Love That Poem: William Carlos Williams and a Children’s Novel

One summer, when I was only nine years old, I begged my parents to send me to a week long creative writing class offered at a nearby school. Of the dozen or so children in my class, I was the only one who asked to attend. Every other student viewed the class as a form of punishment. My teacher spent the week focusing on poetry—which offended my prose sensibilities. I went to this class to write stories, not poetry! But sometime during the week, she read to us a book. A very special book. A book that changed the way I interact with poetry. Today I’m going to talk about William Carlos Williams and Sharon Creech’s short children’s novel Love That Dog. If you want to add something valuable to your library, go buy it. Right now. Go. If not, I’ll include a few passages from the book. But trust me on this, you’ll want it.

The entire premise of Love That Dog is that a young boy, Jack, is writing in a journal to his teacher. Each entry is in response to his teacher on the topic of poetry, whether a poem that the class studied, or that the boy himself writes. I can’t give you all of the book, but I’ll type up selected sections because it is excellent. This will be in contrast to William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.” (I would apologize for the length of this blog, but really, I won’t do the book justice unless I give you several key passages. So you’re in for a longer read this week.)

September 27

I don’t understand
the poem about
the red wheelbarrow
and the white chickens
and why so much
depends upon
them.

If that is a poem
about the red wheelbarrow
and the white chickens
then any words
can be a poem.
You’ve just got to
make
short
lines.

This is Jack’s first response to a poem by his teacher, and in it he questions the very nature of poetry. His next two entires are as follows:

October 4

Do you promise
not to read it
out loud?
Do you promise
not to put it
on the board?

Okay, here it is,
but I don’t like it.

So much depends
upon

a blue car
splattered with mud
speeding down the road.

October 10

What do you mean—
Why does so much depend
upon
a blue car?

You didn’t say before
that I had to tell why.

The wheelbarrow guy
didn’t tell why.

One of my favorite things about this book is that Creech uses the simple insights of a child to point out questions that most people have when reading poetry: What makes this a poem? What does this poem mean? Why? And Creech leaves these questions unanswered (for the most part), exemplifying that the nature of poetry is not to find some hidden meaning, but to create an image. While Williams set out to create images of things, a red wheelbarrow, for example, Creech uses Jack to create the image of a child, clear in the eyes of the reader: Curious, self-conscious, skeptical, and even a little bit silly. One of Jack’s later entries in the novel is to me one of the most simple but insightful pieces on the nature of poetry. It reads:

January 17

Remember the wheelbarrow poem
you read
the first week
of school?

Maybe the wheelbarrow poet
was just
making a picture
with words
and
someone else—
like maybe his teacher—
typed it up
and then people thought
it was a poem
because
it looked like one
typed up like that.

And maybe
that’s the same thing
that happened with
Mr. Robert Frost.
Maybe he was just
making pictures with words
about the snowy woods
and the pasture—
and his teacher
typed them up
and they looked like poems
so people thought
they were poems.

Like how you did
with the blue-car things
and the reading-the-small-poems thing.
On the board
typed up
they look like
poems
and the other kids
are looking at them
and they think
they really are
poems
and they
are all saying
Who wrote that?

Jack doesn’t see his own writing as poetry, just pictures with words. But that in itself captures much of what Modernism and Imagism set out to do: Create an image with poetry.  In this way, Jack’s poems, which are crafted to immolate writers like Frost and Williams, do exactly that, they create an image. But even greater than that is Creech’s poems, which create a different image, that of a young boy trying to come to terms with the idea that he writes poetry, and that people actually like his poetry. In the January poem, it is easy to read by Jack’s tone that he is uncertain about his poems, and does not know how to feel about his classmates interest in his poems (which are posted anonymously on the board in his class).

Creech, using the voice of Jack, also brings to light the issue of free verse poetry, in a very humorous manner. When Jack talks about using short lines to make poetry, he is referencing how Williams’ poem uses short lines, broken at seemingly random intervals, for formatting. And so Creech has Jack do the same thing. In a stylistic homage to Williams, but also in giving the character Jack a voice of his own, Creech allows Jack to emulate poets he has read, and grow as a writer as time passes.

Overall, I think Love That Dog is a book most children should read. It introduces poetry in a fun, entertaining, and impactful way. (Spoiler alert: The middle of the book is really sad.) The way Creech brings poets from different times in history together to teach children about poetry is beautiful, and well worth a comparison to William Carlos Williams, who happens to be one of my favorite poets. So go read Love That Dog. And maybe keep some tissues handy.

Langston Hughes deserves the hug Walter Dean Meyers would give him

Two weeks in a row of intense poetry dealing with racism are good for a person, but in a painful way. (Also I may have been procrastinating on homework by reading a sad children’s novel, but don’t tell anyone.) Langston Hughes embodies well the difficulties faced by people of color in the early twentieth century. So much so that it can be emotionally exhausting to read the frankness of pain and suffering present in his poetry. But this week, I’m powering through a stuffy nose and an aching heart to talk about Hughes’s poem “Come to the Waldorf -Astoria” and Walter Dean Meyers’ poem “Harlem: A poem.” (This may in fact be an excerpt from his novel Harlem, but the internet is not being very resourceful today.)

One of my main reasons for comparing these two poets and their poems is that they both focus on the location of Harlem and New York, dealing with racial issues present within the area in both their lives, which happen to overlap some. Hughes uses “Come to the Waldorf-Astoria” to bring to light the disparity between the white upper class in New York during the Depression and the impoverished blacks. His stanzas are an ironic form of hyperbole and seem to grow in intensity and black humor. Hughes contrasts the idea of a hotel where black people can neither work nor stay with the idea that it is so incredibly open, and at a $10,000 price tag! The constant juxtaposition is discomforting, and serves to make the reader realize how problematic and the situation is.

On the other hand Walter Dean Meyers’ poem about Harlem takes on a more positive light. It reminisces Harlem as a place of music and joviality, although it recognizes at times the more somber realities. One of my favorite stanzas goes

In Harlem
Sparrows sit on fire escapes
Outside rent parties
To learn the tunes.

Meyers creates an image of Harlem not brought low by poverty, but creating music that even the birds admire. Harlem is a place of musical beauty, with dancing and culture all around. It is a mix of cultures and times, all jumbled up together, but still a place he calls a home.

While Hughes makes references to current events within his poem, citing the hotel and some famous artists, Meyers looks back in his poem, remembering even Hughes as a formative creator of what Harlem has become for him. Both poets use these allusions to make the poems more real, not merely ideas or satire, but something that can and does exist within the real world.

It’s refreshing to take the hurt of the past and see how it has grown and flourished. While it is impossible to say that life for African-Americans is completely great, things tend to go in the right direction, and that’s worth celebrating in the small things.