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The Space Between “A” and “The”

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I happened upon this old radio interview with William Carlos Williams today. About three minutes into the broadcast, William recites his famous “Red Wheelbarrow” poem, but he makes a small in size, large in implications mistake. Take a listen to the early portion of this video:

(Do take the time to listen to the whole interview. Though for our purposes today, we need not listen any further than five minutes in or so.)

Williams says:

so much depends
upon

the red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

But the poem is actually about “a red wheel barrow.” (Allow me to pause here to mention the word wheelbarrow has no hyphenation in the poem, a both frustrating and fascinating mistake or decision.)

So what is the difference between a red wheelbarrow and the red wheelbarrow? To some, I imagine there is no difference. The scene is so compact and discreet, it might as well be the red wheelbarrow because there are no others presented, no rival wheelbarrows.

However, I think the red wheelbarrow is different — if only in slight degrees. The red wheelbarrow implies there are multiple wheelbarrows. It implies there is something singular and specific about this certain red wheelbarrow, in this certain location. It in some ways turns our focus to the dew and chickens and the color red, the distinguishing elements of the wheelbarrow.

The word the in this instance carries a degree of undertones, a subtext of something peculiar or even sinister. By specifying the red wheelbarrow, it suggests there are other wheelbarrows. And since it would not be the working red wheelbarrow or something to imply it is the only usable wheelbarrow (as the original poem suggests) makes me wonder if perhaps there is something even more important than the wheelbarrow’s farm-related duties. Perhaps there is dried blood at the base of the wheelbarrow. Suddenly the pastoral, slice-of-farm-life poem contains a whiff of murder mystery.

Is that drawing a bit much from the difference of a single article? Yes, probably, maybe. It was the natural path my mind wandered when I first considered the difference between the two words, so maybe it is not so radical? Or maybe, if the poem had always been the, I would have never trod down that line of thought.

But we can at least suggest this: When a poet has only twelve words to convey a meaning or scene, so much depends upon the space between a and the.

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