Theory of Poetry Blog

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In his theory of poetry, José Garcia Villa outlined a “Spectrum of Poetry” which, in simple terms, segregated poems – again speaking of poetry as art and not as popular culture – into three “regions”: the region of “pure poetry” at one end of the Spectrum, the region of “general poetry” in the middle, and the region of “great poetry” at the opposite terminal from “pure poetry.” The Spectrum polarized poems on the basis of their “purity” and “content,” where content is what is generally referred to as the “meaning” of the poem. In this Spectrum, meaning is seen as an adulterant, a pollutant, and a non-poetic factor.

The medium of poetry is music and magic in language. In “pure poetry,” the medium uses itself as its sole and only source of power. This is based upon the premise that ideas are not the life of poetry – poetry’s life is its authority to spellbind us. Oscar Wilde said: “Art never expresses anything but itself.” When a poem is pure, it is centered in poetry itself.

As we move across the Spectrum from the region of pure poetry, poems acquire more depth or philosophy, becoming more impure because of content. The region of great poetry is therefore the most impure because the highest meaning value is to be found there. By the term “highest meaning value,” Villa meant not the greatest amount of content, but the greatest weight and depth of insight. This is a qualitative depth, not a quantitative depth. More will be said of “great poetry” in later postings, but this one focuses on the subject of “pure poetry.”

In his poetry workshops, Villa often praised a “pure poem” of one of his students, George Wagner. The poem in its entirety was:



u better fly!

Villa described this poem as “pure concrete poetry,” noting that as content it is still practically nothing but with some human element. He noted, however, that the poem has magic adding: “But if you used ‘you’ instead of ‘u’ (in the last line) it has no magic and is not in the medium,” as it would then have the quality of prose.

Wagner’s poem reminded me of one written many years before by my maternal step-Grandmother, Inez Clark Thorson. The poem, as recited to me by my stepmother, was as follows:

I’ll never know the reason why

They call him the butterfly

When all he does is flit and flutter

And never gives an ounce of butter.

From a comparison of the two poems, one can see the purity of the Wagner poem. Its power derives almost solely from its correlations of sounds and letters and the magic created thereby, and scarcely at all from what it says.

I have delved into this brief explanation of “pure poetry” to introduce a discussion of a poem of William Carlos Williams, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” about which so much has been written over the years. The poem, in its entirety, reads:

so much depends



a red wheel



glazed with rain



beside the white


I find this poem intriguing because, while it is well versified (four stanzas, balanced and maybe even wheelbarrow-shaped), to me it could easily have been written in prose. Thus it violates Villa’s injunction that: “If you can say it in prose, don’t write it as poetry.” It also possibly violates another of Villa’s “don’ts” of the art of poetry: “Don’t describe – description impedes the poetic velocity, which resides in the metaphor, and will turn the lightning swiftness of poetry into the dragging pace of prose.” There is no doubt in my mind that Williams’ poem was describing what he had seen in the backyard of one of his patients, for Williams so acknowledged. And yet Villa, in a conversation I had with him, characterized the poem as one of Williams’ better poems.  How to reconcile the poem with Villa’s teachings became a subject of interest for me.

The best I could do in this respect was this:   The poem is very brief and therefore the description does not impede its poetic velocity. Moreover, the poem can be read as going beyond mere description in the sense that what Williams saw in his patient’s backyard was simply a metaphor for awareness of man’s environment on which, in the words of the poem, “so much depends.” In his “A Sort of a Song,” Williams wrote: “No ideas but in things,” bespeaking an imagist philosophy that embraces the idea of written expression in clear, sharp, minimal words, evident in “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Thus Villa may have concluded that the poem has a dimension beyond mere meaning and therefore was not merely “free verse,” which Villa condemned as prose matter that has been chopped into short lines to mimic the form of verse.

Despite this rationalization, I do not believe that Villa saw “The Red Wheelbarrow” as a work of art, and if he did I certainly disagree with him based on Villa’s own premises. Villa described verse as mere verse and not poetry where “the poetic process is not at work, since poetry is a voyage of discovery and starts with no subject matter.” Under this criterion, “The Red Wheelbarrow" has “a prose life because it depends upon meaning.”

You may wonder why in this post I have juxtaposed the discussion of pure poetry with a discussion of “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Obviously, no one could characterize Williams’ poem as a “pure” poem in the sense of Villa’s usage of that term, as it is full of meaning (the “so much depends” insures that). I have done so merely to illustrate, to myself if to no one else, that “The Red Wheelbarrow” is not within the medium of poetry and cannot therefore be redeemed by its brevity.    

Vocation: Wall Street Trial Lawyer (Retired)
Avocation: Poetry and Poetics
Studied poetry with Jose Garcia Villa 1970-1997
Writer and Publisher of Poetry


  • Guest
    bonjour from france Tuesday, 01 October 2013

    Analysis shows that short and blunt sounds on the first two stanzas telling us how the wheelbarrow serves the people, while long and wide-mouthed diphthongs evince more harmonious and a life of peace found in nature. In this sense what it says turns to how it says. In addition as mentioned in the post it's in the shape of a wheelbarrow, so Villa was correct when he thought it a better poem. Or could you write a better poem concerning a wheelbarrow than this one?

  • Bob King
    Bob King Wednesday, 02 October 2013

    I have expressed my view on The Red Wheelbarrow in this blog. When you ask: "Could I write a better poem concerning a wheelbarrow?" I must respond "No" because, unlike Williams, I would never attempt to write a poem starting with subject matter. I would let my language do the talking and if, perchance, it should lead me to a wheelbarrow, it would be a better poem than William's..

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