big ideas, poetry

In Praise of Simplicity

I think that one of greatest poems ever written is “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. You’d be hard pressed to find something that said so much with so little:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The image is stark and clear, and though we may not know what the “so much” is that depends upon this beautiful image, it’s better that we’re left to guess.

I like to assume that “so much” is the fate of the known world. That all the things that I and you hold dear are at risk. Not in the absolute way that they may be threatened from an angry neighbor or a nuclear bomb, but something about our existence would be the less if this image didn’t happen. If this instant of reality wasn’t captured in these words.

But this poem isn’t great just because of its length and simplicity of structure. Surely poems have been written with fewer letters, or with a less delineated structure. This is about the density of the images and their meaning.

And don’t think that this is only about poems. I would contend that some of the greatest books, movies, and paintings are also starkly simple. The Little Prince or any Dr. Seuss is simple. But in their simplicity there is also something crucial. Saint Exupery’s story is brimming given its length. Dr. Seuss is fun, but he’s also teaching us something. Always teaching us something we really should know.

Movies. Too many people are too concerned with displaying the weakness of men, their personal struggles and the deeper meaning of those struggles. I’m not saying these aren’t worthy and sometimes interesting quests, but the measure of a films worth should not be the number of meanings that we can only guess at. David Lynch makes interesting movies, but they are not fun nor joyful.

Sometimes what we need is simple easy joy. Sometimes (maybe a lot) we need to put down The Brothers Karamazov and look for a time at a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water and just, for a time, soak in the glow of simplicity.