An Echo of Whitman.

“The responses have been varied, ranging from indictments to accolades. Poetic responses to Whitman sometimes fall into his cadences and in other ways mimic his style, but many poets have understood, with William Carlos Williams, that the only way to write like Whitman is to write unlike Whitman.”

The above quote from a biography on Walt Whitman by Ed Folsom and Kenneth Price adds to the significance of “The Red Wheelbarrow,” by William Carlos Williams. For years, I have read “The Red Wheelbarrow” in English classes, each time feeling its uselessness more and more. To think of Williams’s poems as part of a conversation with Whitman illuminates even the simplest poems. It certainly rings true that in order to write like Whitman, you have to wander confidently into your own style.

So many times in “Song of Myself” it appears that Whitman is having an internal monologue on stage. His audience is always present, but he caters to his own chain thoughts and his own understanding. The concept of writing like Whitman would be an effort to get inside his head, perhaps an impossible task. After reading Folsom and Price, I realized that by choosing his own form with poise, Williams is related to Whitman.

Here are a few things I noticed that show Williams’ ties to Whitman, yet also reveal Williams’ own personal style:

  1. A quick pace. The rhythm and flexibility of words allows the poem to read quickly, especially when read aloud. This is true for both Whitman and Williams.
  2. Attention to detail. The focus on the wheel barrow, its characteristics, and the objects that are linked to it, is Whitmanian, though Whitman would have given even more detail.
  3. The unique form. Williams has chosen a form and remained consistent, but he is clearly trying to send a message through its novelty. Whitman also uses his form to draw attention to his meaning.
  4. Not connecting the dots. Williams has chosen not to connect the dots and has left the reader to interpret and seek meaning. Whitman often chooses this path also, though sometimes there seems to be a certain distrust of the reader’s interpretation (hence, his occasional use of parenthesis).
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2 Responses to An Echo of Whitman.

  1. AVZ says:

    I often think of imagist poetry (or a poetry of concrete detail, if not associated with the “school”) of imagism, owes something to Whitman’s catalogs. Both were influenced by advances in the relatively new art form of photography. You might check out some of the photos of Alfred Steiglitz, and early modernist photographer very involved in Williams’s artistic milieux.

    Whitman also wrote some very “imagistic” short poems. Here’s “A Farm Picture”:

    THROUGH the ample open door of the peaceful country barn,
    A sunlit pasture field with cattle and horses feeding,
    And haze and vista, and the far horizon fading away.

  2. Olivia James says:

    I’m so glad you posted this. I read “The Red Wheelbarrow” over and over, trying to find some deeper meaning. The more I think about it though, I like the fact that similar to Whitman, he doesn’t connect all the dots and make a clear point or metaphor. It’s more meaningful and memorable when the reader has to seek an interpretation for his/herself.

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