On “The Red Wheelbarrow”

Williams’ use of imaginary translation, both into visual imagery and from Spanish, appears to account for his creation of “The Red Wheelbarrow” (CPI 224). Originally published in Spring and All (1925), this poem shares images with “Brilliant Sad Sun,” a poem that Williams placed among “Collected Poems 1954” in The Collected Earlier Poems, but that had actually appeared in The Dial in 1927 (CPI 515) and that whose writing, from the reasoning to follow, actually predates “The Red Wheelbarrow.” As with Williams’ other early poems, “Brilliant Sad Sun” also contains

some painterly techniques, but nothing quite like those in “The Red Wheelbarrow” (the title that by convention has been given to this originally untitled poem). In fact, although published first, “The Red Wheelbarrow” appears to be the result of an experiment in imaginary translation that Williams performed on “Brilliant Sad Sun,” translating it from a narrating representational painting to an abstract minimalist one.

“Brilliant Sad Sun” opens with a visual representation of the signs around an outdoor eatery:

Lee’s
Lunch

Spaghetti                             Oysters
a Specialty                           Clams

(CPI 269)

These contrast with Elena’s nostalgic chatter that prompts her brilliant sad son to ask “what good” is her escaping from sharply defined reality by speaking “thoughts / romantic but true. . . . ” For her benefit, he projects a visual image of her in the third person so she may appreciate its concreteness: “Look! / from a glass pitcher she serves / clear water to the white chickens,” adding “What are your memories / beside that purity?” But his mother, the empty pitcher “dangling / from her grip,” simply continues talking about old memories she has kept alive for years, set in France and Puerto Rico:

her coarse voice croaks
Bonjor’

And Patti, on her first concert tour
sang at your house in Mayaguez
and your brother was there

(CPI 270)

So much of what was important to Williams depended on Elena, and she poured out her vitality in nostalgia to escape his reality as an American and an artist. But Bill accepts her doing this as part of a tragic natural order, she being Latin and thus romantic by nature. Her pouring water to the chickens imparts a measure of life to him by producing sadness, which yields the fruit of another regeneration, the poem itself. Thus the poem celebrates the pathetic fallacy: around them is “Spring!” and from his sadness emerges the brilliant sun/son in the form of Kore.

To arrive at “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Williams translated the relationship between Elena, the poet, and her physical surroundings into visual images. The soul-dead Elena, who held in her hand the empty pitcher from which she had poured out the regenerative vitality of water, is compressed into the idea of something on which so much pende (“hangs”). The original “dangling,” a (suspected) Nordic word that means “hang from,” was thus translated into the parallel Latinate “depends.” The “Spring!” around them and the sustaining image “she serves / clear water” in “Brilliant Sad Sun” are condensed into “rainwater,” and this image is also reinforced by the atmosphere suggested by white chickens walking out in the rain. A melting of the “glass pitcher” into “glazed with rain / water” conserves the shining quality of the original “pitcher.” Eliminated is the circular interaction of metaphors in the first poem: spring, restaurant, winter done to a turn, water, chickens, sadness, regeneration, spring. The new images, no longer metaphors, are the objects that the words paint in the imagination as well as the words themselves: cubist-style, the words “wheel/barrow” and “rain/water” are artificially broken, emphasizing the plasticity of the words, making us conscious of them as visual objects.

But from what element in “Brilliant Sad Sun” did Williams get the “red wheelbarrow”? From an imaginary translation from the Spanish. In Spanish, to know things by heart or to do something by rote can be described by the phrase de carretilla: hacer de carretilla or saber de carretilla. The image evokes carrying around the knowledge using a small cart. Colloquially, one can refer to someone’s habitually prattling on about some- thing as bringing back one’s carretilla. And carretilla also literally denotes “wheelbarrow.” On that afternoon, Rose was prattling nostalgically de carretilla, so the carretilla was Rose’s, la carretilla de Rosa, which homonymously translated also says “the red wheelbarrow.”

In “The Red Wheelbarrow,” therefore, the central image is still a vessel bearing water, spring rainwater that falls on an outdoor setting similar to the suggested one in “Brilliant Sad Sun,” with white chickens. But whereas in the first poem the narrative explains the network of relationships between metaphors, in the second poem the centrality of that semantic chain gives way to a purity of forms and colors. In sharp contrast to the cool, white, softly round chickens, the red wheelbarrow is flaming and angular. By virtue of being cooled and glazed by rainwater, however, it simultaneously belongs beside them. The romanticizing Elena in “Brilliant Sad Sun” was the opposite of the concreteness of the chickens, and yet each was doing what came naturally: “Look! / from a glass pitcher she serves / clear water to the white chickens.” But once the imaginary translation is performed, the language of the new poem produces a distinct poem that is a new “conversation by design,” one whose painted images and arrangement of words broaden the implications of that on which “So much depends.”

Williams, who habitually covers his sources (“But they have no access to my sources” [CPI 67]), of course, nowhere explicitly attests to his performing this translation. And one can argue that “The Red Wheelbarrow” came to Williams not derived directly from “Brilliant Sad Sun” but by the original experience that remained with him so vividly that over time it inspired separate poems with the same imagery. But that argument would leave the poem hollow of important semantic possibilities, flattening the dimensions of the “red wheelbarrow” while disregarding parallel instances of the kind of imaginary translation that produced that image. Such a parallel is found in Williams’ preface to the works of Fernando Puma:

But a vessel to hold water is an objet d’art no matter how crazily you treat it. Whatever you do to it [sic] still remains an “object.”

Merely invoking the great Picasso sufficed to make a case for this kind of translation. But, as observed earlier, in defending Picasso’s quitting painting to capture the same objet d’art in ceramics, Williams was actually defending the acts of imaginary translation that he himself had performed. A closer look at his language in his essay reinforces this contention. His original subject had been Picasso’s transition from painting to ceramics. The “vessel to hold water” was Williams’ imaginary translation of an as yet unstated antecedent, the synecdochic olla (“pot”) image that represents Picasso’s exploration of “ceramics.” But it is Williams who had introduced the pot image and limited its function to that of a vessel intended to hold water. His declaration on how crazily one can treat an object of art is really a non sequitur. One infers from this illogic that Picasso was merely a vehicle that Williams was using to point to his own techniques, that the example foremost in Williams’ mind was a vessel that holds water and which, like the glass pitcher and the rain-glazed wheelbarrow, he did treat crazily.

That the imagination can perform the kind of translation that produced the “red wheelbarrow” from carretilla de Rosa is what makes poetry or art possible. In the picture painted by the poem we witness the power of the imagination at work, understanding by seeing, rather than being told—an example of the purity that the brilliant sad son had attempted to tell Elena to see. This interpretation of Williams’ poem as a paradigm, of course, precedes and is independent of our knowing how the poem came to be. But the evolution of its invention does reaffirm the poem’s being a paradigm of the writing of poems, and gives another reason why “so much depends” on a red wheelbarrow.

Eliminate the previously discussed leap of the imagination that produced the “red wheel / barrow” image and the poem suddenly loses a power it had gained as paradigm, as well as its signature of Williams’ style, the balance of the autobiographical and the aesthetically universal: the “red wheel / barrow” was a tribute to his bloodline twice, first in cryptically evoking Elena on whom so much of his life depended, and ultimately in celebrating his artistic lineage. For the performance of imaginary translation that produced the image was also an application of conceptismo, specifically of the lessons that came to him through a major tributary, from whom he discovered early on how wild comparisons in the imagination can bring tremendous inventiveness to the poem on the page. That mentor was Luis de Gongora, cubism’s prime literary predecessor and one of several Spanish writers through whom Williams claimed Elena’s literary bloodline.

from The Spanish American Roots of William Carlos Williams. Copyright © 1994 by The University of Texas Press.

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