Illumination of The Red Wheelbarrow


Small sketch of a red wheelbarrow

I selected “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. I selected this poem simply because it has always been one of my favorites, and it’s always the first thing that comes into my mind when I think of an archetypical poem. The language of the poem is in the imagist style, and the short text of the poem calls up two distinct images, the wheelbarrow, and the chickens. This interacts well with an illumination exercise because most illuminations recall one image from the narrative and display it for the benefit of the reader. A text about Jesus would probably feature an image of Jesus.

The choices I had when illuminating this poem were few. There is little room for interpretation in the poem I chose. It seems as though the drawing on the page should reflect the content of the text. In the case of “The Red Wheelbarrow” this limits the range of drawings. I could’ve added context, by having a worker push the wheelbarrow, or added chickens for a more complete representation of the text, but in the end, a simple drawing of a wheelbarrow won out because I feel it fits more with the text.

A simple drawing fits a simple poem. As well, simply representing the wheelbarrow on the page adds to the meaning of the original poem. This functions differently in my poem than it would in most other poems, because “The Red Wheelbarrow” is a poem about the images in poems. This isn’t why I selected this poem, but once I realized we would be drawing pictures to accompany our poems, it dawned that I had chosen the perfect poem. What better poem to draw on, than one directly about images? There are a few ways for the picture to interact with the text. The first is that the image reproduces your mind’s eye when you read the poem. The image that you naturally create in your head is already on the page, increasing your immersion in the poem. Another possibility is that someone without a literary background reads the poem, and they just see a short poem about farm stuff, and they don’t see the genius behind William’s imagism. Maybe, if they saw pictures next to the poem, it would get them thinking about how the poem creates an image in your head, and they would be just a little bit closer to understanding the postmodern theory behind the poem.

This exercise has increased the complexity of my understanding when it comes to how text and images correspond with one another. Each piece of writing would present its own unique challenges. How would you illuminate the nature landscapes of Frost? Or take, for instance, a poet like E.E. Cummings. Illuminating one of his poems would be a nightmarish task, because of how he manipulates the text in his poems to create images out of the text. Illumination can help make a poem clearer, but it can also complicate the existing content of a piece of writing.


One thought on “Illumination of The Red Wheelbarrow

  1. This is an interesting choice for a poem to illuminate, especially given Williams’ emphasis in the poem on the “thing itself.” I appreciate your comments about the limits of imagistic interpretation, but I also wonder if an image could address what I see as the most provocative phrase in the poem: “So much depends . . . ” What exactly depends? Our food supply? Our workforce? I could imagine an artist could try to represent the things that depend on the red wheelbarrow.

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