Mentor Text: “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams
- Poetic form
- Focusing on main idea
Background: Last year, I made a conscious decision to dedicate April’s Mentor Text Wednesday posts to poetry, in honor of it being National Poetry Month. I plan to continue that tradition.
This week, I want to share my thoughts about this simple, and beautiful poem. I love it, but I also love how it engages, perplexes and challenges students.
As I shared last year, my Grade 10 students create OUPAs, or Original Unique Poetry Anthologies. We recycle old books, giving them interesting new titles, and covers. Then, throughout the course, we regularly add new poems to them, using a poetic form, or pieces of poetry as a mentor text. It’s a pretty engaging activity, and a tradition I love having in my classroom.
One of the first poems I used as a mentor text this year was this William Carlos Williams classic. (If you click through to last year’s post about the OUPA, you’ll see that I reference this poem there too. I’m going deeper on it this year!) I have long had a soft spot for this poem, and the way that students react to it. It’s a great way to deconstruct preconceived notions of what poetry is, and it’s a simple piece for them to model original pieces upon. There is a lot of great discussion.
However, the more I think about this little poem, the more applications that I see for it.
How we might use this text:
Poetic Form – Even at Grade 10, students still have a pretty fixed idea of what poetry looks like. they expect stanzas and rhyme. They expect things that are a bit longer. I love their reaction to “The Red Wheelbarrow.” “That’s not a poem! It’s a sentence arranged like a poem!” A fair argument, but it allows us to have a conversation about what makes a poem a poem. We discuss what some poems do, and the conventions we’ve come to expect, but more importantly, we get to discuss how we, as poets, can mess with those conventions.
Specifically, one of the poetic lessons that this tiny, yet vital, poem allows us to teach budding poets is the idea that a line of poetry does not necessarily equal a sentence. We can use poetic license to divide sentences into lines, even stanzas for various effects. We discuss the impact of a line that simply reads “so much depends” and how it emphasizes the importance of what follows. We see that Williams divides the stanzas of the poem in such a way as to highlight each individual item – the wheelbarrow, the rain, the chickens. It makes us ponder the importance of each of these things.
I love, using the random topics generated by the OUPA, having them write pieces inspired by this poem. Even though many wind up simply aping the choices that Williams made in the original, they need to think about the form as they write. In doing so, I hope that they take the lessons in poetic form with them into their own poetry.
Focusing on main idea – As I was deciding which poetic mentor text I would focus on this week, I found myself reflecting upon some of the conversations I’ve had about this poem over the years. I specifically thought about some of the coaching I was doing as we wrote “Red Wheelbarrow” inspired poems this year. I found myself repeating, “What is it that matters in the topic of the anthology you’re writing for? What does “so much” depend upon?”
It also struck me that the work that I was doing in a couple of my other current classes actually had me asking variation of that same question. “What matters? What is it really about? What’s a main idea here?”Isn’t “so much depends/upon” a delightful stem from which to work in answering those questions? Consider, also, that the poem, as a mentor text, actually encourages them towards a stronger response in that they don’t just identify the one thing that matters, but prompts them to expand upon that. It’s not just that “so much depends/upon” the wheelbarrow, but the rainwater glaze and chickens add to its import.
I’ve been using poetry as a literary response tool, via Golden Shovel poetry and Illustrated Blackout poetry. Students use those forms to respond to, and make commentary upon texts that they’ve read. It’s been quite successful, but I’ve had a handful of students asking for another poetic response option. I think “The Red Wheelbarrow” has great potential for this. We’ve recently finished Of Mice and Men, and I can’t help but wonder what they’d say “so much depends/upon” in that book. What a delightful, and brief, way to gauge their grasp of the book.
This could also work as a potential first draft for a thesis, or other element in an introduction. In using the form, our writers would identify what is of great importance that they’re writing about, as well as linking a couple of supporting details.
Brevity – I like to highlight, from time to time, mentor texts that allow us to write “smaller” because I like how these kinds of constraints “encourage” writers to focus their message. One of the reasons that as a writer, I enjoy Twitter, is that the character limit forces me to focus my message, to consider my word choices, and the impact of the words I choose.
This poem does a similar things. The whole thing is a sentence, yes, but it’s a sentence that we’ve been picking apart in English classes for years. If we adhere to notion that poetry is communicating our grandest ideas in the fewest words possible, this poem is a strong defending argument. In what is essentially a single sentence, a poet needs to communicate their idea.
This poem continues to be a gift in my classroom. It brings forth a joyful chaos that serves as a catalyst for learning and writing. As I share it in my classroom, I find that my use for it grows and develops. It inspires critical thinking about form and poetic conventions, and allows my writers a “safe” model to work with as they look to grow as writers.
How else can I evolve my use of this poem as a mentor text? Do you have a go-to poem, one that you’re excited to teach, to use to inspire your writers?