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I was an English major, and how anyone can survive that is a miracle. It is only through love that I have survived: love of the language I speak and write, a love that was nearly extirpated by those who explain literature and write the prefaces to anthologies. The experts, that is. 

It was nurtured, however, by many a teacher and professor, who also love the language and its productions. I don’t remember ever having an English teacher who propounded such gobbledygook as the professional explainer class regularly emits. (This, by disclaimer, is a class of which I was once a member, having made my living as a critic.)

I tried my best to write clear prose with understandable ideas, but my fellow guild members too often do the opposite. They can take something so simple and direct, so unimpeachably beautiful and clear, and turn it into a tangled knot of impenetrable theory, catching the flying sparrow in the fine mesh net of academic verbiage. I was, more particularly, an art critic, and I always said that I couldn’t read art criticism, that doing so was like eating an old mattress. 

It is the same for much buncombe written about literature and poetry. Something that should be read for pleasure, understanding or solace turns into a midterm exam, the kind that you have in your recurring dreams when you discover you aren’t wearing any pants. 

I am pretty sure such explainers are cases of arrested development, stuck in the sorrowful stage of the sophomore. The memory of having been once a sophomore myself gives me pause. There was a time when I, like so many other young minds, sought to “decode” a poem, finding the hidden meaning in the symbols therein. As if a poem required an enigma machine to untangle its “true”meaning, found in footnotes at the bottom of the page. 

Is Billy Budd a Christ figure? A victim of patriarchy or capitalist oppression. Perhaps he is a Marxist hero. Maybe, he is just a handsome sailor, like Melville tells us. What we are meant to glean from the story’s reading is inherent in the story itself. 

As Archibald McLeish put it: “A poem must not mean but be.” 

Any good work of literature explains itself, if we are willing to listen, to pay attention and to stay within the work and not require a university seminar to unpack. All this comes to mind because of a short discussion recently about an eight-line poem by William Carlos Williams. And a comment by critic Dave Wolverton who wrote: “The poem was meant to be appreciated only by a chosen literary elite, only by those who were educated, those who had learned the back story…” 

Such ideas raise the hackles. 

The poem in question couldn’t be simpler, more complete, more self-explanatory, but no, Mr. Wolverton tells us we need to take a secret decoder ring to it, to find out what it is “really” about. 

The back story he refers to is of the poet-physician, who was attending the hospital bedside of a dying young girl and happened to look out the window to see a red wheelbarrow and some chickens. First problem: Williams was a doctor in Rutherford, New Jersey, where it is quite unlikely to find chickens outside a hospital window. More likely a traffic jam. 

Second problem is that despite the widespread retelling of this dying-girl tale, Williams himself tells us the genesis of the poem. It “sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a fisherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. He used to tell me how he had to work in the cold in freezing weather, standing ankle deep in cracked ice packing down the fish. He said he didn’t feel cold. He never felt cold in his life until just recently. I liked that man, and his son Milton almost as much. In his back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.”

It was first published in 1923, and one head-scratching comment I found suggested the poem was a comment on women getting the vote. How the critic got there from the contents of the poem, I leave to you and perhaps your bong. 

Another sees it as a celebration of the proletariat. This is the kind of stuff that turns high-school students away from poetry and literature and toward auto repair. 

To wit: “The wheelbarrow is an enduring and universal tool, used by people for thousands of years. It is most commonly associated with farming and construction—arguably, the foundation upon which civilization is built. In the poem, the wheelbarrow and its surrounding environment could also nod specifically towards agricultural workers and rural communities. As such, the poem’s contemplation of the wheelbarrow can be read as a meditation on the link between humanity and the natural world—as well as an assertion of the importance of respecting the latter.”

Where is that assertion? Show me the line. 

Elsewhere: “By extension, the wheelbarrow here might be taken to represent the value of the working class. This class — the people actually performing said manual labor, such as farmers, miners, construction workers, etc. — is often stereotyped as being unskilled and unintelligent. Physical work, in general, is often misclassified as ‘lowly’ or ‘simple,’ which ignores the complexity that goes into planting, pollinating, etc. Seeing as this work is often undervalued despite its importance to human survival, the attention given to the wheelbarrow (and, through it, the people who use wheelbarrows) could act as a subtle acknowledgement and celebration of the working class.”

Where do manual laborers spend their time “pollinating?” Et cetera. 

It might be noted that none of any of that shows up in the 16 plain words that comprise the poem. What there is, is a red wheelbarrow and some chickens. They are not symbols, they do not require a gloss. They are, in fact, a wheelbarrow and chickens. It is the ability to see them as just that that is the gift of the poem. They have been separated out of the rest of existence and shown to us as something worthy to be noticed. 

My acquaintance was remembering a common friend who had recently died, who had introduced him to the poem.  

“With my spotty poetry background, I’d never read this gemlike summing up of the power of first impressions. We were probably talking about things that seized our imaginations when we were very young.”

I always took it not as about first impressions, but about the importance of noticing, i.e., paying attention, even to the things you ignore in quotidian life. Paying attention is, for me, tantamount to being alive — I mean really alive, as opposed to merely existing. That is what so much depends on. 

It is also the importance of the senses, as opposed to rationality. So much of what we think is merely done in linguistic categories. House, bird, horse. We tend to value logic and think it is what we hold in opposition to irrationality. But logic has its own pitfalls: It is also thinking in linguistic categories, and so much of what is “logical” is only so in words. Zeno’s paradox never actually prevents Achilles from overtaking the tortoise in a single step. 

As Stephen Fry says over and over, the counter position to superstition and irrationality is not logic, but empiricism. Empiricism is paying attention. In that sense, so much depends on that red wheelbarrow. Without it, Galileo is put under house arrest. In this sense, paying attention and sense data are a bundle, inseparable. 

Paying attention to our senses — looking carefully, hearing intently, touching, tasting, smelling — is also the key factor in squeezing the most enjoyment out of this brief moment we spend on the planet (seeming briefer with each birthday). In Keat’s words: “seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue/ can burst joy’s grape against his palate fine.” 

So much depends…