Sunday 12 July 2015

What colour is your wheelbarrow?

Karen Creel:
So much depends 
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white 
William Carlos Williams
If you went to school in any English-speaking country you will probably be able to recite this evocative poem by William Carlos Williams. On the strength of these 4x4 = 16 words, I bought a red wheel-barrow for The Beloved last year . . . made, I regret to report, of inferior dark red plastic which cracked within a month under quite normal garden usage. The poem was written, or at least published, in 1923, when Williams was beginning to find his voice as a poet. It, and he, had the misfortune to be published the year after T.S.Eliot unleashed The Waste Land on a world that wasn't really ready for it.  Eliot's conscious intellectualism and his foreign references and language wrong-footed the 'vernacular' American poets like Williams and his plain-speaking contemporary Robert "Two roads in a yellow wood" Frost. You can paint red wheelbarrow on a red wheelbarrow [L] or nail a Frost poem to a tree, for Joe Bloke to appreciate. Eliot needs more work and an education to get to grips with.  The Waste Land, for example, starts off with a quote from the Satyricon of Petronius "Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σίβυλλα τί θέλεις; respondebat illa: ἀποθανεῖν θέλω." to show, from the off, that you the reader are expected to know Latin and Greek . . . the German, French and Italian come later.

I know nothing about Williams really except for a short-handful of his poems, only one of which I can remember reliably. Do you think the poem looks like a stack of wheelbarrows? It doesn't work if you centre the words: then it's more 
depends upon
a green larch tree:
christmas decorations
and a
WCW was born and raised, and indeed died, in Rutherford NJ and worked in the hospital in neighboring Passaic, New Jersey as a doctor in the days when doctors toted their bag through the neighborhoods of their practice. Years later in an interview, he remarked that he wrote red wheelbarrow out of respect and affection for an old black street-huckster called Marshall, whose back-yard housed the entire cast for the poem.

From these sketchy clues, Professor William Logan, of U Florida has dug up the inspiration of this much loved poem as Thaddeus Marshall and identified the house [still-standing at 11 Elm Street] where the wheelbarrow stood and Mr Marshall and the white chickens slept. It took days of poring over and cross-referencing maps and directories and registers. Let nobody claim that the Arts Block does no research!  Prof Logan has identified the entire Marshall kith and kindred, some with death certificates signed by Dr Williams, and written 10,000 words of exposition, explanation and extrapolation from the spare no-more-no-less "That is All" words originally crafted by the poet. Are we richer for all that context and explanation?  Possibly.  Can we still enjoy the poem on its own and for its intrinsic merit? Certainly!  And because of the whoo-har, Mr Marshall, who died in 1930, has now gotten a new and respectful gravestone.  His rellies are surprised and delighted.


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