Like most famous phrases, William Carlos Williams’ admonition, “No ideas but in things” suffers from its simplicity.
It’s easy to imagine Dr. Williams answering endless hands in a press conference—what “things” particularly, what he meant by “ideas,” whether it was the act of describing or the things described that produced meaning—until he charges from the room sorry he’d said anything at all.
Or maybe Williams was being sly, knowing we’d plow through things to get at ideas, applying new ideas of our own along the way.
My first exposure to Williams came when my freshman composition teacher in college assigned a 500-word essay on “The Red Wheelbarrow,” which I’ve now memorized:
So much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
500 is a small to me now. I’ve heard enough about the poem to sneeze 500 words, but when I tell my current students about the assignment they have the same reaction I did—two pages on THAT?
When I teach “The Red Wheelbarrow” to a class, I can tease out the structural regularities of this seemingly simple poem—its organization as one sentence, the consistent word count for each stanza (3-1), the syllabic structure (4-2, 3-2, 3-2, 4-2), the enjambment of every stanza, and the regular iambic meter (unstressed, stressed) that flickers in and out as the poem proceeds. Somebody is in control. The poem isn’t accidental or sloppy.
They uncover patterns and violations of patterns readily enough, but those discoveries don’t make this poem art. The things—in this case, the red wheelbarrow and its peripherals—are so mundane. Technical control, by itself, won’t overcome skepticism. It is a poem, a few members of the class will admit, but it’s a poem about nothing.
When I point out Williams didn’t think so—that, in fact, the only lines about meaning, “So much depends / upon,” suggest otherwise—they reluctantly search for why these things could be so critical.
Williams might have laughed at our technical analysis. He claimed in a radio interview that he wrote the poem “unconsciously” and thought about its meaning only later. His only technical impulse, he contended, was to put sensation in a “clean” form a reader could readily absorb.
In answer to “So much depends / upon,” the class finds basics: red, clear, and white…or a tool, weather, and a food source. For a farmer, some surmise, tools, precipitation, and livestock are important. Or all these visual things—the wheelbarrow is still, the rain has already fallen, the chickens are uncharacteristically silent—emphasize sight as the primary sense. Still, for many students, these are desperate readings, trying to create sense. These “interpretations” reinforce their vision of Williams as a con man, goofing on us by asking us to make something of nothing.
Quite rightly, a member of my class always points out that we supplied the farmer, not Williams, and that, while the poem is all sight, he actually says nothing to help us know whether that’s important. We decide it is. So much depends upon us, not the objects of the poem, the poem, or the poet. Williams has it backwards.
Yet, oddly, it’s my students’ objections that convince me of Williams’ genius and the genius of “No ideas but in things.” He—with the slightest help from me—makes them seekers. Those few and simple and defiant things give rise to a host of ideas, speculations, and heady sense-making. I wonder if, without that red wet wheelbarrow and those virginal silent chickens, they would exercise their eyes and brains so vigorously. Something more complicated and less goofy might not provoke them so.
If students respect the poem—and I’d guess converts run about 37%—they start to see it as a still life not ultimately about things but how things and ideas are inexorably linked.
“The theory is,” William Carlos Williams said in an interview, “that you can make a poem out of anything…you don’t have to have conventionally poetic material. Anything that is felt, and is felt deeply, or deeply enough, or even just gives amusement is material for art.”
Robert Coles says Williams, “Insists on the particular, the concrete, the palpable, that which is there…shunning the blandishments of an abstract kind of mind that is all too proud of itself and all too unwilling to keep itself connected to and rooted in life’s everydayness.”
Yes and no. Williams begins in particularity—in things—but his amusing little pictures, even when they seem aloof and unemotional, lead naturally to big ideas. Poetry is typically lyrical (centered in language and ideas) or narrative (centered in story), and much of Williams’ work seems to fit in the lyrical camp. However, often the narrative in Williams’ poems is the moment of perception. The poems coerce readers to reexamine common things and the way we look at them in the first place.
Mystery calls stories forth.
Critics sometimes call William Carlos Williams’ poetry “revolutionary,” but I can’t speak to the wider influence of his approach. I can attest, however, to the liberating effect he has on me. If something makes the world new, it can be poetry. Any subject—even chickens and a wheelbarrow—can remind us we’re alive.