According to Rotten Tomatoes, Jim Jarmusch’s latest cinematic offering — Paterson — received a 96% approval rating from critics, but only a 71% thumbs up from audience members. I’d go see it if I were you, if only because it’s a tribute of sorts to William Carlos Williams.
I used to teach at Paterson State Teachers College, and I got to know lots about Williams during that academic stint. Began to dabble in poetry too, greatly influenced by his famous The Red Wheelbarrow.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
There you have it, a masterpiece which — in my life — set the stage for highly instructive interaction with a couple of my students*. Providing a “back story” which I feel obliged to share with all educators and activists.
*Please see my description of them in my biographical notes at the very bottom of STEM the Tide. It’s important.
Having encountered those youngsters on the streets of the South Bronx — homeless — I managed to secure matriculation status for one at Bronx Community College, and the same for the other at Long Island University, two educational institutions where I taught from 1966 to 1970.
At one point, Carlos, the Latino of the pair, pointed out something truly singular in Williams’ poem. Something I had never come across. He noted that the stanzas were shaped like miniature wheelbarrows from the perspective of a side view, with the longer first line suggesting the handle. It blew me away, and I can still remember how excited I was to share the revelation with my other students, especially Eugene, the African-American youngster that I had gotten into LIU; he absolutely loved Williams’ work.
I could see — thanks to Carlos — that the “little pictures” created by the form had a startling rhythmic quality, and I immediately made much out of that with one and all. Though the couplets are virtually end-stopped, isolating each detail and giving the poem its intense, painterly concentration, the second line of each couplet is reached by a very strong run-on. The run-on in stanza 2 even divides, albeit without hyphen, what is a single word: “wheelbarrow” (as the title should remind a reader). From that it was easy — inevitable — for me to draw a semi-circle of sorts around the second line of each couplet… underscoring the fact of the wheels.
It looked great on the blackboard, those four semi-circles with tiny arrows on the ends representing wheels. Can you picture that? Just — with the first couplet — begin drawing your semi-circle at the top of the “u” and bring it around to the bottom… with the bottom of the “p” accommodating the tip of a tiny up-curved arrow. That’s a wheel.
And it was a Big Deal to me and everyone. It made the poem come alive. With consequences for further encounters with poetry for the students down the road.
But Eugene, one night, did all that one better. He was discussing Williams’ politics with me (long before it was popular to do so), and he pointed out that if each stanza was embraced as a small wheelbarrow, one had to acknowledge that the cart was facing Left. Was encouraging movement toward the Left. Thoughts about that.
Think about that. All that, if you will, not just the political point that may or may not have been intended by Williams. Seems to me that the great take away has to do with what my students gave to me and what was taken from them so unnecessarily. How much they might have contributed to our society lyrically. [Pause.] If their bodies hadn’t been carted off so…
I break that last word off for good reason.
I trust that you read the poem carefully, and that the recommended biographical blurb from STEM the Tide and Williams’ words both resonated deeply with you. I won’t address the poem further, but I will excerpt that part of the blurb which is most important:
“Both youngsters died in Southeast Asia shortly after Dr. King was assassinated… having joined the military because of economic pressures.”
Richard Martin Oxman has been an educator and activist for over half-a-century. He would be honored to speak gratis at any educational institution which makes a request at email@example.com.