A Comparison/Contrast of Matsuo Basho's Under Cherry Trees and W.C. Williams' The Red Wheelbarrow
Through the Same Eyes
Under Cherry Trees
Under cherry trees
Soup, the salad, fish and all...
Seasoned with petals.
William Carlos Williams
The Red Wheelbarrow
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
besides the white
These two poems, seemingly alienated by vastly dissimilar cultures and disconnected by two and a half centuries, nonetheless are so uncannily similar as to appear to have been penned by the same hand. A stark contrast of context and style in the musings of a twentieth century American doctor and the meditations of a seventeenth century Japanese samurai might be justifiably anticipated. Yet, this contrast fails to materialize. In fact, the similarity between these verses easily outweighs any subtle discrepancy between them, and the element that most stands out in each of these two poems is the thread that most tightly binds them (like children that define their parents): their imagery.
Consider what immediately catches the eye about both of these poems: their humble simplicity. These are not pretentious Dickinsonian ramblings rendered incoherent by their own pomposity. Readers do not have to labor over these verses in order to grasp their meaning (unless they choose to). We're not forced to wrestle into submission some abstruse concept put forth with "elevated" diction.
The most abstract expression to be found within either of our subjects is "glazed with rain/water" (5-6), or perhaps, "Seasoned with petals" (3). No polysyllabic, I-am-such-lofty-art mumbo jumbo here. Two syllables per word is the most that either of our heroes finds necessary to convey his meaning, and both manage to communicate with us without alluding to some obscure and long forgotten Zoroastrian deity. Instead, they refer us to trees and chickens, common and everyday objects of which we can easily form mental images.
Some may choose to defend Dickinsonian writing by preaching patience and pointing out that certain language has atrophied from disuse. Did Dickinson and her ilk not measure and weigh each word carefully? Were their choices not pompous and pretentious when they made them?
Matsuo Basho selected his words two centuries prior to Dickinson, and they seem to have lost none of their vigor. If anything, they are more vital and relevant than ever. The calming images and soothed emotions conjured by the simple incantation "Under cherry trees" (1) rush to us unbidden. No effort is required on our part. A cherry tree is just as lovely and meaningful today as it was centuries ago. The simplicity of our champion's choice of words facilitates the transfer of the images from his mind's projector to our mental screens. This is precisely the reason he so carefully selected each simple and familiar term.
Consider Basho's lines, "Under cherry trees / Soup, the salad, fish and all..." (1-2). These modest and unassuming words clearly paint upon our mental canvasses the beauty and serenity of a picnic in the country, and they do so with exquisite detail. We hear the birds and feel the gentle breeze. The pause here gives the scene time to fully crystallize and allows us the opportunity to gather ourselves so as to fully appreciate the clincher: "Seasoned with petals" (3). Here again, it's with the humblest of terms that Basho manages to portray a scene within a scene, a visual double entendre. It's not only the picnic's food that is seasoned, but the entire vista - not with herbs and spices, but "with petals" (3).
Basho uses only the most basic and unsophisticated tools to ply his craft. He has no need for lofty and elaborate devices to get his point across. He understands that sometimes less is more, just as Williams does.
Although Williams may wield them in a slightly different manner, he uses the same tools. In one thing, however, they do differ; while Basho may be sharing with us his Buddhist understanding of the mystical, Williams is teasing us. He effectively shows us such a clear and lucid picture of "a red wheel / barrow / glazed with rain / water / besides the white / chickens (3-8), yet leaves us wondering what it is that "so much depends / upon" (1-2).
Williams' choice of words, like Basho's, serves to instantly generate a perfectly brilliant and unambiguous image. Notice the calculated and carefully scripted pauses that allow the picture to fully develop. The fact that this seemingly simplistic poem is ripe with imagery (indeed, its whole purpose is the imagery) ultimately clues us in to what it is that "so much depends / upon" (1-2). It's the very subject of the poem itself that is so dependent on that wheelbarrow: the imagery.
What would become of the image if "the red wheel / barrow" (3-4) was removed?
Not convinced? Return to the very beginning of this discussion, and look at the eight lines of The Red Wheelbarrow. Do not read the words; just look at them upon the page. Look at each pair of lines. Do not read. Just look. Do you see what he's done? If not, try to fix your gaze beyond the page, so that your vision is a bit out of focus. Now do you see? Yes! Those carefully scripted pauses allow the picture to develop in more than one way. Each pair of lines forms a wheelbarrow.
"It becomes clear that the structure of Williams' poetry . . . had been drastically influenced by painting. In overall composition, as well as in word choice and selection of visual detail, the style of his poems had come to reflect certain developments in the visual arts with uncanny accuracy" (Dijkstra). This influence is undeniable. Williams set out to portray simple images in simple terms, accessible to anyone. He riled against affected, "elevated" works such as Dickinson's or T.S. Elliot's, which, according to Williams, "set poetry back twenty years" (Wagner).
Matsuo Basho, on the other hand, was a student of Zen Buddhism and painting (Basho) and was influenced by the natural beauty that accompanied him throughout his famous travels. This is clearly manifested in his poetry. The Zen allusion he achieves through his simply scripted landscape quietly shouts at us.
It is through imagery that Matsuo Basho and William Carlos Williams experienced their worlds, and it is through imagery that they chose to convey their insight. This is evident in the works we have discussed. They were keenly aware of the symmetry before them and offered us a glimpse. If we can only bring ourselves to take their words at face value, our lives will be richer for it.
The Zen philosophy is a gentle reminder to not over-analyze, to perceive what is before us, and maybe it will suffice. We would dishonor the memory of Basho and Williams with clumsy efforts to grapple life's secrets from their art, and do a grave disservice to their cause by failing to see the beauty they set before us. What they saw is faithfully reflected in their work without a shroud of pretension. The simple elegance of their words conveys the magic in their eyes.
Basho, Matsuo. "The Poetry of Basho". The Masterpieces of World Literature.
HarperCollins, 1989. 694-95.
Dijkstra, Bram. Cubism, Stieglitz, and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams: the
Hieroglyphics of a New Speech Princeton University Press, 1969.
Wagner, Linda W. "Williams, William Carlos." Collier's Encyclopedia. 1997 ed.