Breaking The Parametr In Red Wheelbarrow: Analysis

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The most conspicuous element of modernist poetry is the invention and experimentation of new forms of representation. It featured movements such as imagism and symbolism and moved consciously away from naturalism and realism. Ezra Pound was one of the first to delve into this new and exciting genre of poetry, founding the Imagist group alongside several other poets in 1914 and publishing ‘A Retrospect’, also known as his modernist manifesto, in 1918. From there, it seems, ‘modernist’ poetry seemed to really take off. Pound was really a revolutionary to the genre, with this quote taken from his modern epic Canto 81 (1945), written while held a prisoner of war in the United States Army’s Disciplinary Training Centre in Italy for his Fascist views. This new genre really came to light following the first World War, and so in this essay I will be discussing William Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ (1923) and Robert Graves’ ‘In Broken Images’ (1929) in relation to this upheaval of the standard poetry, and why they thought it to be so innovative.

The form, rhythm and metre of both poems demonstrates a good idea of how both poets wanted to present something more evolved than the standard pentametric poetry that had been used for generations. ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ itself mimics popular Modernist works such as Ezra Pound’s ‘In the Station of the Metro’ (1913) – the four syllable then two syllable stanzas repeated four times lack not only rhythm, but punctuation, meaning that when read out loud it sounds as if someone could be merely making a statement. This, while initially seeming unimportant, actually brings focus on specific details in the poem, such as the colour of the wheelbarrow (‘red’) and the colour of the chickens (‘white’); where we could usually be looking for a deeper hidden meaning, what Williams could be doing here is demonstrating that really, the individual objects alone are important. This could therefore be representative of how the soldiers were treated in the war – thought of as a unit rather than individual men, and therefore the concept of such a number of men dying was mourned more than their individual selves. This poem presents one still image with specific detailing, rather than a glorification of the concept of what a wheelbarrow could suggest.

‘In Broken Images’ differs to purely Imagism as it does not even include imagery per se – Graves is still classed as a modern poet, however, due to his different style to the pentameter. This poem in particular could be considered a mockery of the elitism of the nation following the war, due to the fact of how Graves himself was on the frontline and even pronounced dead in the newspapers following a near fatal bullet wound. This event alone would have been traumatic, and the essence of the poem mimics the title as it seems to feel ‘broken’ at the end following the differentiation of the final two lines (‘understanding’, ‘confusion’), where throughout the rest of the poem the lines always end in the same word. This breaks the regularity of the poem and could throw the reader off but should be seen as a representation of how his experiences in the war shaped him to be a more cautious person, as opposed to anyone who had not seen what he had, and consequently goes through life in naivety. Graves believed that real poetry incorporated the traditional and the radical, meaning that his perception of ‘modern’ was slightly different to that of Pound, although ultimately what they both had in common was feeling the need to revamp poetry into a new age.

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The use of language and themes is also prevalent in Williams’ and Graves’ work. Where Williams’ poem features the relationship between imagination and reality with a heavy focus on imagism, Graves’ seems to be more geared towards the mind and metaphors, something Pound outwardly expressed his distaste for. However, both poems stem from the succession of World War One and hence are similar in their overall content. ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ is physically fragmented – Williams uses the white space consciously in order to make the poem read in a certain way. The enjambment between ‘wheel’ and ‘barrow’, for example, makes it so that there seems to be an unnatural pause between the word. It’s not that the line breaks make a simple sentence look more poetic, it’s that the line breaks are actually essential to what makes this poem work. There’s the acute contrast between red and white, as well as the positioning of the chickens, whose movements would be unpredictable and chaotic compared to the wheelbarrow – apparatus meant to be on the move, but which is sitting unused. There’s the warmth of the living birds compared to the cold, wet, metal, and there’s the notable absence of human life in the scene. A farmer’s livelihood depends on his animals, his tools, and especially the rain, so seeing those elements separated from him seems almost incomplete, like the physicality of this poem. This could be referential of Williams’ day profession of a doctor, as he was known for writing his poems on scraps of paper late at night, successfully making poetry out of the mundane.

Graves’ poem seems such darker than Williams’, as there seems to be a heavy separation between the narrator and the second man throughout the entirety of the poem, with the narrator acknowledging his own trauma compared to someone with a much more confident sense of self. Here, Graves uses the juxtaposition of adjectives such as ‘sharp’, ‘dull’, ‘quick’ and ‘slow’ in order to truly present how different these men are. The poem carries a definite morose tone throughout, with the concluding enlightenment of the narrator becoming self-aware of his own images compared to the second man’s realisation of his actual lack of awareness. We could relate this to a number of things, such as his time as a solider shaping him into becoming a more cautious person when presented with life experience. However, it could also be likely that this poem may be about Graves himself. It is wide known now that Graves was a homosexual and bullied relentlessly in school; he broke contact with one of his male friends as he wanted to put ‘religion and his chances of salvation before human love’, and despite having a relationship with a man while he served in France during 1915 and 1916, he later became vehemently homophobic – in a letter written about Wilfred Owen, Graves describes Owen’s ‘passive homosexual streak’ as ‘disgusting’. This apparent denial of his own sexuality could be mirrored in this poem due to how he must have had to tread carefully in such a heteronormative, child centred world of the time. Graves may have felt he could not fit in to the ideals of the patriarchal society and his break away from the pentameter reflects that.

Both poems also utilise imagery and metaphor through the selected poems, which could be expected of the era of Imagism. The tenets of Imagism and Modernism feature the must of saying no more than is absolutely necessary in order to get the point across – Williams once stated that ‘no one believe(d) that poetry could exist in its own right’, and so the importance of creating poetry out of the ordinary and unexciting things we take for granted seemed very important in creating a poetic revolution. Modernist poets relied purely on imagery to get their point across, and Williams’ famous quote ‘no ideas but in things’ (‘Paterson’, 1927) became profound in the advancing of poetry as it suggested that ‘things’ are the whole idea, and anything around that is completely unnecessary. The significance of this in Williams’ poem is prevalent as we take into account what specific imagery he has used. The two basic colours on a neutral scene become important as they stand out vividly, but Williams isn’t only trying to make the scene more real – whoever made the wheelbarrow made the choice to paint it red. It doesn’t add to the its use, but it’s aesthetically pleasing, and shows that there is more to the importance of something than simply its primary use. Furthermore, the term ‘water’ following ‘rain’ suggests it is no longer raining – this may seem like an obvious observation, but Williams has done everything consciously in this poem, and we could argue that the final two stanzas almost don’t matter if it is simply the wheelbarrow in which the voice is dependent. Williams focus was on objects over concept, and so the fact that he has continued to talk about the chickens despite so much depending on the wheelbarrow could  

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