Literary links: ‘The Red Wheelbarrow,’ and a definition of postmodern novel

1. William Carlos Williams’s poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” —

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens.

— may be a scene the poet witnessed, as described in this Times article:

On July 18, in a moment of belated poetic justice, a stone will be laid on the otherwise unmarked grave of Thaddeus Marshall, an African-American street vendor from Rutherford, N.J., noting his unsung contribution to American literature.

“When we read this poem in an anthology, we tend not to think of the chickens as real chickens, but as platonic chickens, some ideal thing,” William Logan, the scholar who recently discovered Mr. Marshall’s identity, said in an interview.

The discovery doesn’t change the meaning, he said, but “knowing there was a man with a particular wheelbarrow and some chickens does help us understand the world the poem was embedded in.”

Williams’s 16-word poem, first published in 1923, was hailed as a manifesto of plain-spoken American modernism. Williams himself declared it “quite perfect.” A staple of classrooms and anthologies, it has inspired endless debates about its deeper meaning — how much of what, exactly, depends on the red wheelbarrow? — not to mention provided the name of an English-language bookstore in Paris, a craft beer from Maine and an episode of “Homeland.”

But Mr. Logan, a professor at the University of Florida who has contributed to The New York Times Book Review, may have taken the poem’s fullest measure yet. His roughly 10,000-word essay on the poem, published in the most recent issue of the literary journal Parnassus and titled simply “The Red Wheelbarrow,” considers the poem from seemingly every conceivable angle.

There are discussions of Williams’s aesthetic influences and composition habits. (Williams, a medical doctor by profession, sometimes wrote poems on prescription forms.) Mr. Logan also considers the history of hyphenation in the word “rainwater,” previous literary references to painted wheelbarrows, New Jersey ordinances concerning handcarts, and early-20th-century poultry trends.

“Who knew there was a fad for white chickens?” he said.

2. In a New Yorker article discussing “Fran Ross’s hilarious, badass novel, ‘Oreo,'” Danzy Senna writes this definition of the postmodern novel:

Aesthetically, “Oreo” has all the hallmarks of a postmodern novel in its avoidance of profundity and its utterly playful spirit. It draws no conclusions, and the quest leads to no giant, revelatory payoffs. [my emphasis] The father and his secret about her birth constitute, in the end—and without giving anything away—as absurdist a feminist send-up of the patriarchal myth as one could hope to find. At every turn, the novel embraces ambiguity. Its quest-driven plot is diverted by wordplay and meta-references to itself. In many ways, it feels more in line stylistically and aesthetically with Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut than with Sonia Sanchez and Ntozake Shange, to name two other black female writers of Ross’s time.

Oreo never becomes a fully believable character, and this feels appropriate to the work’s spirit. The novel does not strive for realism; Ross is not trying to construct a seamless, plot-driven narrative or a sympathetic, three-dimensional main character. We are always aware of Oreo as a construct, and of her story as a construct. Puns, wordplay, standup-comedy riffs, menus, charts, tangents: the journey to find the father is just a chance for Ross to meander through her wicked and free imagination, and to push us toward a hyper-awareness of language itself. “Christine,” Ross writes, and she could be writing of herself, “was no ordinary child … she had her mother’s love of words, their nuance and cadence, their juice and pith, their variety and precision, their rock and wry.”

3. A definition of literary interpretation, and a warning about finding patterns, from a New Yorker piece about love-song lyrics by Adam Gopnik:

One should always be wary of a book by a scholar insisting that there is a pattern where before none has been seen, since scholars have an overwhelmingly strong confirmation bias in favor of patterns—finding patterns is what scholars do. The great art historian Leo Steinberg found the “line of fate” in the Sistine Chapel, which skewered figures from separate scenes into occult sentences, with the same excitement with which Percival Lowell had once found canals on the surface of Mars. These were illusory—but, more important, irrelevant. Interpretation is the teasing out into articulate words of a complicated sensation or experience. It’s not often the discovery of some other, completely different experience that the surface of the work was hiding. [my emphasis]

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s