Poetry is a mystery to most people, and poems like this one don’t help matters:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

-William Carlos Williams

Nothing happens in this poem. There are no people who might converse about or use the wheelbarrow. There is only the wheelbarrow itself, some chickens, and recent rain. And yet, the poets insist, it’s a great poem. But why?

Its spare landscape is one reason I love it. Williams never tells us if he’s describing a suburban yard, a rural farm or some other place. He lets the objects stand in for the whole, and that is enough. Poems aren’t like essays or stories, which require some kind of closure or conclusion – they’re free to suggest, to evoke emotion without comment and they do so using image and sound. Williams takes this to the extreme. He tells his reader to pay attention, because “so much depends / upon” these three images. Then he delivers them in plain, everyday speech, without the distraction of overtly “poetic” language.

First, “a red wheel / barrow” will call to mind a different association for each reader; even someone who has been a city dweller their entire life will think of outdoor work and, by extension, the person doing that work. For me, it is my grandmother, who was an avid gardener. She used her wheelbarrows until they fell apart.

Second, the wheelbarrow is “glazed with rain/ water” which adds a gleam that would not otherwise be present. The muddiest, most dented garden tools appear renewed when coated with rain. And last, the “white / chickens” offer a contrast, certainly of color, but also because they are alive. Life keeps happening, even when the gardener has put down his or her tools.

Taken together, these spare details evoke a sense of calm in me. That emotion has meaning, aside from whatever more traditional meanings might be found in the words themselves.

by Jennifer Tappenden, special to The Current

Jennifer Tappenden is currently Poet Laureate of the University of Missouri – St. Louis, where she is an MFA candidate in poetry. She is also the founding editor of Architrave Press and a full time Research Data Manager at Washington University School of Medicine. Her poem “The Tooth Collector,” published by Slipstream, was nominated in 2011 for a Pushcart Prize. Other poems have appeared online at Stirring, in print in The MacGuffin, Cape Rock, Limestone, Bad Shoeand elsewhere.