“The Red Wheelbarrow” – such beautifully ordinary nouns

You can find the poem here.

I’ve just heard Ruth Padel’s broadcast of the Wordsworth Trust poetry workshop meeting on Radio 4. She talked about the importance of line breaks and used William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheel Barrow” to illustrate how unexpected they could be. What strikes me is how much emphasis these breaks throw on nouns. Three of the four breaks within stanzas come between nouns and their modifiers. Cumulatively this is highly unnatural. Moreover, it leaves each noun forming a one-word line poised on the edge of the gap between stanzas – a gap that itself seems huge in proportion to the space taken by the words it separates. This throws an extreme emphasis on those three nouns, but that’s not all. Two of the modifiers are themselves words we’d most commonly find as nouns, though they’re being used adjectivally here – “wheel” and “rain”. The effect is to emphasise how much what we see in the poem is made up of things being brought together.

As Padel pointed out, this is a highly patterned poem. She talked about the stresses (two to each first line, one to each second). In terms of words, there’s a pattern of three words to each first line, with one to each second line (and all the second lines are two syllables). And there’s that emphasis on nouns that I’ve mentioned. So it’s a highly artful poem, but what it talks about couldn’t be more ordinary. This leads to another beauty – the triumphant way it courts and overcomes bathos. Each stanza builds up to and emphasises its final word, but each final word is and refers to something almost startlingly ordinary. Somehow instead of these things seeming anticlimactic, the poem makes them glow. They arrive with a kind of modest, witty triumph in their sheer expectedness and rightness, as if saying “Ha! you thought you were in for a conjuring trick but I’m just showing you what actually is.”

I hope I’m allowed to quote from the Guardian article in which Padel talks about the effect of line endings. Her point isn’t unusual in itself, but the fineness with which she expresses it is:

“Poems are sound: the “ear” is crucial. But you need the eye too. Readers take in a poem through a delicate triangulation of ear, brain and eye. The white space around words on a page is visual silence. It shapes the poem like barometric pressure, or like a musical pause” (Ruth Padel, “Deconstructing Poetry on the Radio”, The Guardian, Friday 2 November).

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