“so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
chickens” –Wiliam Carlos Williams–
What a simple stark image. Williams is a straight shooter, and that’s something I love about him. My students heard two of his poems this week, and as we discussed what about his poetry resonated with people, we came to the conclusion that perhaps it was the simplicity. He is simply conveying an assertive observation about a wheelbarrow sitting out in the yard next to some chickens. I reminded the students about Billy Collins’ poem “Introduction to Poetry” where he says that all students want to do is “tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.” Not only that, the students “begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.” Whoa. I don’t want to be teacher to those students. I don’t want my students believing that beating poetry is what they’re supposed to do. I don’t want any human believing that.
As a teacher and as a human, I have to remind myself that the simple things can mean just as much (if not more) than the depth and elusiveness of mystery. Mystery is fun at times. But simplicity? It’s the refreshing, cool (unflavored and not even carbonated) water of life. (Though I have to say, I’m quite the fan of seltzer water. When Polar goes on sale — buy one, get one — at Winn Dixie, my husband literally loads up a cart full of cases. Does he get some sidelong glances? Oh, yeah. Does he care? Nope. When he loads them into the back of our Nissan Versa, does the car sag? Yes. Man, I love my husband.)
Funny to think that at the time Williams wrote this poem (in the 1920’s), his simple, stark style broke the “rules” of poetry. Williams as a rebel and a rule-breaker? I can get on board with that. As soon as a group of people start thinking “Well this is the only way to write a poem/pen a novel/give a speech/lose weight/find a spouse/be a Christian/be successful/live life,” we’ve got to stop and immediately assess. Williams refused to be a rule-following robot, and so should we.
Poetry gets a bad rap. People think of it as lines of boring, enigmatic text written by erudite-elitists. And some of it is. But some of it? Glittering jewels spilling from a treasure chest on a sandy shore. I agree with Coleridge’s assertion that poetry is “the best words in the best order.” The issue (or beauty, depending on your perspective) is that every human has a different definition of “best.”
One of my all-time favorite poems is one of the simplest. To me, the words are rubies and diamonds and emeralds. To others, maybe not. But at this point in my life I have (finally) learned to be confident in appreciating something even when popular opinion runs contrary. So if you’re a PEE (Poetry Erudite-Elitist), you might not like this one. But I don’t much care.
One day after another–
They all fit.“One Day” Robert Creeley
If anything, you might skim over that quickly and wonder why it would resonate with anyone. I liken this to my admittedly very limited understanding of art. I look at a Jackson Pollock piece and think, “Huh? Am I missing something here?” But perhaps for others, they see it and see chaos and confusion and addiction and emotions colliding together — and they resonate with that.
To me, words are images, so in that way, I appreciate art. In the Creeley poem, each day of life is a puzzle piece connecting to the next, fitting perfectly. How beautiful is that image? We certainly don’t know what life has in store for us, but it’s comforting to know that each day fits perfectly into the next — no matter what you do (or don’t do).
After my students read “The Red Wheelbarrow,” they wrote their own version, starting with Williams’ first stanza (“So much depends / upon”). Every single student wrote a different poem. Every single student had a different opinion on what they greatly depended upon.
Such a simple poem. Such a simple prompt. And yet it produced wildly different poems about subjects ranging from grades to sweet tea to Minecraft gardens.
Might it be that sometimes it’s the simplicity that reveals the complexity?
He said that when he was little
he wanted his house in Heaven to be made out of
Legos and peanut butter.
Because he liked them.
How sweet and simple and profoundly representative of childhood. It is about a boy and his two favorite things. But when I read it as an adult, it’s about the innocence and simplicity of childhood. And I resonate with that.
So while it’s good to have the mystery and depth, it’s necessary to have the simple, the stark, the single puzzle piece. And if you’re a reader? Please don’t be a PEE (also: Prose Erudite-Elitist). Some of my older students sometimes tell me that they don’t read YA literature because it doesn’t have enough literary merit. GAG. They tell me that Rupi Kaur is that Instagram woman who writes a sentence and calls it poetry. The irony here is that their own snobbery is holding them back from being better readers, better writers, and better humans.
Don’t snub the simple. Don’t exalt the turgid. And don’t hate poetry based on what you read in high school. (I’m sorry, by the way, that you had teachers who fed you boring, unrelatable poetry.) If you’re on Instagram, and you’d like to dabble in some modern, simple poetry, here’s a good place to start. And here are some of my favorite poets: Maya Angelou, Pablo Neruda, Ted Kooser, Mary Oliver, Robert Creeley, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, E. E. Cummings, Langston Hughes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Stephen Crane, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Edgar Allen Poe. And if nothing else, wander around a bit on the Poetry Foundation website.
Take a sip of the cool, refreshing water that is simplicity. Let it quench your soul. And remember, you can’t live without it.