“So much depends
a red wheel
William Carlos Williams, “The Red Wheelbarrow” from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume 1909-1939 (New Directions Publishing Company, 1938).
I have always been struck by this famous short poem of William Carlos Williams. It is a poem that describes a common pastoral scene of a rain-drenched red wheelbarrow beside white chickens. What does it mean to say that “so much depends” upon it? Why does it matter? Read the poem, think about it, and read it once again.
The poem is a written version of a realist still-life painting. When confronted by a still-life painting, people usually do not ask why an artist chose a particular species of flowers in the painting or why the artist chose to portray the food, cutlery, or porcelain at a rich patron’s table. Yet when some people I know, read this poem for the first time they balk at it. What? Huh? What is that about, they ask?
This verbal painting juxtaposes a product manufactured by human beings, namely the wheelbarrow, with part of our natural world, the chickens. It is a scene without the farmer who, if the wheelbarrow were not covered with rainwater, might otherwise be working with it. While human beings are absent from the scene, the white chickens wander as they search for food. This is a scene that no doubt could be spotted in many a farm or rural setting. The sheer ordinariness of the poem is perhaps why it is so unsettling for some to read.
Williams Carlos Williams (1883-1963) maintained a lifelong medical practice in Rutherford, New Jersey. He published his poetry celebrating everyday American life mostly as an avocation. He could write a poem about the contents of your refrigerator that you no doubt would appreciate if you opened yourself up to the possibility. In all its simplicity, this poem is skillfully constructed. This poem, I would argue, is as much “a work of art” as any painted still-life is.
Most of our lives are quite ordinary. We spend the majority of our days on the earth doing simple things of which we and others take little note. What we ate last month for dinner and the errands we long ago completed are for the most part already forgotten. Everyday life, we can readily admit, is for the most part quite boring. Sure, there are highlights to every week, month, and year. Yet we will spend ninety-five percent of our lives engaged in ordinary and non-eventful tasks. It is here in the midst of that ninety-five percent of our mortal lives that we too need to find God, or at least leave some space for God to find us.
This poem of Williams directs the eyes of our imaginations to a simple everyday scene that at the same time points to a world of wonder and excitement. “So much depends” on such a simple scene because these simple scenes, tasks, and everyday events make up our lives. It is here and not in some bodiless, “spiritual” realm that we must look for the signs of God’s presence and activity.
Pay attention to the simple everyday things that you do. There in the midst of your everyday busy lives, you will find God. So much depends on that.