So Much Depends Upon…

Whitman’s use of the term “dumb ministers” in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” to describe objects that contribute to our soul, and Jonathan Delacour’s ongoing discussion of “objective description” and “subjective description” somehow reminded me of William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” a poem students often found “dumb,” though not in the sense Whitman used it.

“The Red Wheelbarrow”

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

In discussing his poetry Willliams said, “Emotion clusters about common things, the pathetic often stimulates the imagination to new patterns—but the job of the poet is to use language effectively, his own language, the only language to him which is authentic. In my own work it has always sufficed that the object of my attention be presented without further comment.” Later, he stated, “No ideas but in things.”

Judging from many a student’s reaction to “The Red Wheelbarrow,” though, it’s not clear that pure description does “suffice.” Students were most likely to react in dumb silence or outrage when presented with the poem. Simply put, they didn’t get it, and often felt that there was “nothing to get,” much like the outrage expressed by many when confronted with modern paintings with titles like “White on White.”

One wonders now that it has become stylish to include an old wheelbarrow as a planter in a garden whether some students would react differently to the poem, and whether Asian students, having been raised in a very different poetic tradition, might have a different reaction to it.

In other words, do objects have meaning in themselves or do they only have meaning within a cultural context?

Was T.S. Eliot correct when he argued that: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion?” (See the Dead Poet’s Circle for further discussion of objective correlative.)

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