In order to get revved up for Wallace Stevens week or because I have been revving on Stevens and came up with the idea for the week, I can’t help but spill some words about the poet. First, I want to thank that perspicacious and thorough reader John Madera. A few months ago he told me he’d read all of Stevens, twice. Now, what would possess someone to do this? Stevens did. I had to see what it was about. First I concentrated on Harmonium, Stevens’s first book, one of William Gass’s Fifty Literary Pillars. Published in 1923, Stevens was forty-four when it came out. Some poems were published up to eight years before but he waited. It is a wondrous collage, with very short poems and very long ones and many of the usual suspects that show up in the anthologies: “The Snow Man,” “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” Many critics were muddled. New York Times review said, “From one end of the book to the other there is not an idea that can vitally affect the mind, there is not a word that can arouse emotion. The volume is a glittering edifice of icicles. Brilliant as the moon, the book is equally dead.”
Hart Crane, after reading some of the poems that would make up the book said, “There is a man whose work makes most of the rest of us quail.”
The ‘thing’ about Stevens for me (and Crane), and I’m just a beginner, is that I can read these poems tens of times and still be refreshed. To take Stevens’s words for his own understanding, ‘One must have a mind of winter’ to delve into these works of art. That mind of winter is not in a rush, is very contemplative and delights in the act of looking, studying and feeling the art. Paul Klee was an artist Stevens admired. For myself it is Gerhardt Richter. It seems one has to keep looking at a poem and a painting in a similar way, studying the color and lines, studying the words and images. Here is Richter’s Abstract Painting (894-1) followed by Stevens’s ‘Anecdote of the Jar’:
ANECDOTE OF THE JAR
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
These are two objects. ‘Tennessee’ has to be one of the most beautiful looking words in the English language–no wonder the playwright Williams changed his first name to it. Just looking at the poem and not reading it, that word’s placement at the top and bottom right hand side of the lines anchors me. Similar to how the top strip of orange in the Richter painting points to the red and yellow area in the middle, the patch of green on the left. There is a harmony and I haven’t read one word.
Stevens’s poems don’t talk to one like many poems do, but their obliquity is of the highest order. They want you to enter a chasm. One could read ‘Anecdote of the Jar,’ and just remark the two appearances of the word ’round’ (a favorite of Stevens as you shall below), or the rhyme ’round upon the ground.’ The anecdote is a shading for a larger event that happens in a time lapse. There is a feeling that the jar becomes something more than it is–an object growing and taking dominion, almost like the coke bottle in The Gods Must be Crazy. The narrator has left themselves and there is only this jar. In Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen out of Desire, Helen Vendler says:
Like life, the poem, [Stevens] said, must resist the intelligence almost successfully. It must present itself as an enigma, just as life does. We live out each poem as we live inside it. The poem-as-passage, not the poem-as-discourse, is Stevens’ model, even when he appears most discursive. p.57
A few weeks ago I started delving into Stevens’s later poems, many of the them long sequences: “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” “Things of August” and especially “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” in the book Transport to Summer. He himself called it the best thing he’d ever done. Three sections: It Must be Abstract, It Must Change, It Must Give Pleasure, with a prologue and epilogue. Each section has ten parts made up of seven tercets. Here is the IX parts of the last section:
Whistle aloud, too weedy wren. I can
Do all that angels can. I enjoy like them,
Like men besides, like men in light secluded,
Enjoying angels. Whistle, forced bugler,
That bugles for the mate, nearby the nest,
Cock bugler, whistle and bugle and stop just short,
Red robin, stop in your preludes, practicing
Mere repetitions. These things at least compromise
An occupation, an exercise, a work,
A thing final in itself and, therefore, good:
One of the vast repetitions final in
Themselves and, therefore, good, the going round
And round and round, the merely going round,
Until merely going round in a final good,
The way wine comes at a table in a wood.
And we enjoy like men, the way a leaf
Above the table spins its constant spin,
So that we look at it with pleasure, look
At it spinning its eccentric measure. Perhaps,
The man-hero is not the exceptional monster,
But he that of repetition is most master.
I’m dizzy after reading this. ‘Thing’ is also a key word for Stevens as many of his titles include it: “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself,” “Things of August,” “Of the Surface of Things,” and “The Plain Sense of Things.” What are these things? The unspeakable? Unnameable? Poetry is an open door. You can take what you want or you can take nothing. What means the most to you might not mean anything for someone else. Stevens sought the ‘thing,’ he sought to place the object and see what happened. In our age of ‘liking’ he is totally unlike-I love him-so much so the title of this article is a line of his from “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.”
* Wallace Stevens Week will start Monday November 15th. If anyone wants to contribute an article contact me at gregorygerke at yahoo.com