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Picture Yourself On a Train In a Station

One day in a high school English class, a teacher handed out construction paper and crayons. Then he wrote a short poem on the board by William Carlos Williams.

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

He asked us to draw the scene as we saw it in our mind’s eye. Then, like first graders, we taped our pictures to the board. No two pictures were alike. Some had two chickens, some had more. Some of us drew the chickens on the right, on the left, in front of, in back of, etc. The wheelbarrow was many shades of red: blood, rust, crimson, maroon. And the wheelbarrow was everything from a classic three wheeler to a wooden cart out of a shtetl. Of course, our poor drawing skills were largely to blame, but the teacher’s point was blatant: a reader’s imagination took its cues from a writer’s words. Much is left open to interpretation. And it’s always stayed with me.

Does a great writer better control what a readers sees, feels, experiences. Is this what it means to have a reader in the palm of your hand?  This is a huge topic, what goes on between a reader’s imagination and the words on the page. Are we even reading the same book? How many chickens?

Over to you.

60 Responses

  1. I belonged to a watercolor group and we used that same poem as a jumping off point for a project…

    I find that as I’m writing, sometimes there’s a shorthand going on between my brain and my hand, and if I read what I wrote later, I realize that not everything I needed to say made it to the page…

  2. What a great question. Thanks for making me think.

    For me, one of the measures of a great writer is how much you trust them/their vision: you need to believe you’re in good hands, and I think they partly achieve this by making you feel smart and trusting in you – letting you exist in the book too in some sense. So it becomes your book, not just theirs, and the things you see in it, belong to you – the colours, and the character’s looks, and the places they go. This probably helps explain why people become so proprietary about beloved books.

    I just finished Barnes’ The sense of an ending, which is very controlled, yet still allusive. A satisfying combination.

  3. I’ve actually been thinking about this when writing my current manuscript. Usually, when I write I don’t think about the reader. I just concentrate on the shit load of issues I’m trying to resolve which hasn’t worked to my benefit thus far. I’m writing with a reader’s perspective for this current project and I find that by rethinking my word choices, I have a better chance at conveying exactly what I’d like the reader to see in his or her mind.

    At least that’s what I tell myself.

  4. It takes two. At least. And maybe some mixed metaphors.

    It doesn’t take a great writer, but it takes a competent writer, to create an engaging illusion, or illusory world, within which a reader can become immersed.

    It takes not just a competent reader, but a willing reader, to enter into this world, to dive into the pool and swim.

    What a great writer does is something else. Something more. A competent writer can project an engaging shadow-play on the cave wall. A great writer can take the reader out of the cave and into the bright and clarifying light.

  5. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle—doesn’t it apply to any perceptual point of departure?

  6. So far, one of the greatest compliments I have received is that a person judged the morality of one of my characters. So I guess she seemed real to him. She seems so real to me that I thought he should cut her some slack.

    You can’t tell what you wrote until you notice that someone “gets” it.

  7. Maybe Stephen King is right—maybe it is telepathy? Or maybe a confidence game?

    But my goal is to get readers to keep reading, to get them invested until the last sentence in over. Get them to stay up all night with a story, if I can (it’s only fair—I stayed up all night writing it).

    And to only use the chickens that are necessary, even if I want to use them ALL.

  8. It’s 10 pm. I’ve flown all day and arrived in my hometown under cover of dark and I’m settling, alone,into the local motel. Tomorrow is my grandfather’s funeral, the last of all the grandparents. It’s my first time home in 2 years. And there were 2 before that.

    All the grown ups are officially gone. The kids don’t speak. Where have all the cowboys gone?

    We are trying to read the same book, but the pages are damp and the ink has long been running. I feel like the chicken. Was that the question?

  9. Whether the protagonist is blond or brunette, in a green car or a red car may not matter at all, or it might make all the difference. A great writer knows and leaves out anything that doesn’t need to be included in order to make the story work. And if a story works with less, then I say let the reader’s imagination make up the difference.

  10. I remember reading about an experiment where readers were all given the same story in which the protagonist was not described at all. Later, when the readers were asked to convey what the protagonist looked like, all of the readers loosely described themselves.

    Love this thread. I’m a minimalist, but often wish I wasn’t.

  11. But then, I like a good power trip.

  12. Every time I’ve read or heard that poem, I’ve always seen the same image, my image, my rain, my wheelbarrow, but I’ve never once counted the chickens.

  13. When you’ve just written something (and by you I mean everyone because I prefer to universalize), you must believe it will be interpreted exactly as you’ve dictated. So. Ask me tomorrow.

    • I’m with you. Isn’t that the craft of writing? The attempt to transmit an emotion or question or insight as precisely as possible? A hopeless attempt, but so what? The whole point is taking something from inside yourself and sticking it into someone else.

      Except I don’t think William Carlos Williams is trying to shtup a wheelbarrow into our heads, or the glaze of rain. I’ll defer to anyone here about poetry, but does the interpretation of his dictation in this case have anything to do with chickens? The chickens are etchings. The wheelbarrow is mood music. He’s sticking ‘so much depends’ into us, and how do you draw a picture of that?

      I suspect that a great writer doesn’t need to control the candlelight and the climbing harness, all the little details; she’s too confident for that. She doesn’t care if we want to hold the whip or wear the collar. She’ll get us into bed either way, and leave us bereft or basking, whichever she chooses.

      In the right hands, we don’t all read the same book, but we hear the same story.

      Hm. I’m not sure if I agree with myself. The authors who are best at making us all read the same book are people like John Grisham and JK Rowling and Dan Brown–blandly precise and yawningly unambiguous. I guess that’s one reason less-polished prose tends to sell better, and poetry doesn’t sell at all: people -want- to read the same book. Maybe good writers control what readers see, and great writers control what they feel?

      • The problem with getting so precise about chickens and the exact color of the wheelbarrow is that those things end up taking over. There’s only so much room, after all, and once we’ve been banged with a wheelbarrow, who cares what’s inside it?

        For me, great writing is about conveying an impression, an imagined landscape with enough space between the words for a reader to explore and interpret the territory on her own. The writer’s task is to deliver the character’s impression of the scene; after that, it falls to the reader to sort out the imagery and make sense of the story according to her own experience of life. A competent writer will paint the character’s inner landscape, with all its ephemera and idiosyncratic coloring. It’s just that some characters–and writers–are more interesting than others.

      • “Maybe good writers control what readers see, and great writers control what they feel?”

        I’ll of course agree with this because I want to most control what they feel, what connections they make about the character that have little to do with the setting and the story. Because when I want to paint a vivid picture half the time I’d probably get, “You don’t have to force it, I can use my own imagination” and the other half, “I need more information.” So sucks to their asmar.

      • I’m with you, August. But even great writers can’t control what people feel. You’re going to remember that time you and your favorite gap-toothed brother played with the sun-glinted red wheelbarrow down on Grandpa’s farm and a purple dragonfly landed on it and your mother brought you ice-cold lemonade that was extra sugary that day, and I’ll be remembering the rusty wheelbarrow with one wheel missing that sat out in the rain in the sad garden behind the dingy apartment on Dove Street, after daddy left us and mama cried, and that one afternoon when Uncle Chet came to visit and things would never be the same again. Or whatever. We all bring our own luggage.

      • People want to read the same massively popular book for the same reason they go to football games: they want an ecstatic communal experience, however vicarious or removed from truth it may be.

  14. Control, that slippery slope. For years I bought into the minimalism paradigm, to the exclusion of any other form. Gordon Lish’s line of flight. Take ’em on a trip with explosive sentences devoid of descriptors.

    I think I’ve aged out of being a true minimalist. Now, I would say how many chickens in a poem I would write. I would add filigree to my hankie. An exclamation point or two. My voice has spilled onto the page like a bad pen.

  15. Great topic. But when I read it’s not only the vision. I read T.C. Boyle’s The Women this summer and didn’t want to check on any of the character’s faces, or the plan of Frank Lloyd’s house. It was enough to feel the shapes and sensations – the light and voice, the gait of a man, a woman’s nerviness. I love not seeing it all face-on as in a film, but feeling this lingering permeation. This is what I would try for.

  16. A good novel should have a familiar voice and a beating heart.

  17. You said it a few posts ago. The importance of the Universal Chord. Over Thanksgiving, I was talking with a relative who is writing her memoir. It sounds wonderful but I couldn’t help ask why she thought the world would be interested. We’ve all got our stories. It’s the ones that pull us in that succeed in keeping us there.

  18. I have spent my semester trying to teach about resonance. How to make students find a way to express themselves so they can make the reader thrum?
    I am not sure I have the answer myself, other than the idea that the more specific I make something, the more detail I provide, the more universal it becomes.
    Right now though, after grading papers for days, I wonder if some of my students will ever understand, or have ever felt, the resonance of getting what someone else is writing about.
    But, then again. I’ve been up since 3, I’m exhausted, and perhaps this is not the best time to try to answer any question other than whether I should drink more coffee or try to get some sleep before class.

  19. Thanks! Another great topic for debate. And a wonderful example -how vivid our memories of childhood are and how influential good teachers can be.

    As is often the case, I think the best answer lies somewhere in the middle. There has to be some commonality to ground the reader but a good writer leaves enough space for individual interpretation.

  20. Another reply…

    I’m picturing myself in a train station. It’s the London Underground. The walls are white tiles and the caged lamps glow yellow. To my left, there’s a man nearby swinging a brawly and punk kid sporting a huge mohawk tinged with pink. (I thought they were extinct). On the right is a family that reminds me of the Weasley’s from Harry Potter. Dear god, they live. Wait. Here comes the train. The doors open and a few people spill out. I watch while the others enter. The doors close. Why didn’t I get on?

  21. A great writer controls meaning. His or her vision of the book or poem is what the description serves. How the reader pictures it will differ, but readers will come away with feelings within a narrow range of each other about what wcw means, or what The Great Gatsby means.

  22. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” M Angelou

  23. Significant details need to be carefully written, but I think the reader likes to imagine the characters and the scenes. That illustration is wonderful.

    My daughter is an avid reader and many of her favorite YA books are now becoming movies – and she is always disappointed with the movies because the movie leaves out scenes she feels are important and the characters do not look like she imagined them.

    One aspect of books are to free the imagination. I used to take a flashlight under my bedcovers to read Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, and even the classics, and had many daydreams about the characters and their plights as a kid.

    I am not a fan of MTV either, because the songs are now acted out on the screen, and there is no imagination being applied to the lyrics and tune.

    Imagination is getting lost in a world where technology provides so much for the people. Books are the last bastion of imagination.

    Have a blessed day.
    Heather

    • You are absolutely right. My youngest daughter just had her first experience in this. When asked which she liked better she replied, “The book, definitely. The characters in the movie were nothing like I had imagined them.”

      It makes me wonder if the people who make movies based on books even take the time to read the book in the first place.

      Every night all my girls read under their covers, with a flashlight. I never had that experience as a child but it’s a gorgeous one to behold.

  24. My friend, Chuck, once asked if I have a method of writing. I explained, with an old cliche, that movies play in my head and I put on paper what I see. He said, “Your job is to show the reader the same movie you see.” Maybe it is better if the reader adds a few camera angles of their own.

  25. My youngest daughter can not tell a story to save her life…she hems and haws trying to remember every last detail, trying to recreate the actual transcript of the experience (e.g., Camille opened her locker and Mrs. Lewis was standing there…no wait, Mrs. Lewis was already there when she opened her locker but Camille didn’t see her until she’d closed her locker, no no no wait, Camille took her lunchbox out…she has lunch fourth period, and most days she just orders but her mom made it that day because they’re trying to save money on their Flik account…she took her lunchbox out and Mrs. Lewis was standing there) and by the time she gets to the point of her story, I’m begging for mercy….frantically searching for an exit…all of which is to say (creative fallacy at work here?) it has as much to do with knowing what not to say, recognizing that the reader’s attention is yours to lose, so if you want to keep them inside the four corners of your story, you better choose your words wisely…get your hook in early and keep the storyline taut…

    what gives Williams poem its power is what he didn’t say…every brushstroke counts, which is why I believe poetry to be the highest evocation of the literary arts –

  26. Depends on the soul. A manufactured kitchen cabinet looks perfect, with tight joints, machined design and a finish that brings out the highlights of the wood, especially in the shadowless lighting of a creative kitchen, but a work of art made by a skilled cabinetmaker with intricate carved details (flowerets, curved lines, MC Escher-like bent latticework), invisible mortises and tenons joining pieces together as if they were one and with a hand rubbed finish that glows rather than just settles in, adds a new dimension to the world. Art is art is art is art. And hopefully we can create something that glows.

  27. I’m always amazed by the chasm between what I write and what others read into it. This must be the reason that “the book is always better than the movie.” We’ve all already written/produced our movie from reading the book, When the movie turns out different, it isn’t as good as ours.

  28. The point my teacher ultimately made was that it was the words “upon” and “beside” that made all the difference. THe diction. How completely different the poem would be if everything depended “on” the red wheel barrow, and if the chickens were “next to” it. I’m also going to say that the word “glaze” is really nice. Just right. In my world, I might also add that the wheelbarrow is thin with rust, and the chickens are filthy.

    Betsy Lerner

    • It’s the acoustics. “Depends” and “upon” both stressed on the second syllable and sharing the “p” sound. The “u” in “much” and “upon.” The “w” in “wheel” and “barrow, and the way that opens, arcs, and closes. The “a” in “glazed” and “rain.” The “i” in “beside” and “white.” The objects referenced are immaterial, it’s the sounds that count.

  29. I love your question, “How many chickens?” We are lucky that Williams lets us answer that for ourselves!

  30. I have loved this poem since 8th grade. Thank you, Mr. Elias. That was a million years ago, by the way. (Okay, half a million.) I have tried repeatedly over the years to draw/paint/render it artistically. I have never succeeded in getting it quite right. I have notebooks full of doodles of chickens and wheelbarrows and barns and they all suck. Perhaps some things are better left to the mind’s eye.

  31. A great writer touches a membrane that lets a reader connect an ephemeral memory with the concrete word. Then, the writer gets out of the way, allowing the reader to color the memory in his or her own palette.

  32. […] at Betsy Lerner’s blog, she posted William Carlos Williams’ iconic poem, raising the question of what a reader […]

  33. I don’t know why, but this post sent me into a fugue state. I spent the entire day writing about this poem, not eating, not drinking water, not even getting up for a minute. It started off in a silly, satirical way, then abruptly cut out when I realized that the poem meant more to me than I had previously thought, and I thought I knew exactly what it meant. It’s not necessarily my last (or best) word on the subject, but I figured I should honor the effort by sending it out into the world. Since I don’t want to highjack Betsy’s blog, I decided not to post my response here, but if anybody wants to check it out and comment it’s at my (brand new) blog.

  34. i think this poem is about the hands that carry the wheelbarrow, no? that’s what i picture in my mind when i read this piece. not that i know one fucking thing about poetry.

  35. I think this poem is about syntax. I think it’s the “depends” that’s the key — it’s the relationship between the things, how they stand next to one another, that creates meaning.

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