Dover Bitch

Monday, June 12, 2006

A blue wheelbarrow: Part I

A good poem forces the reader to ask questions. That's how they teach us about ourselves. But what about a great poem? Let's play a game: Read "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams (1962) and ask yourself, What is the key question this poem begs us to ask?

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Do you have a question in mind? If not, think about it before reading any further. Read it again, anyway.

(Scroll down to continue...)

OK. So you have a question in mind. DB is going to go out on a limb and guess your question:

What could possibly depend upon all that?

But what's the answer to that question? Rain is important. Food is important. Farms are a good thing. By now it may dawn on you that this question is a dud. Maybe the question is "Why? Why does so much depend upon all that?" That, at least, is a more interesting question.

And as long as were asking that, why did we immediately ask "What?" Maybe we were tricked!

Look at the first two words, "so much" -- a quantity... a quantity of what? Look at the poem as a whole -- a wheelbarrow, chickens, red, glazed with water. You can visualize the entire setting easily. Look again at the way the words were laid out on your screen. You don't even have to. You can close your eyes and see it.

You can see the words. You can see the chickens. You can see everything.

We were tricked. We were supposed to ask "What?"

And now the real question -- Why? Why are we so easily seduced? Why did Williams want us to ask the wrong question?

Maybe he wanted to show us just how easy it was to fool us. Maybe the point is that we depend upon all those things. The human brain does. Our minds need to visualize in order to comprehend. We need to create mental models in order to understand our universe.

That's what depends upon the red wheelbarrow. Us. And you can't answer the question "What?" without asking "Why?"

That opens a box of questions: How much do we depend upon what we can visualize? Are we too dependent upon visualization? How much are we missing because we can be tricked so easily? How much of what is unseen is holding the true answers to all of life's mysteries? How much do other people depend upon what they can see? How much more effective would we be at communicating if we used analogies more often?

The answer should be obvious. A picture is worth a thousand words.

The opposition is coming at us with concise oversimplifications. The only way to beat that is with a crystal-clear analogy.

For example, John Kerry said he believed he could "fight a more effective, more thoughtful, more strategic, more proactive, more sensitive war on terror that reaches out to other nations and brings them to our side and lives up to American values in history."

Dick Cheney and the Republicans campaigned over and over that Kerry wanted to "show Al-Qaida our soft side."

That's where Kerry wasted weeks detailing the places we could use diplomacy better, etc. All he had to do was paint a picture like this:

"Maybe Dick Cheney never noticed that his heart surgeons wore gloves and washed their hands. They did it for Reagan, too, and it wasn't to show the bullet their soft side."

They came at him with flip flops and bandaids. He should have portrayed them as having a sledgehammer in one hand and an empty toolbox in the other. And then he could have described them trying to fix a stained-glass window.

Maybe there's better analogies out there, but the Democrats rarely seem to come up with any. It's a failure to recognize a key element of human nature. William Carlos Williams figured it out.