknowledge that is it “good.” But nonetheless, here it is…

    A Poem about a Poem
    (R. Rosenkranz, 2006)

    Can I call myself a poet
    When, short of ideas,
    I resort to the cheap trick
    Of writing a poem about a poem;
    If that poem conveys the enormous pleasure
    The intense satisfaction
    That comes from putting words on a page
    Watching them come together
    Form into a body
    Seeing it breathe
    A life created out of nothingness;
    If I can describe how I feel when I write a poem
    How the creation of it
    Gives me just the slightest glimpse of the happiness and joy
    The Master Poet must’ve felt
    When he created the heavens and the earth
    When he grew the plants and the trees
    When he brought forth all living creatures
    Created Adam, then Eve, and each of us
    Knowing the numbers on the hairs of our heads
    When he saw that it was good?

    Am I a poet
    Writing a cheap poem about a poem
    If all of my poems
    Are created in my image;
    If they’re all tiny windows into my soul
    Letting out small slivers of me
    The things I think and believe
    What makes me laugh, what makes me cry,
    What troubles me and what gives me hope?
    Does writing a poem about a poem make me a poet?
    I’d like to think so.

  12. Just for the heck of it–and because some of you enjoy Haiku–here’s another one:

    ————

    Haiku Master
    R. Rosenkranz (2011)

    “Come to your senses,”
    urges the teacher of haiku,
    leaning in, but his breath
    smells of stale bread and his fingers
    upon my shoulder leave sweaty prints;
    so excuse me, my master, for not wanting
    to come to my senses, thank you very much.

  13. Michael wrote this:

    “When I was twelve years old, my father bought a small aluminum boat, just enough for two people to use for fishing in the local lakes. He put it in our backyard. It had a tiny motor that sat in our shed. He bought the boat so we could go fishing together, father and son. It was his dream, a father’s dream that I can now relate to as I share ball games and movies with my own son.

    The boat never took us fishing. In fact, it never got in the water. It remains there in the back yard, photographed by my memory, waiting for a fishing trip that would never happen. In my tendency to personify objects in my world, I picture that boat as eager and expectant, then confused, and eventually depressed. Its purpose- its joy?- was not to be fulfilled.”

    TED, here is the link to the entire post:
    https://internetmonk.com/archive/imonk-classic-the-boat-in-the-backyard

  14. Chaplain Mike,
    when you have time, I’ve got two comments stuck in the hopper. Thanks for help.

  15. I’m unfamiliar with his work but as a musician I am always inclined to reserve a welcome for poetry generally. On the other hand, I am quite suspicious and skeptical of modern art. The red dot on the giant white canvas is insulting. It’s a give-up except for, perhaps, the first person to have the idea, if they were willing to give it away for free. To accept money for “the work” is to rob the blind. The “work” is no work at all and requires no skill or artistry. Sure the idea is cool. Minimalism and spatial relation and our place in a vast universe and so forth and so forth but anyone can come up with cool ideas. I have a ton of them that no one is paying me a dime for. I’m embarrassed for our time and culture when people pay exorbitantly for these unart ideas about art that are skillessly created with seeming anarchistic angst and disdain for the art that actually requires investment from both the artist and the viewer. There are only two things served by such a transaction: the inflated ego of the artist and the equally inflated ego of the buyer. Of course there is no clear dividing line between the utterly absurd and the truly artistic. None at all so it is left to each one to judge. My usual standard is to ask if I could have created the piece. If I could then it’s essentially a bunch of crap because I can’t paint anything but houses.

    • Interesting observations, Chris.

      I liked this point: “There are only two things served by such a transaction: the inflated ego of the artist and the equally inflated ego of the buyer. Of course there is no clear dividing line between the utterly absurd and the truly artistic.”

      As a long-time fan of U2, I remember when I felt the group began drifting toward self-important pretension. This started around the time of Rattle and Hum (1988) and seemed to increase with each successive album (Achtung Baby in ’91 and Zooropa in ’93), reaching its seeming breaking point when they produced Pop in 1997 (and the subsequent tour). When Pop was released, I thought the boys had lost their way and their minds.

      In retrospect, I think what happened is that they REALIZED their drift toward self-important pretension. The whole Pop craziness/pretension/over-indulgence/etc was them purposefully going overboard just to re-orient themselves. In fact, at the time I thought Pop was their worst album ever (and at the time I worried they had gone over the edge and were never coming back) but now I listen to it and marvel at the depth of the angst and searching that they were going through at the time.

      I think some artists, when they become “famous” and their work goes from “so what” to “EVERYONE WANTS IT,” has to wrestle with that idea. Do they suddenly see themselves as “important” and “everything I do is now IMPORTANT,” or do they remain humble…? Probably not easy for the average person, especially if they’re younger.

      • Hey Rick,
        Very apt comparison. I’m not a part of the visual art world so I can’t speak to the motivations or life journey of individual artists but seen from the outside it’s quite similar to your feelings about U2. It just seems to be askew.

  16. I’m missing Susan from Australia . . . hope she is doing okay

    • You’re right, Christiane. Haven’t heard from her in a bit. Prayers that all is well.

    • Susan Dumbrell says

      Hi Friends,
      I am OK most of the time. A lot of grey patches invade.
      I osculate between hope and despair.
      But my problems are small compared to our farmers.

      John’s favourite activity is finger painting his dinner on the table cloth.
      I am glad I don’t do the nursing home’s washing.
      I limit the time I spend with him to an hour each visit.
      There is nothing to be gained for either of us in extending the visiting time.
      He sleeps most of the time anyway.
      I do not visit every day. I try to go out and lead a ‘normal’ life when I can.

      Our town is on Level 5 water restrictions which equates to minimal use.
      Some towns are having water carried in in tankers every day.
      This water is nasty to taste so people are buying large containers of drinking water.

      I will not plant my vegetable garden this year. Just a couple of tomato plants in pots near the back door.
      Watering gardens is by bucket one hour on Sunday evening. I pity the farmers who have had up to seven years without an income.

      • Christiane says

        Hello Susan,

        your country’s drought sounds like it is of biblical proportions . . . . Australia has had so many challenges from nature lately

        I wish I could share some of our veg with you, but your tomatoes will help, yes. I think a part of why Australia was so dear to my father is that its people were strong from many trials, and remained decent people after everything they endured. I wish it were better for you and for your country. We also are in the middle of a crisis, but that seems to pale against what is happening to the whole Earth from the ravages of climate change.

        Stay in touch. When we don’t hear from you for a while, we grow worried. You have our prayers, and our best wishes for better times to come. May God bless you and John and sustain you in strength during these many difficulties.

  17. here’s a poem set on a corner in canada’s greatest city — hamilton — near where the studebaker factory used to be Breeze: Corner of Barton And Emerald

    You can stick your head out the back and smell

    the decades of iron alloy, rolled or in slabs, that

    fathers and sons gave their lives to. steel can be

    cruel. now it’s gone, to plastics and to china.

    i want to believe in what’s left of the trees. johns

    cruise by the girls lounging on the steps of iglesia

    pentecostal hispana. tomorrow’s good friday. the

    breeze is warm, a gift from the big-hearted tropics.

    i’m buzzing, everything’s in motion, a chip bag

    rises, hovers, falls. trevor says turn up the bass.

    ifrah misses her dad, he died before they could

    patch things up. she begs forgiveness of his ghost

    when she’s wired and waiting for the last bus home.

    humans crave the light and settle for so much less.

    come wind! come rain! wash it all away. taste it

    and see: the heart of the world mends by breaking.

  18. a garbage truck
    rumbles the morning
    the alarm clock demurs