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Terence Diggory

The Red Wheelbarrow Goes Global

The Value of the Local in William Carlos Williams and Postmodern Art

This piece is 3,000 words or about nine printed pages long.

AMID the internationalism that characterizes much modernist writing, William Carlos Williams stands apart as a spokesman for the local. T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound left America in search of what Eliot called “the mind of Europe.” In works like The Waste Land and the Cantos, they developed a polyglot idiom that sounded like a “world language,” a tendency taken to its furthest extreme in the work of the expatriate Irishman James Joyce, whose Ulysses bears the dateline “Zurich – Trieste – Paris.” Meanwhile, walking the back streets of his hometown, Rutherford, N.J., Williams perfected a local idiom for recording the most ordinary scenes:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

A few years before “The Red Wheelbarrow” (1923), one of several poems ironically entitled “Pastoral” (this one from 1917) was devoted to “admiring the houses/ of the very poor,” while acknowledging,

                       No one
will believe this
of vast import to the nation.

Yet Williams was convinced that it was of vast import. If America was to have a culture, he argued in an essay entitled “The American Background” (1934), it would only arise from “the realization of the qualities of a place in relation to the life which occupies it,” not from the importation of the products of other cultures. Culture was not a thing, a commodity that could be imported, according to Williams. Rather, it was an act, starting with local materials and “lifting these things into an ordered and utilized whole” – another way of expressing the “so much” that depends on the red wheelbarrow.
    As long as modernism set the standards of advanced critical judgment, Williams’s insistence on grounding culture in local conditions was likely to seem, at best, a symptom of the American parochialism that Eliot and Pound shunned, or at worst, an expression of Williams’s personal resentment at the scant attention he received in contrast to Eliot and Pound. Since World War II, however, artists have turned to a critique of the cultural imperialism that marketed modernist art. Localism appears increasingly attractive as a strategy for resisting the global reach of market forces. As a result, Williams’s understanding of the relation of art and culture takes on new relevance, especially to artists outside the United States, who deny the centrality of that country as passionately as Williams’s rivals asserted the centrality of Europe.
    What follows is a brief sketch of two cases in which Williams’s example has been imported into disparate local contexts, Germany and New Zealand, and translated into new media, mail art (specifically postcards) and experimental video. In the postmodern context, the mixture of cultures finds a formal parallel in the mixture of media. The two artists on whom I focus, Wolfgang Kaiser and Bridget Sutherland, are unknown outside their countries, and little known inside. However, the marginal position they occupy in the art market does not prevent them from serving a representative function. Like Williams, I have sought my local materials on the “back streets,” so to speak, trusting to find there particular insights that may prove to be “of vast import to the nation.”

1. Germany

In 1960 Hans Magnus Enzensberger published The Museum of Modern Poetry, a collection of German translations of poems, including five by Williams, drawn from a total of sixteen original languages. The purpose of the collection was to make a case for modern poetry as “world language.” However, what Enzensberger understood by that term was something very different from the magnetic attraction that drew Pound, Eliot and Joyce to the great capitals of Europe. World War II had shaken those capitals to their foundation, especially in Germany. New life would have to grow from “provincial soil,” now revalued as the “local.” In 1962 Enzensberger turned a spotlight on Williams’s role in that revaluation by assembling fifty-nine of his translations from Williams’s poetry into a single volume, and appending a lengthy “Afterword” that cited “The Red Wheelbarrow” (one of the poems translated) as an example of Williams’s ability to transform a discarded, apparently insignificant object into something “wonderful,” “exquisite.” The lesson for German poets, searching for meaning amidst the discarded fragments of an entire civilization, could not have been more pointed. Williams’s secret, Enzensberger explained, was to aim not for meaning but for evidence.
    Although Enzensberger recognized that the evidence assembled in his Museum did not allow him to predict “the future of modern poetry,” which he left “in the hands of the unknown men who will write it,” he might well be surprised to see the transformation that the act of writing itself underwent in the hands of a young art student named Wolfgang Kaiser, who came to know Williams’s work through Enzensberger’s translations during the 1960s. One of the earliest of those translations, Die Tathandlung (“The Act”), from The Museum of Modern Poetry, provided the material for an exercise in graphic design that Kaiser produced in 1968 (Fig. 1). Each letter of the text is printed in a separate block, and the blocks are arranged in a rectangular grid of 11 columns and 18 rows. Words are divided arbitrarily at the end of rows, and within the rows no spaces separate words except at the bottom of the design, where the poem’s title appears. The overall result is to frustrate efforts at reading the poem and to highlight language as material stuff, evidence in its own right rather than a channel for transmitting meaning.

Figure 1

Figure 1

    In this respect, Kaiser’s graphic translation is faithful to Enzensberger’s account of Williams’s aims. The extent to which it is faithful to Williams’s poem may be judged by considering the original English text of 1948:

There were the roses, in the rain.
Don’t cut them, I pleaded.
           They won’t last, she said.
But they’re so beautiful
           where they are.
Agh, we were all beautiful once, she
and cut them and gave them to me
           in my hand.

This is a poem about an act of physical translation, cutting the roses and relocating them in the hand of the first-person speaker. Although the speaker protests that act as a violation, in the larger perspective of the poem it seems to be the only means of preserving, or perhaps renewing, the roses’ (and also the woman’s?) beauty in a world where nothing lasts. For Williams, what is local must also be mobile. Roses standing “where they are,” “in the rain” (where the wheelbarrow had been), must be cut and moved. On this principle, Enzensberger’s translation of Williams’s poem into the German context renews the value of the local, and Kaiser’s graphic translation continues that act.
    But the act does not stop there. After taking a practical turn and establishing himself as a dentist in Hamburg, Kaiser continued his interest in art by founding a publishing firm devoted to bringing texts and images into new combinations, thereby producing new works of art. The name of the firm, Haus Grenzenlos (Borderland House, in Kaiser’s own translation), implies mobility, as does the principal product, postcards. Often, several postcards are joined together in a fold-out format, instilling a sense of motion in the experience of reading and viewing, somewhat analogous to the moving frames of a film.
    One of these fold-out sequences, published in 1991, reproduces  Kaiser’s 1968 design for Die Tathandlung on the reverse. On the front, a plain typographic rendering of Williams’s poem (again in German translation) intrudes into a sequence of photographs of advertising displays (Fig. 2). In the final photograph, the condition of the display, with glass shattered and poster removed, echoes the cutting of the rose in Williams’s poem. But the absence that confronts us in the final display contrasts starkly with the presence of the roses in the speaker’s hand at the poem’s conclusion, making us question the status of “beauty” represented by the fashion models in the first two photographs. If Williams, in “The Act,” gently criticizes a personal tendency to idealize beauty, Kaiser re-directs Williams’s critique against the tendency of an entire culture to package beauty as a commodity.

Figure 2 Figure 2

    Idealization, too, has its cultural dimension, as Kaiser observed in a letter explaining the significance to him, as a German, of Williams’s attention to the insignificant: “you know as a German you have to occupy yourself with Hitler and the Third Reich and [the] Nazi Regime and [its] thinking. To a certain extent one could say that this is the outcome of the very dubious German tradition in idealistic philosophy; if you fail to consider ‘the yards cluttered with old chicken wire, ashes, furniture gone wrong’; if you do not see the importance of the ‘red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens’– there are many nameless other points in his [Williams’s] poetry– in short, to maintain the bonds to the local, ‘normal,’ small, ‘insignificant,’ you are bound to be carried away, also toward the evil, the dire.”
    Another fold-out postcard sequence, published in 1995, performs several ironic turns on what it means “to be carried away.” On the reverse, Kaiser reprints, in English, Williams’s poem “Pastoral” of 1917, the source of his reference to “yards cluttered with old chicken wire” in the statement just quoted. The detail from the poem that seems to have generated the postcard sequence is Williams’s wish that the ramshackle outbuildings also found in such yards be

smeared a bluish green
that properly weathered
pleases me best
of all colors.

In a statement (also in English), printed next to Williams’s poem, Kaiser reports coming upon a decayed rowboat painted just that color on the shore of a lake in Sweden. The sequence of photographs on the front of the fold-out (Fig. 3) documents the process by which Kaiser literally “carried away” some pieces of the boat and converted them, since they were shaped like a wing, into an image of Icarus, loosely based on the figure of a diver from a Roman tomb (sent to him on a postcard). Whether or not Kaiser also had in mind Williams’s poem on the fall of Icarus, that theme certainly represents the dangers of being “carried away,” for which Kaiser found an antidote in Williams.

Figure 3 Figure 3

In the concluding image of his sequence, the only photograph printed on the reverse of the fold-out (Fig. 4), Kaiser offers an antidote of his own, though the adjacent statement interprets it in part as a metaphor “against forgetting W.C.W., whose precise earth-bound speech and vision then as now should remain with us.” The photograph shows Kaiser himself, “earth-bound” and naked, catching Icarus and supposedly saving him from death.

Figure 4

Figure 4

The caption in this photograph reads: “Icarus III madly falling in love with the Seychelles”; “Icarus III,” because this sequence is the third of Kaiser’s publications on the Icarus theme; “Seychelles,” because Kaiser himself had fallen in love with (and on) that archipelago in the Indian Ocean. In this respect, Kaiser’s critique of being “carried away” is directed against his own desire, as in the case of Williams’s “The Act.” The global reach of Kaiser’s travels, appropriately recorded in the medium of postcards, extends to exotic regions. However, Kaiser checks any tendency to idealize the exotic by maintaining the local, “earth-bound” perspective offered in Williams’s poems. Thus, at the start of Icarus III, Kaiser approaches a lake shore in Sweden as Williams had approached the back streets of Rutherford. As far away as New Zealand, Kaiser keeps Williams’s New Jersey in mind. A single postcard of 1993, entitled Shades of William Carlos Williams (Fig. 5), prints Kaiser’s variation on “The Red Wheelbarrow” above a photograph (also by Kaiser) depicting “a solitary pine tree/ resisting” a “barren” New Zealand landscape. By this time, however, New Zealand artists had commandeered the red wheelbarrow to serve a different local need.

Figure 5

Figure 5

2. New Zealand

Among a generation of New Zealand poets arising in the 1930s, there had been a reaction against a romantic tradition of idealizing the land after the model of pastoral. But the principal literary inspiration for the realists was the Auden group in England, not American poets like Williams, nor even the American expatriates who helped to make modernism an international movement. According to an influential account by the poet, critic and novelist C. K. Stead, the New Zealand realists were preoccupied with content, especially political content, for which the form of poetry served as a vehicle. Modernism, in contrast, approached form as inseparable from content, producing a greater immediacy and ultimately a truer realism, Stead maintained. To illustrate the principle, he chose “The Red Wheelbarrow,” because the difficulty of saying what depends on the wheelbarrow can be understood to confirm the impossibility of separating content from form. To illustrate the shift in allegiance entailed in the adoption of this principle, Stead titled his account “From Wystan to Carlos,” because Allen Curnow, one of the leaders of the ‘thirties generation, had named his son after Wystan Auden, whereas Ian Wedde, one of the new poets of the ’sixties, named his son after William Carlos Williams.
    Since American poetry arrived late on the New Zealand scene, as one wave in the rising tide of American influence throughout the Pacific region following World War II, its modernists were viewed retrospectively through the postmodern lens provided especially by Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology The New American Poetry, which placed contemporary movements like the Beats, Black Mountain, and New York poets in a tradition derived principally from Williams and Pound. In Stead’s terms, the continuity with Williams was based not so much on the identity of form and content, which became increasingly problematic as a self-consciously critical element entered into poetic practice, but rather on a concern for words as “the poet’s material.”
    The so-called “Language” movement in America during the 1970s combined this concern with an explicitly political critique reminiscent of the poets of the ’thirties, whether in America, England or New Zealand. It seems appropriate, then, that a leading advocate of “Language” poetry in New Zealand has been Wystan Curnow, the son Allen Curnow named in honor of Auden. Bridget Sutherland, a student of Wystan Curnow’s at the University of Auckland in the early ’eighties, was impressed by his demonstration of American influence on New Zealand poetry and of “capitalist power relations within language.” She applied both lessons in her experimental video The Red Wheelbarrow (1984).

To view this video (it is in MPG format) on the Internet server at Skidmore College, New York, link to:
Please note that this is streaming video, which demands lots of bandwidth. A telephone connection and a modem are not likely to be a workable way of connecting. A fast Ethernet or cable connection is recommended. You will need a recent version of QuickTime or Windows Media Player to view the film. Also please note that the first half minute features a steam-train soundtrack, but a blank black screen. The blank black screen is deliberate. [Editor, Jacket.]

Sutherland’s video was shot primarily on construction sites around Auckland, evidence of an urbanizing trend that has paralleled the advent of American influence in New Zealand. The entire video lasts a mere four minutes, and its images pass in rapid succession, threaded together, so to speak, by a sound track consisting entirely of instrumental and environmental sounds. Language appears as image – part of the visual environment – and often in fragmented form, so that we see letters and signs without being able to fit them together as coherent words or messages (Fig. 6), much as Wolfgang Kaiser highlighted the material aspect of letters in his rendering of Williams’s “The Act.” Sutherland similarly highlights the anonymous “thingness” of other images by showing us parts of objects rather than wholes.

Figure 6

Figure 6

However, the film progresses toward greater coherence as whole words and objects appear with increasing frequency. The first legible word is “dream” (Fig. 7); the first whole object is a red wheelbarrow, with the letters FDC (initials of a construction company?) carelessly splashed on its side in yellow paint (Fig. 9). “So much depends” on this wheelbarrow that its arrival in the sequence of the film becomes a meaningful event, satisfying our desire to “make sense” of what we are seeing. Yet the arrival of meaning has been delayed long enough to make us question whether what we view as “evidence,” to recall Enzensberger’s term, is truly self-evident or rather dependent on our “dream,” our very desire to discover meaning. Sutherland’s red wheelbarrow is a wheelbarrow that has to be “read.” She points to this need by her constant juxtaposition of language and image throughout the film, as well as by framing the scene with the wheelbarrow between the homophones “red” and “read,” then immediately cutting to “real,” as if by the substitution of a single letter (Figs. 8-11).

Figure 7

Figure 7

Figure 8

Figure 8

Figure 9

Figure 9

Figure 10

Figure 10

Figure 11

Figure 11

Although the word “real” is eventually set in context as part of a “real estate” sign, the question of “capitalist power relations within language” is raised in Sutherland’s film less by specific images than by her evocation of the power that drives the succession of images. Woven throughout the sound track is the noise of a train engine picking up speed and blowing its whistle, as if to suggest that the images we see are the rapid glimpses one might catch while looking out a train window. The sense that our vision is controlled by some unseen, impersonal mechanism is reinforced by the film’s editing. Through the use of rapid cuts and constant shifts in focal distance, objects that are in fact immobile, like the wheelbarrow, take on the appearance of motion as in a primitive animated film.
    The experimental filmmaker Len Lye, born in New Zealand, is the primary influence Sutherland acknowledges for her use of this technique. Yet she inscribes another acknowledgment into her film through the repetition of the figure 5 among the other letters and symbols (Fig. 12). As a student of art history, Sutherland was aware that the American artist Charles Demuth had painted a “poster portrait” of his friend William Carlos Williams as “The Figure 5 in Gold” (Fig. 13, below), which Williams had celebrated in his poem “The Great Figure” (1921):

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

Figure 12

Figure 12

As in Sutherland’s film, the source of motion in Williams’s poem is mechanical, and may well have meant to Williams what it evidently does to Sutherland: the collective forces of history that seem to determine individual experience. Yet Williams has his eye fixed on the individual figure and the “greatness” he/ she/ it acquires in relation to the historical present, the local conditions, rather than the authority of the past. In contrast to “all ‘great’ figures in public life,” including those poets who had abandoned America for Europe, Williams, in a note on the poem, identified with the figure 5, “unheeded” yet truly significant.

Figure 13

Figure 13

He restated the significance in his 1947 “Letter to an Australian Editor,” insisting that “the poet’s very life but also his forms originate in the political, social and economic maelstrom on which he rides.” Making explicit what Wolfgang Kaiser and Bridget Sutherland later inferred, Williams advised his Australian correspondent, “What I presume for us here touching the writing of modern verse should equally well apply to you there across the world.”

List of Figures

Fig. 1. Wolfgang Kaiser, design (1968) incorporating William Carlos Williams’s Die Tathandlung (“The Act”), trans. Hans Magnus Enzensberger. From Wolfgang Kaiser, No.70: Die Tathandlung (Koethel: Haus Grenzenlos, 1990), verso.

Fig. 2. Wolfgang Kaiser, No.70: Die Tathandlung (Koethel: Haus Grenzenlos, 1990), recto.

Fig. 3. Wolfgang Kaiser, No.102: Icarus III For William Carlos Williams (Hamburg: Haus Grenzenlos, 1995), recto.

Fig. 4. From Wolfgang Kaiser, No. 102: Icarus III For William Carlos Williams (Hamburg: Haus Grenzenlos, 1995), verso.

Fig. 5. Wolfgang Kaiser, No. 87: Shades of William Carlos Williams (Hamburg: Haus Grenzenlos, 1993), recto.

Fig. 6. Letter fragments. Still from Bridget Sutherland, The Red Wheelbarrow (Auckland, 1984).

Fig. 7. “Dream.” Still from Bridget Sutherland, The Red Wheelbarrow (Auckland, 1984).

Fig. 8. “Red.” Still from Bridget Sutherland, The Red Wheelbarrow (Auckland, 1984).

Fig. 9. Wheelbarrow. Still from Bridget Sutherland, The Red Wheelbarrow (Auckland, 1984).

Fig. 10. “Read.” Still from Bridget Sutherland, The Red Wheelbarrow (Auckland, 1984).

Fig. 11. “Real.” Still from Bridget Sutherland, The Red Wheelbarrow (Auckland, 1984).

Fig. 12. “5.” Still from Bridget Sutherland, The Red Wheelbarrow (Auckland, 1984).

Fig. 13. Charles Demuth, The Figure 5 in Gold (1928). Oil on board, 35 ½ x 30". Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Allen, Donald, ed. The New American Poetry, 1945–1960. 1960; rpt. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999.

Enzensberger, Hans Magnus. “William Carlos Williams.” Enzensberger, Einzelheiten. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1962. 273–89.

——— . “The World Language of Modern Poetry.” Enzensberger, The Consciousness Industry: On Literature, Politics and the Media. Trans. Michael Roloff. New York: Seabury–Continuum, 1974. 42–61.

Enzensberger, Hans Magnus, ed. Museum der Modernen Poesie. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1960.

C. K. Stead. “From Wystan to Carlos — Modern and Modernism in Recent New Zealand Poetry.” Stead, In the Glass Case: Essays on New Zealand Literature. Auckland: Auckland UP, 1981. 139–59.

Williams, William Carlos. “The American Background.” Williams, Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1969. 134–61.

——— . The Collected Poems 1: 1909–1939. Ed. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions, 1986.

——— . The Collected Poems 2: 1939–1962. Ed. Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions, 1988.

——— . Gedichte. Trans. Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1962.

——— . “Letter to an Australian Editor.” William Carlos Williams Review 17.2 (Fall 1991): 8–12.


Thanks to Wolfgang Kaiser and Bridget Sutherland for copies of their work referred to here, and for many helpful comments in their correspondence with me. Additional information on the New Zealand context was kindly provided by Harriet Margolis and Lawrence Jones. Expert assistance in the preparation of images was provided by Anne Diggory and John Danison.

Photo of Terence Diggory

Terence Diggory is Courtney and Steven Ross Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Chair of the Department of English at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. His many publications on art and literature include William Carlos Williams and the Ethics of Painting (Princeton University Press, 1991) and most recently, The Scene of My Selves: New Work on New York School Poets, co-edited with Stephen Paul Miller (Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 2001).

The editor thanks Skidmore College for providing the link to Bridget Sutherland's streaming video.

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This material is copyright © Terence Diggory, Wolfgang Kaiser, Bridget Sutherland and Jacket magazine 2002. William Carlos Williams, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, ‘The Act’, ‘The Great Figure’, copyright © 1938 by New Directions Publishing Corporation. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.
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