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Plums and Wheelbarrows: When Poets Disagree

07/10/2011 02:17 pm ET | Updated Sep 09, 2011

Poet Anna Robinson rolled a red wheelbarrow to the headquarters of the UK's Poetry Society on Wednesday to deliver a rare demand for a society-wide meeting. The move was a nod to American poet William Carlos Williams' famous statement that "so much depends/ upon/ a red wheel/ barrow." In case you're wondering, Robinson's wheelbarrow was, in fact, "glazed with rain water."

The Poetry Society responded with a nod to another well-known Williams poem, "This Is Just To Say," by presenting the protesting members with some plums. This begs the question of whether the society was tipped off to the wheelbarrow stunt. Are we supposed to believe that they just keep plums in the icebox?

Why the farm-implement-filled protest? In just the past two months, the Poetry Society's president, director, board chairman and CFO have all resigned, and their reasons for resigning are a mystery, as it had been a good year for the society. There are rumors of disagreements over the allocation of funding, and of an argument between the society's former director and the editor of its magazine, Poetry Review (the latter has been denied by both parties).

Members want clear answers, and were concerned enough with the rash of resignations to collect the 10 percent of member signatures needed to call a rare general meeting. Signatories include British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke, the national poet of Wales. Kate Clanchy, who helped to organize the signatures, told the Guardian, "It's really difficult to get 10% of the Poetry Society together. It's like herding cats. But here we are, and they have to listen." Especially, it seems, when you bring a wheelbarrow.

Williams probably would have appreciated the gesture. He could be feisty himself, having once said of his contemporary, T.S. Eliot,

"Take an extreme case. Take the concepts that walk around as T.S. Eliot. We know they are completely worthless."

Williams' red wheelbarrow poem, in fact, can be read as a direct challenge to Eliot, who had a far different view of the direction that poetry should take in the early 20th Century. While Eliot embraced classical themes, Williams was more interested in moving on from such traditions. Instead, he placed immense importance on revivifying the everyday by stripping objects of their emotional baggage and associations -- objects like the now famous wheelbarrow surrounded by chickens.

The whole Poetry Society dispute would get far more interesting if instead of fighting Williams with Williams, they began channeling Eliot, who wrote ominously in part one of "The Wasteland,"

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Take back the plums and offer them a handful of dust. Then we'd have a real row on our hands.

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