Way back in 1982-1983 I was a Visiting Professor of English at a university in Xi’an, China—an experience that was eye-opening, maddening, exhilarating, and puzzling depending on the day or the moment. It’s hard to explain the challenge of bridging the gap between Twentieth-Century American literature and students whose upbringing (both at home and at school) had been deeply imbued with Marxist and Maoist principles as well as with a healthy dose of old-school Confucianism.
The intellectual, artistic, and psychological angst of Modernist writers like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Pound, and Eliot struck them as trivial and overwrought—hopelessly decadent and bourgeois, to use my students’ Marxist terminology. However, the class (twenty or so undergraduate English majors, some of the best and the brightest that the Chinese education system had to offer) lit up with excitement and understanding when the syllabus brought us to William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.”
Maybe you know the poem. Written in 1923, it is usually offered as an example of Imagism, a Modernist movement that aimed at purging poetry of rhetorical excess and ideological baggage. It consists of eight very short lines (nine if you count the title as part of the poem):
THE RED WHEELBARROW
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Given this text, maybe you can appreciate my puzzlement at the students’ enthusiasm for the poem and their confidence about the revolutionary views they took it to express. I explained that Williams was a great artistic innovator, but I was not aware of any Marxist leanings on his part (I didn’t mention his association with the Fascistically inclined Ezra Pound). So, probing a little, I asked them what I still ask any student under such circumstances: “Can you show me where that idea is in the text?”
“It’s obvious!” one of them responded. “The red wheelbarrow! The white chickens! And all depends on THEM!”
At that point I remembered something I had learned from my conversations with my Chinese departmental colleagues, all of whom were members in good standing of the Communist Party. According to Mao’s famous “Little Red Book,” China’s glorious Communist Revolution rested on three pillars: the peasant (farmer), the worker (the industrial laborer), and the soldier. And of course red was from the very beginning the color of the Communist revolution (it’s why we used to call them “Reds”).
All at once I saw the poem as my students saw it (well, sort of, anyhow): that wheelbarrow represented the urban worker-builder, and the “white chickens” stood for the farmer-peasant. And didn’t the poem begin with the image of a “red” object, and didn’t it say in the first line that “so much depended” on these groups, just as revolutionary theory insisted? Of course the figure of the soldier was absent, but that was not enough to ruin what seemed like a good interpretation.
I’m probably going to disappoint by sidestepping the question of whether I truly think my students’ reading of the poem was a “good” one (or a “valid” one, to use E. D. Hirsch’s terminology). Based on my knowledge of the author and his historical context, I do believe that my students’ interpretation was one that William Carlos Williams did not intend and probably could not have foreseen. But rather than evaluate their response to the poem, I want to suggest some things it reveals about the process of interpretation itself.
Most disagreements about interpretation arise from differences in how readers process the symbolic possibilities they perceive in otherwise concrete language. If we think of Williams’ poem as a photograph, there’s not a lot of room for argument about what’s in the frame: red wheelbarrow, white chickens, the glazing after-effects of a recent rain. And it’s important to remember that sometimes red is just a color and a chicken is just a chicken, and to allow for that possibility. (In fact, I think that such a literal understanding—an appreciation of the image for its own sake—was close to what Williams had in mind when he wrote this vivid little poem.)
But human beings are symbol-making and symbol-reading creatures, and we attach symbolic inferences of all kinds to various concrete objects and concrete properties (like color, for instance). The problem is that not all of these symbolic inferences are of the same type. Some of them are more stable across time and culture, and across the bridge between writer and reader, than others.
Most literature handbooks distinguish among three basic levels of symbolism that can attach to concrete objects and properties: (1) universal or natural; (2) conventional or cultural; and (3) poetic or literary.
Universal or natural symbolism (I prefer the latter term) arises from some intrinsic quality of, or association with, an object that any human being might recognize, regardless of time or culture. Sunrises and sunsets naturally suggest beginnings and endings, respectively; the image of a heart naturally suggests love and other strong emotions (we can physically feel the pressure in our chest when our hearts beat faster or harder when we are experiencing intense feelings); water, being necessary to all human beings, is a natural symbol for life; and so on.
Conventional or cultural symbolism, in contrast, arises among particular groups of people, as a result of shared (but not universal) experience or social agreement. For citizens of the United States in particular, the eagle has become a conventional symbol of the national spirit. This is not so much because of any “natural” qualities we might admire in it as a creature (there are many animals that we might admire for similar reasons). Its power derives from the fact that as a culture we have agreed to treat the eagle in this symbolic way, and because we a taught to do so in all kinds of ways–not least through its image on such other symbolic objects as flags and currency. (Think of how different things would be if Benjamin Franklin had prevailed in his nomination of the turkey as our national bird.)
In other words, conventional symbols are more of an “in-group” thing than natural symbols. They are part of our “native language,” so to speak, so while they might seem “natural” to us they don’t necessarily apply or make intuitive sense to people outside our group or culture.
Finally, there are what we might call poetic or literary symbolic associations. These are still narrower, and involve specific knowledge of a literary tradition or the work of a particular writer. Sometimes symbolism of this sort verges on what we might elsewhere call literary allusion. The figure of a young man thoughtfully holding a skull-like object in his hand might symbolize tortured indecision by reminding us of the pose of Hamlet in Act 5, Scene I of Shakespeare’s play. In some cases a poet will develop a powerful personal mythology that piggy-backs on, but goes beyond, natural or conventional symbolic usages–consider for instance Walt Whitman’s use of blades of grass as metaphorical tongues (and, by extension, poems and speakers of poems) in Stanza 6 of “Song of Myself.”
This is a long way round to making my point about my Chinese students and their interpretation of “The Red Wheelbarrow.” I think we can see from this discussion that their reading of the poem depended on a conventional symbolic inference that, however powerful and obvious for them, was probably not shared by the poem’s author. The result was a kind of awkward alignment between William Carlos Williams’ creation of the poem and their experience of it.
I think it’s important to note that this awkwardness did not come from their misreading of the poem as such; had the exact same poem been written by a writer in their own tradition, there would have been nothing remarkable or controversial about their interpretation. The awkwardness came, rather, from their simply being too eager to attach conventional symbolic significance to the poem’s details.
Let’s pull back and look again at the details of the poem: setting aside the colors of the named objects, we have the wheelbarrow and some chickens. These are simple objects, associated with basic human needs–in the case of the wheelbarrow, the need to make physical labor less punishing, and in the case of the chickens, the need to produce food. If these objects “symbolize” anything at the natural or universal level, I suppose we could say they represent the basic human needs or desires to conserve energy and to sustain life.
We are also talking about a way of life in which these needs are met in a very direct way; we’re talking about people who are hauling dirt or bricks or some other kind of physical load, not folks whose ease of work depends on a faster computer chip. And we’re talking not talking about chickens in a Perdue processing facility, whose parts will appear shrink-wrapped in a grocery cooler days or weeks down the road; most likely the people who own those chickens depend on their eggs for daily food. Add in the poem’s framing line–“so much depends upon”–and we get a sense of how elemental, basic, and necessary these objects are.
Interestingly, considering the literal and the “naturally symbolic” possibilities of these objects produces some inferences that are not that distant from the conventional symbolism my students attached to the poem. Clearly, the poem is encouraging us to see value, even beauty, in these simple objects–and, by extension, in the simple lives we may infer that they are part of.
The “natural” symbolism of the poem may not imply the sort of Marxist revolutionary narrative that my students saw in it. But certainly the poem emphasizes the importance of human labor at the bottom rungs of the system of production–an emphasis that resonates with Marxist theory. So my students were not so far off after all; they simply were getting ahead of themselves and ahead of the poem, trying to do calculus without first having considered the algebra.
In my experience, this is what often happens when people are too eager to get to what they perceive as the endgame of the poem’s “meaning” or “interpretation.” Instead, I like to encourage readers to spend more time absorbing their experience of the poem at the most basic, literal level possible–to visualize the poem in the imagination, as a photograph, a short film, a conversation, whatever seems best to capture the scope and nature of the poem’s scenario. Then we can move through the various levels of the poem’s possible meanings, taking things in the following order and going as far as we find interesting or productive:
- Fully consider (that is, visualize, see, hear, taste, touch) in your imagination the literal, concrete elements of the poem before focusing on any symbolic associations suggested by elements of the poem.
- Fully consider any natural or universal symbolic associations before focusing on any conventional / cultural ones.
- Fully consider any conventional / cultural symbolic possibilities before focusing on any poetic / literary ones.
In fact it’s a good thing to remember that most poems (like Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”) aim first and foremost to give us an experience and only secondarily to communicate an idea or a meaning. This means we should linger as long as we can on the concrete details of the poem, until we can close our eyes and see the poem as a photograph or a short film in our minds. Then such things as symbols and interpretation can arise more naturally from our experience of the poem, rather than substituting for that experience or leaping ahead of it.