John Marsh is Assistant Professor of English at Penn State University and the author of Hog Butchers, Begars, and Busboys: Poverty, Labor, and the Making of Modern American Poetry, available this month from University of Michigan Press.
Let’s start with a quiz. Fill in the blank:
so much depends
glazed with rain
beside the white
If you guessed “a red wheel / barrow,” congratulations, that class you took, that anthology on your shelf, or that Ph.D. you earned has not gone completely to waste. Then again, William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” published in 1922, is hard to forget. Indeed, it has come to epitomize the kind of new poetry written in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century.
In fact, most of the things we associate with modern poetry can be found in Williams’s poem. It is written in free verse. It has a structure—four stanzas with alternating three- and one-word length couplets—but the poem does not rhyme or follow a regular metrical pattern (like iambic pentameter). Like a number of modern poems, too, it offers an image rather than an idea. It shows rather than tells. Although for some readers, I imagine, it could stand to tell a good deal more. Williams does not say why “so much depends / upon” such an ordinary object, and we might be left wondering why this sentence counts as a poem at all. That is to say, among other things, that the poem is difficult, out of the ordinary—another identifying marker of what we think of as modern poetry.
The poem epitomizes modern poetry in another way, though, which is not quite so visible. In 1933, Williams composed a brief note explaining the origins of the poem. “The wheelbarrow in question,” he wrote, “stood outside the window of an old negro’s house on a back street in the suburb where I live. It was pouring rain and there were white chickens walking about. The sight impressed me somehow as about the most important, the most integral that it had ever been my pleasure to gaze upon.” Later, in 1954, Williams recalled that the poem
sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a fisherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. […] I liked that man, and his son Milton almost as much. In his back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.
If we take Williams at his word, then the origins of one of the most famous—if not the most famous—poem in modern American poetry lies in the poet’s encounter with a worker. In all likelihood, too, given the opportunities available to an old Negro in the first half of the twentieth century, a worker living in or on the edge of poverty.
In a new book, Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Bus Boys: Poverty, Labor, and the Making of Modern Poetry, I argue that this exchange between modern poet and the working poor characterizes many—and not just the most famous—modern American poems. Indeed, most of the poets we think of when we think of modern American poetry—not just William Carlos Williams but T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, to name but the most prominent—experimented with writing poems about the poor and working class. The book concludes that modern American poetry looks the way it does, and emerges when it does, because poets began to write about the violent strikes, the widespread poverty, and the other “labor problems” that roiled America in the first decades of the twentieth century.
To be sure, each of the poets I treat had different things to say about workers and the poor and, in their poems, put these figures to different, occasionally even objectionable uses. Williams, for example, as his 1933 introduction to “The Red Wheelbarrow” suggests, found an overlooked though rejuvenating integrity and importance in the working poor. He also took pleasure in the aesthetics of their poverty. By contrast, T.S. Eliot wandered through the slums of Boston and Paris and found in their inhabitants his symbol for what he saw as the mechanical, repetitive, and meaningless existence of modern life. Edna St. Vincent Millay championed bohemian poverty by distinguishing it from the ordinary poverty of New York City circa 1920. As these examples might suggest, the book explores how modern American poets as often as not failed to rise to the ethical challenges posed by widespread poverty and the nearly ubiquitous exploitation of workers. Even Carl Sandburg and Langston Hughes, poets who proclaimed their sympathy toward workers and the poor, occasionally lapse into attitudes or political stances that would not escape criticism.
My larger point, though, is not to cast judgments but to recover the sorts of encounters buried in and behind “The Red Wheelbarrow” and countless other modern poems. For so as long as this story of poets’ encounter with labor and poverty remains untold, our history of modern American poetry—its origins, its effects—will remain fundamentally incomplete. As far as modern poetry goes, it turns out that so much does depend upon red wheelbarrows—and even more on those who pushed them.