The Chameleon: W. C. Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”

By Alina Mansurova

Study­ing poet­ry at school or at uni­ver­si­ty often seemed bor­ing at best and sense­less at worst. Until last fall semes­ter, it had nev­er occurred to me that some poems could actu­al­ly be woven into my dai­ly life.

14314004752_456206b998_oOne day I was watch­ing the film, The Fault in Our Stars, based on the best­seller of the same name by John Green. The film tells a very emo­tion­al sto­ry of a boy and a girl who both suf­fer from can­cer but still try to enjoy their friend­ship. Actu­al­ly, I was so wor­ried about the fate of these young peo­ple that I had no time to pay atten­tion to any lin­guis­tic pecu­liar­i­ties. But, alas, out of the clear blue sky, I heard two painful­ly famil­iar words – “Red Wheel­bar­row.” Painful­ly famil­iar because my pro­fes­sor had not only used the poem to demon­strate the onset of moder­ni­ty in Amer­i­can lit­er­ary cul­ture but had also actu­al­ly made us cre­ate our own Williams-Car­los-Williams poems. It was unbe­liev­able! Although my pro­fes­sor had point­ed out numer­ous times before that “The Red Wheel­bar­row” is one of the most famous Amer­i­can poems of the 20th cen­tu­ry, I had not real­ly believed her until I heard these words spo­ken in a con­tem­po­rary movie:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

It is a sim­ple but great sen­tence; a sen­tence which in the film encour­ages the pro­tag­o­nist, Hazel Grace (Shai­lene Wood­ley), to make up a few poet­ic lines of her own in order to sup­port and soothe Augus­tus (Ansel Elgo­rt), a teenage boy who suf­fers from can­cer and is in severe pain.

so much depends
upon

a blue sky
cut

open by the
branches

of trees above.

Or – even more fit­ting to the sit­u­a­tion in the book:

so much depends
upon

a trans­par­ent G‑tube
erupting

from the gut
of

the blue-lipped
boy.

It was now that I remem­bered my own poem from my cre­ative writ­ing class:

“Ner­vous”

so much depends
upon

a bad­ly scanned
book

with hard­ly perceptible
pictures

dur­ing very important
exams.

I couldn’t believe I actu­al­ly wrote this. Me – the per­son who prefers read­ing a poem to writ­ing one; the per­son who always watch­es oth­ers from the side­lines rather than par­tic­i­pat­ing her­self. In any case, the inclu­sion of the poem showed me that

so much depends
upon

one poem accidentally
written

while play­ing with
words.

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Ali­na is a grad­u­ate stu­dent at Perm State Uni­ver­si­ty in Rus­sia. She is major­ing in The­o­ret­i­cal and Applied Lin­guis­tics and has just been accept­ed to Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty. In her free time she real­ly enjoys danc­ing Argen­tinean tan­go, learn­ing for­eign lan­guages, trav­el­ing, col­lect­ing post­cards via Post­cross­ing, and learn­ing about Mid­dle East coun­tries and cultures.