Showing vs. Telling, Part II

Showing vs. Telling:
Toward a Rhetoric of the Page

~Part 2 of 3~

by Tim Hunt

“This is not to suggest that listening is inferior to visual processing.  It is, rather, to note that speaking/hearing and writing/reading are different modes of language and that poems that are imagined as operating more within the aural domain (as if performed speech recorded in writing) and those that are imagined as operating more within the visual domain (as compositions made from the visual system of writing) engage and deliver language differently.”

Section XXII of William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All (1923), usually anthologized as “The Red Wheelbarrow,” is a poem that exploits writing as itself a visual system of language, and it illustrates how the page can function as part of the poem’s measure—an element in the writing:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens[1] 

The poem presents a single visual moment, a single image.  How the page and phrases interact is clear if we read it as if prose: “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.”  This reduces the poem to a flat assertion that is of little (actually no) interest—at least without a story or argument to specify why anything could “depend” on a wet wheelbarrow in the chicken yard.  But breaking the sentence into lines creates a seemingly energized moment of visual perception.  In prose the words are a kind of summary; but arranged against the field of the page, the words become a set of visual recognitions, actions, where we engage texture, color, and spatial relationships.  Chunked as smaller than usual perceptual and linguistic units, the scene’s elements gain specificity and energy (the way lines five and six split the word “rainwater” into two so that we attend to “rain” as action and thing and to “water” on objects as outcome illustrates this).  The cumulative effect is to intensify an ordinary glance into a moment of energized seeing in which the discrete details become a set of visual qualities and relationships that in turn become an imaginative whole.  In this sense, “much” does “depend” on this poetic still life and the active, engaged mode of looking that it enacts and elicits.

William Carlos Williams

In “The Red Wheelbarrow” the page functions as a visual space that modulates the writing on it and is necessary for the poem to work at all.  “The Red Wheelbarrow” does not represent speech and need not be voiced (or heard) to be experienced.  It can be read silently, so long as it is not read as prose but is read with attention to the conceptual emphases and linguistic disruptions the line breaks and space create.  The functioning of the crucial word “depends” demonstrates this.  In reading the poem aloud, we would presumably emphasize “depends” because of its position at the end of the line.  This emphasis is not, though, driven by the way the sentence of the poem would be read if it were treated as a unit of speech, nor is it driven by any aural patterning of rhyme, meter, or rhythm.  The emphasis is conceptual, and it depends on the visual action of reading (the way our eyes stop when they reach the end of the line, before shifting down and left to begin processing the next unit) and on our recognition of how this break and those that follow cut against the syntactical grain to re-organize the units of the sentence as units of visual apprehension.  Similarly, the way the whole poem hangs down from, and conceptually derives from, “depends” (literally hangs from or on) is a play that energizes the word but turns almost entirely on how “depends” functions as a visual unit of writing (a word) in a specific visual position on the page.  The occasion of “The Red Wheelbarrow,” then, is visual; its action is visual and conceptual; the writing emphasizes the words as visual units rather than units of speech; and the way Williams’ uses the page to disrupt and recast the written visual system energizes the language.  We can, of course, choose to hear the poem, to read it aloud with the pauses and inflections the line breaks mark, but nothing requires us to do so, since the inflections derive from the writing that is the poem, not from speech or speaking.

A somewhat earlier Williams’ piece, “To a Solitary Disciple,” (first published February 1916 in Others: An Anthology, then collected in Al Que Quiere! in 1917) underscores the visual, writerly basis of his approach in his early Imagist work:

Rather notice, mon cher,
that the moon is
tilted above
the point of the steeple
than that its color
is shell-pink

Rather observe
that it is early morning
than that the sky
is smooth
as a turquoise.

Rather grasp
how the dark
converging lines
of the steeple
meet at the pinnacle—
perceive how
its little ornament
tries to stop them—

See how it fails!
See how the converging lines
of the hexagonal spire
escape upward—
receding, dividing!
—sepals
that guard and contain
the flower!

Observe
how motionless
the eaten moon
lies in the protecting lines.

It is true:
in the light colors
of morning
brown-stone and slate
shine orange and dark blue.

But observe
the oppressive weight
of the squat edifice!
Observe
the jasmine lightness
of the moon.[2] 

The poem’s language, because cast as an address to an imagined disciple, seems to suggest that the writing, here, functions as stored speech and that we should hear, rather than see, these phrases.  But, as with “The Red Wheelbarrow,” the poem’s system and logic is actually visual (emphasizing writing as itself language) rather than aural.

For one thing, the disciple is less an auditor than a device that provides an occasion for the speaker to respond to the visual scene (imagined or actual) and develop how it might best be composed in writing.  This requires, first, setting aside prior conceptions of what might make the scene beautiful in order to experience its elements and their relationship freshly.  This scrupulous regard for the scene, this rejection of painterly and poetic conventions of the picturesque, allows the speaker to perceive the scene actively and participate in it.  As with “The Red Wheelbarrow,” so much “depends” on this imaginative apprehension of world.  But also “To a Solitary Disciple” delineates the nature of the looking that supports the writing of poems such as “The Red Wheelbarrow.”  It shows the speaker avoiding (and instructing the imagined disciple to avoid) both conventional perceptions of the picturesque and conventional expressions of it.  One reject the conventional satisfaction of seeing “that its color/is shell pink” if one is to grasp—and express—the scene’s actual set of relationships and its dynamism.  And by doing this one can reach a moment where the perception of “the jasmine lightness/of the moon” is genuine rather than trite because it is engaged specifically and as if directly without conventional mediations.  This enables the image to function as the apprehension and expression of what is actually there and also as an imaginative intensification of it that can enable the viewer to apprehend the scene’s energy.

The way the page disrupts language as speaking to foreground, instead, writing as a visual system is less obvious in “To a Solitary Disciple” than “The Red Wheelbarrow,” but the speaker of “To a Solitary Disciple” is more properly a perceiver/writer than a “speaker.”  Although the speaker explicitly addresses the disciple (“Rather notice, mon cher”), experiencing the poem is more a matter of seeing the writing on the page than hearing it, as the break between the second and third lines illustrates.  The way the second line can stand alone as the completion of what the disciple is to notice (“notice, mon cher,/that the moon is”) emphasizes “is” and allows the line to function as an assertion of the moon’s physical being, emphasizing its presence as a matter of primary importance.  The third line then recasts “is” more simply as the linkage of “moon” to its being “tilted”:

Rather notice, mon cher,
that the moon is
tilted above

The way “is,” in this stanza can be both an assertion and a simple linkage depends on writing operating as a visual system.  It requires the position of words in visual space rather than the syntactical modulations of speaking.  And it requires that the poet and reader have a shared sense of the conventions for how the units constructed from the visual code—the “lines”—interact with the space of the page; how, that is, the page as space and surface mediates the interaction of the lines a composed units of writing.  This point is, I’d suggest, more apparent when we recognize that there is no direct equivalent in speech.  We can read these phrases to emphasize the final “is” of the second line (“Rather notice, mon cher, that the moon IS tilted above”), but doing so does not underscore that the “moon is” in the way that responding to the written code on the page does.  Reading the lines as actual speech (rather than voiced writing) instead emphasizes the need to attend to the quality of being “tilted.”  The modulation of “is” as we voice this written construction is not a product of the language as speech recorded in writing; it is a product of writing and the way units of writing relate to each other spatially on the page.

“To a Solitary Disciple” is composed as writing (with language operating first as visual code and the aural dimension of the words not only secondary but to a significant degree disposable) rather than as speech that has been encoded and thereby preserved in writing.  The way the poem builds from verbs emphasizing perception and how the pattern this creates functions conceptually and aesthetically underscore this.  In the poem’s first verse paragraph, the disciple is to “notice,” in the second to “observe,” then to “grasp.”  The three verbs show the speaker/writer demanding that the disciple’s looking become progressively more engaged and active; this pattern helps create the imperative energy to the directions “See” and “See” in the first two lines of the fourth paragraph, and this progression of “notice” to “observe” to “grasp” to “See/See” shapes how the imperative “observe” (repeated three times in paragraphs five through seven) functions.  In the second paragraph, “observe” is more simply the instruction to pay careful, accurate attention; in the fifth and seventh paragraphs it becomes not only a matter of observing but of grasping, seeing, and projecting the images that are the scene’s true and actual beauty (and its imaginative realization and expression).

The way the sequence of these verbs shape their precise meaning in the poem is a feature of the writing.  The eye can track such patterns, because the page allows the eye to move back and forth between the written elements arranged on it.  The eye, that is, can follow the unfolding of the writing as linear process (and thus, in this poem, the way these commands evolve through the poem as a series), while also constructing the imperative verbs as a set in which each element takes something of its meaning (its particular nuance or resonance) from the way it repeats, extends, and diverges from the set’s other elements.  The eye can hold (or review) the words as visual units and thereby process the writing both as linear series and as spatial set, process these two in terms of each other, and generate the poem’s system.

That these qualities involve writing (i.e. the visual elements on the page) as itself language rather than writing as speech represented visually is, I think, clear if we imagine hearing the poem rather than reading it from the page.  In hearing the poem, the speech action of addressing the disciple would be immediately clear, as would (if it were read well) the way the perception of the scene becomes increasingly engaged and energized as the poem moves from “moon is” to “jasmine lightness/of the moon.”  The poem might well be a compelling emotional experience, but the ear could not track the way the poem as composed writing builds from the more specific unfolding of the series of verbs nor construct them into a functional set.  The ear can track inflection, tone, and pace better than the eye can see them, but the ear cannot stop the text and reflect as it listens, cannot move recursively up and down the page, cannot extract and pattern the units of a set of elements from a text with the same power or precision as the eye.  “To a Solitary Disciple,” that is, builds more from the simultaneity of the images and phrases as a systematized visual set than from the unfolding of sound in time that characterizes speaking.

This is not to suggest that listening is inferior to visual processing.  It is, rather, to note that speaking/hearing and writing/reading are different modes of language and that poems that are imagined as operating more within the aural domain (as if performed speech recorded in writing) and those that are imagined as operating more within the visual domain (as compositions made from the visual system of writing) engage and deliver language differently.  “To a Solitary Disciple” was written to be read visually more than it was written to be heard.  And this becomes, I’d suggest, even clearer if we note that the gesture “Rather notice, mon cher” functions less as speech (either as monologue for the benefit of disciple and reader or as imagined dialogue with the disciple) and instead functions more as an “equation” as Pound uses that term in his essay “Vorticism” to explain the distillation and transformation of an actual experience in the metro station into the aesthetic perception that becomes “In a Station of the Metro.”[3]  In “To a Solitary Disciple” the imperative verbs support a series of equations (notice a not b; observe x not y, and so on).  And the poem itself becomes a larger equation that is the sum and result of this series (attending to a not b transforms the landscape from sentimental convention into energized visual field).

Ezra Pound, 1913

For Pound “To a Solitary Disciple” might have seemed a lesser poem than “The Red Wheelbarrow.”  It is more discursive, less distilled; and one could argue that it circles around its “equation” rather than expressing the equation directly (as “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “In a Station of the Metro” perhaps do).  But one value of “To a Solitary Disciple” is that it models the perceptual process that would yield the particular moments of seeing in a poem like “The Red Wheelbarrow.”  And it illustrates why “The Red Wheelbarrow” needs to be read visually (both in the sense of attending to the scene being evoked and in the sense of mapping the poem’s linguistic units both from the surface of the page and against the space or field of the page).  And it shows that poems that emphasize writing as visual code may well incorporate moments of represented speech and spoken touches, yet still require primarily the attention of the eye, not the ear, to engage not only the poem’s material but also its mode of language.  In these three poems the external world is a text to be read—that is, seen and possessed through the imaginative energy of the eye.  And this process of reading as seeing becomes the written text (the distillation and realization of the imaginatively apprehended “equation”) that the reader, reciprocally, sees and possesses in reading the visual code of words and images.  The poem, that is, is a textual object to be viewed and appreciated, and its value comes in large part from the power of the textual object to elicit a recognition of the “equation” that distilled the original experience and transformed that biographical and discursive reality into the poem.  In this sense the poem as writing does not refer; rather it “is” as the “moon is.”


[1]  The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume I, 1909-1939, Ed. A Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions Books, 1986), 224.

[2]  The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume I, 1909-1939, 104-05.

[3]  Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir (New York: New Directions Books, 1960), 81-94.5.


Tim Hunt is professor emeritus in Literature from Illinois State University. His scholarly publications include Kerouac’s Crooked Road: Development of a FictionThe Textuality of Soulwork: Jack Kerouac’s Quest for Spontaneous Prose, and the five volumes of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers.  Hunt has also published three collections of poetry.  Fault LinesThe Tao of Twang, and Poem’s Poems & Other Poems received three Pushcart Prize nominations, and his the poem “Lake County Elegy” has been awarded the Chester H. Jones National Poetry Prize.

Showing vs. Telling is reposted from Professor Hunt’s website at THunt.com


New to the Society’s Shelves:

David Bromige & Richard Denner, The Canto Berry Tales, DPress, 2007
Sandy Berrigan. The Tall Man, (privately published), 2017

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