White chickens

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.


I have loved this poem by William Carlos Williams since I first encountered it, long, long ago, in my teenage years. (Thank you to Ms. Bullock, my patient English teacher who introduced it to me in a creative writing course.)

In “The Hazard of Modern Poetry,” Erich Heller wrote about the challenge writers face in a culture where there is no common idiom, no shared symbolism, by which they might convey meaning intelligibly. In such a world, it’s a special treasure to recognize a moment of real communication when an experience of shared meaning through art takes place. I recall an instance of this, when my mentor, Marilyn, with joyous glee, once recited the entirety of Williams’ poem at my mere mention of “white chickens.” Of course, it’s a wiser or more courteous practice to avoid making allusions that are mere speaking in tongues, without an interpretation being present, but yesterday I forgot and blurted out something about how such and such might happen depending on the white chickens.

Oops. I had no intention to speak without edification. But thankfully, as it turned out, I then had the pleasure of sharing the poem, and then interpreting it with words that went something like this:

I have always loved that poem for the way it implies that everything depends on small ordinary things that might not even be noticed. So, yes, weather, but also a whole number of factors that we do not even know and cannot foresee. So my reference to “white chickens” could simply have been stated as “other unknown factors.”

I have also loved the poem for how its form reinforces its content. The line breaks cause me to slow down. In much of life, I just plow through as fast as I can. When reading a newspaper or website, I can adopt the same tendency to just skim for the gist or to read simply for bits of information. Each line break in the poem shouts a firm caution against that. The slower pace the line breaks prompt, repetitively, reinforces the call of the poem to attend to the ordinary, to the significance of the small things that are often overlooked, i.e., the red wheelbarrow and the white chickens.

We need poetry for many reasons. For me, this poem will always exemplify several of them. If Heller is right, it is not merely poetry that we hazard, but our very lives. So much depends…

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One Response to White chickens

  1. Tim Shipman says:

    Love this picture that the poem represents for me. “stop and smell the roses” and “taste that I am Good”. Thanks for the simple.

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