[(essay date fall 2004) In the following essay, Mohr argues that the images presented in two of Williams's most anthologized poems--"The Red Wheelbarrow" and "Poem"--are significantly more complicated than many critics have acknowledged.]
The image is a seen thing. The symbol is a thought thing. The symbol, when received by the reader, must be re-thought, understood, the image be re-seen, & the emotional impact received from the envisionment is what is sought by the poet. Stuart Perkoff, Unpublished journal entry, March, 19571
"The Red Wheelbarrow" (CP [The Collected Poems]1 224) and "Poem" ("As the cat / climbed over" CP1 352) are perhaps two of William Carlos Williams's most anthologized poems, and even as new areas of social critique and cultural investigation have expanded literature's scope, the familiarity of these poems enables critics to invoke them as immediate points of common reference. Mark Long, for example, begins an essay on the relationship between poetry and the rapidly developing field of ecocriticism, by citing "the indelible image" of "The Red Wheelbarrow" as the way that most readers first encounter Williams (58). Pointing to "the qualities sustained in the image" as the ostensible explanation for how this poem has developed an iconic status, Long quotes the last four lines of the poem:
glazed with rain water beside the white chickens
But Long assumes that everyone knows what these qualities are, and in keeping the category singular--"the image"--reaffirms the apparent precision and stability of the poem.2 Long has considerable company in those who agree that "the image" of these lines is a fixed entity, even as they decry it as puzzling. Cleanth Brooks, for instance, argues against both the form and the content of "The Red Wheelbarrow" as arbitrary.
Reading the poem is like peering at some ordinary object through a pin prick in a piece of cardboard. The fact that the pin prick frames it arbitrarily endows it with a puzzling, and exciting, freshness that seems to hover on the verge of revelation. And that is what the poem is actually about: "so much depends"--but what we do not know.(173-74)
In equating the poem with a child's self-constructed, disposable toy, Brooks takes a not-so-sly swipe at Williams, and makes it appear as though the contraction of vision provides unimpeded contact with what we are supposed to be looking at. Indeed, critics do tend to react to the poem as though the alleged arbitrariness were a magnifying device placed in front of a tiny hole in cardboard. Carl Dennis describes the image as though Williams were Charles Weston with a telephoto lens.
[T]he objective second half suggests that value does not come from the symbolic overtones the poet imparts to an object but from our openness to literal context, though this context is accidental (beaded with raindrops and beside white chickens) and momentary (lasting only until the drops evaporate and the chickens move).(48)
The shift from glazed to beaded as an intrinsic part of the "arbitrary" or "accidental" image seems to...