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.

Someone should have told me Robert Frost was terrifying

I first read Robert Frost in Elementary school, in a creative writing class that focused on poetry. We read his “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Then in Middle school, while reading The Outsiders I was introduced to “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Somewhere along the road, I was introduced to the well known “The Road Not Taken.” My boyfriend likes to recite “Fire and Ice” to me whenever Frost comes up in conversation (which is more likely than you would think, but put two English majors together, and what do you expect?).  I mention all of this because I’ve practically grown up learning to read Frost. And yet even when I think I know something about a poet, I realize I still have a lot to learn.

I was not prepared for the dark side of Frost, the side my teachers all seemed to keep tucked gently away in a corner where no one would ever discover him. During one of my readings of “The Witch of Coos” I had to physically put down my poetry book and stop reading simply because I was so terrified. This week, I’ll be taking a look at this poem and a poem by North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti: “The City Jail.”

Both of these poems make use of a speaker on the receiving end of some sort of supernatural tale. Frost has a visitor listening to a mother and son recount the tale of an ambulatory skeleton. Bathanti’s speaker is a young boy learning simple moralism through the reference to the shape in the window of the city jail. Both Frost and Bathanti reject simple moral lessons, though. Instead Frost paints a chilling picture of a potentially mad woman haunted by the past. Bathanti likewise rejects the idea of the family myth of the man in the window and instead creates for the speaker a rarity in which morals are not simple, but necessary to avoid the terrifying fate of the specter that haunts him even into adulthood.

Neither poem leaves the reader feeling safe or at ease by the end. Frost leaves the reader wondering if any of the events with the skeleton actually happened, and wondering at the character of the Mother. Bathanti leaves the reader without ever addressing the issue that the speaker actually does see the man in the window, a make believe character of the speaker’s parents invention.

I still love Frost. “Birches” is one of my favorite poems. But now that I know that Frost is much more than my teachers ever let on, I think I love him all the more.