the red wheelbarrow william carlos williams
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
We always hear that cinema or music is dying. They’ve apparently been in their death throes for decades, dead to Bieber fever, Katy Perry-carditis, and the looming shadow of piracy. After all, why pay for music or films when you could get them for free? And if the creators can’t make a living then the art form will, allegedly inevitably, die out. And on that path, the artists scramble to engage audiences with superficial appearances and behaviour, and the music and the film gradually fizzle out to nothing. An ignominious end.
But this hasn’t happened. We can complain all we like about ‘the state of music these days’ and how much better it was ‘back in the day’, though we only ever remember the good songs, but it’s pretty clear that money isn’t the prime motivating factor for artists in Hollywood or Abbey Road (or wherever). If a lack of money stopped people, then other art forms would have died out long ago. Poetry and photography would be ashes scattered into the sea by now, and no one would be able to read them a decent eulogy because the poetry would already be dead.
If you do a quick Google search, as I just did, you can find a helpful site for poetry here, which says this for living off the art form:
Very few poets rely entirely on the proceeds from their work. Journal publication is frequently unpaid, compensated only by additional contributor’s copies, and poetry book advances are modest sums. Most poets, even the most widely published, hold other jobs, such as teaching and journalism.
You can find a lot of poems on the internet, just as you would with music, but there hasn’t exactly been an outcry on copyright as there has been with the more affluent industries — nor am I saying that there necessarily should be one; I’m just saying that poetry looks pretty dead these days. I have to confess that I got a little frustrated recently when I couldn’t find Heaney’s The Summer of Lost Rachel online, nor Larkin’s Unfinished Poem. But why should I? I don’t expect to find my Orwell or my Steinbeck to free, so why should I expect my poetry to be presented to me for nothing?
The truth is, poetry has been significantly devalued as an art form, and I used to be just as guilty of this. I’ve always been the bookish type, but I can’t say I ever really had a significant interest in poetry. There were a few I liked, and I recognised the skill needed to put them together, but I certainly didn’t connect with them in the same way as I did with novels or music or film. It just didn’t seem like poetry had enough detail to be worthwhile. I know a lot of people who share this sentiment, who find poetry far too pretentious (which I feel is in part due to the posh lilt of the word itself) and far too ambiguous to bother with. I commonly hear people objecting with “Well, if they wanted to say something then why didn’t they just say it?”.
It’s only recently that I’ve had a bit of a turnaround on poetry, and I think it’s happened with a greater understanding of what its purpose is. In particular, here’s a quote from T.S. Eliot:
Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.
Part of the distaste held for poetry, I think, is born of memories of stuffy English classrooms, analysing seemingly inconsequential words for an effect that the author probably didn’t intend. But to reduce poetry to a kind of elaborate join-the-dots or word search is to entirely miss the point. I love to analyse poems deeply to understand what makes them (consciously or otherwise) great, but it’s hardly a requirement. That’s what T.S. Eliot is saying, or that’s how it seems to me at least: that the best poetry will move people without having to be broken down into its constitutent parts and dissected into infinitesimal shards.
A poem is an experience — as with all other art forms, but the intensity is heightened by the medium often being so concise and controlled. Reading or hearing a poem is opting into that experience, and contrary to the people who say “write you mean,” I don’t think these experiences could be expressed otherwise. They’re a wisp of an emotion that someone has desperately tried to bottle, with varying levels of success. But if it were easier and more effective to write something along the lines of “Today I felt sad.” then people would; the fact that poetry exists is enough to justify its existence.
As such, the poems that best convey their individual experiences are the best — or that’s how I feel, anyway. I love The Stolen Child by Yeats ["We foot it all the night, / Weaving olden dances / Mingling hands and mingling glances / Till the moon has taken flight"] and Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas ["Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means / Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea."] and Church Going by Philip Larkin ["Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few / Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce / 'Here endeth' much more loudly than I'd meant. / The echoes snigger briefly."]. I love them because they reveal an experience to me.
That’s the beauty of The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams. Sure, it’s a simple poem, but it’s not simplistic. There are still elements of form in there (check the meter: 4,2 / 3,2 / 3,2 / 4,2) and through only a few words it gives us all of the image that we need. Why is it that “so much depends” upon this image? That’s for the audience to speculate. We have the picture of this farm-like scene, but Williams also gives us an analysis of how people respond to poetry. There will be, and I know there have been, people who respond negatively to The Red Wheelbarrow, claiming it’s meaningless and purposeless. I pity those people. It’s like taking a snowflake and saying it doesn’t do anything — if you look at it closely enough, you’ll see that it’s beautiful. And when combined with the blizzard history of other literature, the snowflakes blanket everything. And you can make snowballs out of it and throw them at people you don’t like. I’m not sure how that last bit fits in. Oh well.
This is what poetry is about, at the core of it: a snapshot of someone else’s life; a moment conveyed intensely. I’m glad to have developed enough artistically to recognise this, and now I’m fairly evangelical about poetry. I’ve even done some myself! But we’ll save that for another time (or, more likely, never).
So I had this artistic ‘eureka’ moment sometime last year, and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying it since. But it’s only been in the past few weeks (or past couple of months, really) that I’ve had a similar epiphany about photography, and only recent days that I’ve linked the two art forms.
You could say that the criticisms people apply to poetry are also applied to photography, though the latter is even less on the public mind due to it not being a required topic for GCSE English. Embarrassingly, I used to think photography wasn’t really much of an ‘art form’ — I thought it was pretty much point-and-click, not capturing enough detail to be a true art piece. That was silly of me!
Much in the same way as poetry, photography is the essentialising of an experience, condensing it into a single form. I suppose a camera is a portable eye, really; it’s a portal through which the world can see what the artist sees. That’s the beauty of it. Nothing is quite so immediate, and nothing is quite so quiet as a photograph. It is a painting that is absolutely natural, divorced from any preconceived notion of brush-between-fingers skill level, independent from many of the things that hinder the message of the artist getting to the audience. Not to mention, surrealism becomes even more potent in photography, the contrast between the natural world and what we expect of it being even starker.
These art forms are both snapshots — a more permanent reminder of a fleeting experience, and that’s why they’re worth so much. Read poetry! Listen to poetry! Observe photographs! Support these artists by going to their recitals and buying their work. These forms are so underappreciated, but they are so powerful.
They are so powerful.