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Doctor William Carlos Williams did not retreat to his bed once he was done examining his last patient at around eleven every night. He instead, substituted an old yet reliable typewriter for his stethoscope. Clacking away with two fingers, the medical practioner catering to the physical woes of an underprivileged section of the public in Rutherford, New Jersey, began giving shape and meaning to his myriad experiences as a medical professional. The result, an astounding collection of poems and short stories encapsulating human emotions in their most naked form. William Carlos Williams never got the recognition – as a writer of substance – that he so richly deserved until the fag end of his life. Not that the man himself cared a jot. He wrote because he was passionate; he wanted to capture the voice of the common man; he wanted to experience the angst that a family deprived by poverty and denied by circumstances went through. He succeeded beyond his own wildest imagination in this regard. He delivered close to 2,000 babies, and around that, and at times, even in the middle of it, never paused from writing.
“The Red Wheelbarrow and Other Poems” is an intriguing collection of poems that abandons rhyme and meter in favour of essence and meaning. Every poem is like a tree stripped of its bark to reveal its actual health or misery. Observation is Dr. Williams greatest ally as every object, howsoever mundane or trivial, becomes a tool to reflect upon. Brevity trumps pomp and the simple language of everyday writing overcomes bombast. The most popular poem in the collection is the one based on which the title of the book is derived – The Red Wheelbarrow. “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens.” Dr. Williams wrote this poem a day after he spotted a red wheelbarrow and some white chickens in the backyard of an old man whose entire life was characterised by hard labour. The quality of “imagism”, a quintessential feature of modernism in poetry, is explicit in ‘The Wheelbarrow’. A wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater finds itself beside some white chickens. Nothing out of the ordinary; nothing special. Yet, as Dr. Williams strives to inform his readers, in the ordinary lies the extraordinary. The seemingly petty image of a wheelbarrow and a few chickens are to the poet much more relevant than philosophies conveying esoteric import. Hence the exhortation and a challenge to his readers to think beyond the obvious. The words “so much depends upon” purveys an impression that the triviality of the wheelbarrow is the strongest deception that masks its enormous influence. Without the modest wheelbarrow, its possessor might be rendered absolutely naught and powerless.
In another poem titled “Between Walls”, Dr. Williams, mulls about “the back wings of the hospital where nothing will grow lie cinders in which shine the broken pieces of a green bottle.” This poem may as well be describing one of Dr. Williams’s visit to a ramshackle hospital around the perimeter of which lie strewn detritus of glass. Is the lack of growth here a reference to the absolute futility of the hospital itself? Dr. Williams practiced during the period of the Great Depression and many of his patients were so poor that they could hardly afford to pay him even meagre fees.
Dr. William’s also writes in a very poignant and telling manner the gradual phases in which relationship and trust is built between suffering patients who are suspicious of their Doctor initially before finally yielding to his methods. For example consider the poem titled “The Poor”
By constantly tormenting them
with the reminders of the lice in
their children’s hair, the
school Physician first
brought their hatred down on him.
But by this familiarity
they grew used to him, and so,
at last, took him for their friend and adviser.
“The Red Wheelbarrow and Other Poems” is an expression of hope for humanity. It is also a revelation of the relationship between suffering and triumph, a reconciliation with fate and death, and a restoration of trust and faith.
A physician’s beautiful relationship with his patients, eccentric and eclectic; expressive and egalitarian; enduring and encompassing.