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Sam Rasnake on “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 everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.


This poem by Wallace Stevens is in one of my deepest wells.  I really can’t remember when I didn’t know this poem.  I do know that the poem came to me through my father who always referred to it – my father whose ideal poet is Longfellow, yet is a man who knew Stevens’ poem.  From that connection, I grew to love this poem – and that pulled me deeper, when I was ready, into Stevens’ great works: “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “The Snow Man,” “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” “Sunday Morning” … I’ll stop there.

What amazes me most about “Anecdote of the Jar” is Stevens’ ability to give force to such a small and insignificant object. The poet emphasizes circular imagery throughout – jar, round, hill surround, around – to add a universal or even archetypal quality to the poem.  Stevens writes, “The wilderness rose up to it, / And sprawled around, no longer wild” – and the jar becomes transformed.  This is a surprise, given the almost trivial nature of the opening line: “I placed a jar in Tennessee”.  It was round.  It was on a hill.  Add to this the fact that the jar is plain and transparent — yet, the world, the wilderness, rose to meet it.  This wilderness, however, instead of existing as a romantic landscape of untamed beauty, is described as “slovenly” and “no longer wild”.  Its beauty, whatever that is, is either overwhelmed by or infused with – and I lean more toward the latter – the jar’s plain but real presence.

Loneliness of the creative act is realized in the stark imagery of the closing lines:

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush

The poem ends with the unique attributive force of the jar: “Like nothing else in Tennessee”.  The jar’s purpose – as supply, protection, display – is unlimited.  Stevens, in his description of the jar, wants many possible readings of “port” – gateway, demeanor, harbor, meaning, refuge – to instill the poem with more ambiguity.  The speaker gives the jar to the wilderness – such a strange act, since the jar is alien to nature in its existence as a result of human mass production.

The complex nature of the poem becomes evident when considering the dominion that is declared.  The speaker gives the jar, but the jar – and not the “I” of the poem – asserts dominion.  A hill serves as pedestal for this banal and undecorated human product – no doubt, Stevens had in mind a kinship with modern art and New York’s famous Amory Show of 1913 when he wrote this poem during or shortly after his 1918 trip to Tennessee.  It’s the act of placing the ubiquitous jar in such an unlikely place that is of value in this poem.

A jar that haunts me.


Sam Rasnake has one collection of poetry, Necessary Motions and two chapbooks, Religions of the Blood and Lessons in Morphology. He edits a magazine – Blue Fifth Review.

11 thoughts on “Sam Rasnake on “Anecdote of the Jar”

  1. Sam, what do you make of the unusual phrasal use of “of”?

    “The jar was […] of a port in air.” “give of bird or bush”.

    ‘be of’ = be composed of? be from? be similar to?
    ‘give of’ = be generative of? participate with? (somehow) reflect, or disclose?

    In its plainly grand claims for ‘placing’ and “dominion”, the poem is haunting – surely an ekphrasis to place alongside Ode on a Grecian Urn and Archaic Torso of Apollo.

    (By the way, the “jar” is not “transparent”; it’s “gray”. – a (slender) Mason jar?)

      1. In Harmonium, I count five titular “Anecdote”s, four of which are “of Whatever”.

        I don’t see the problem with ‘anecdote of whatever’, Greg. ‘I told Mary an anecdote of Lincoln’s early legal practice.’ ‘John told me an anecdote of the “wild West”.’ – why not synonymous for ‘about; from’? or is it rough and I’m just used to the Stevensian titles?

        Maybe I’m badly misundercomprehending your point??

        1. No, I meant check on that the picture of the jar is not gray, but – from John’s new link post – The “Dominion Wide Mouth” Jar said to be (by Roy Harvey Pearce) the “source” for the “Jar in Tennessee.” And it is a clear mason jar.

          I dropped the italicized ‘of’ to be funny since you spoke of ‘of.’

          1. Thanks for correcting my misreading of your direction, Greg.

            I figured out your directions here (there aren’t that many “John”s), and went to the picture of the object that Pearce is convinced is “the Jar”. Also, I went to http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/stevens/jar.htm , where Glen MacLeod (scroll down a fifth/quarter of the way) says that this Mason jar is “unquestionably ‘gray and bare'”.

            But Greg – that photographed jar is neither gray nor bare: it’s “unquestionably” formed with commercial ornament to communicate words – fancily: ‘Dominion’ – ; and it’s transparent – which is just not gray – .

            True, the jar unbarely says “Dominion” – and if it was Stevens’s inspiration, that’s an interesting use of “take” – .

            But, because it doesn’t look like Stevens tells us his anecdotal “Jar” looks, I think it can be, at most, one of the jars of the “the Jar” – and not the “gray and bare” one.

            You know, in the painting of The Man with the Blue Guitar, the guitar is not “blue”, is it? – though the man is, and maybe the music, too.

            Perhaps Anecdote of the Jar’s ekphrasis is meant to generate a tension within imagination between perception and description.

            1. I hear you. I think Stevens also said that “The Man with the Blue Guitar” wasn’t really about Picasso, but it probably helped. We take in some many things, even pre-internet and TV, back then I think billboards were the big thing, Marquees. The key seems to be taking the object, running it through one’s sense’s, one’s past and spitting out an object that wasn’t there to begin with. The Archaic Torso of Apollo speaks (so some interpretations say) and that Torso speaking is due to Rilke’s mind. Stevens also, he took a nothing and made it everything.

  2. First, I’ve got to simply applaud Sam’s work here. A week on Stevens — or any significant poet — demands a sharp yet sensitive *explication de texte* along the way. Maybe two (& so I note the “Sentence on a Sentence” post, happily).

    Second, my take concerning “of” is that the two usages mirror each other’s functions. The first, that is, describes where it might come from (it seems to have appeared out of thin air), while the second use describes what it might impart (it could deliver seeds, eggs, flora, fauna…). By extension, in my interpretation, the “of” usages underscore the jar’s otherness, its lack of natural provenance or function, & take the poem towards a commentary on art: on itself, as it were.

    Unnatural yet essential, this jar & poem.

  3. Sam, why do you say the jar is a result of “mass” production? Human production, yes, and maybe there’s a real jar that inspired Stevens that was a mass-produced jar, but the poem is silent on that score. There’s definitely a “man-made” versus “natural” thing going on here, but I don’t see anything about “mass-produced” vs the then implicit contrast of “handmade.”

  4. I agree with Sam about the haunting quality of the Stevens poem.

    As a grad student at Northwestern University in the
    1970s, I had a great class on allusion with Martin Mueller who suggested in that class that Stevens’ poem alludes to Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The trajectory from the 19th century to the 20th century, according to Mueller, is from “ode” to “anecdote” and from “urn” to “jar.” Looked at it this way, you can see Stevens rewriting Keats in “Anecdote of a Jar,” the jar being art which makes “the slovenly wilderness” “surround” but not invade “that hill.”

    The wilderness rose up to it,
    And sprawled around, no longer wild

    Thus, the power of a work of art which takes “dominion everywhere.”

    And art, being a product of man, does “not give of bird or bush” (i.e. nature).

    The double negative in the last lines suggests, however, that Tennessee does. Tennessee becomes the emblem of that sublimely natural place which extravagantly does “give of bird and bush.”

  5. I see the jar, Andrew, as a bit of necessary intrusion on the natural – a product of industry – like the Ball jar. One of many – though Stevens’ view – a hill in Tennessee – is individualized, specific, very real and intimate.

    Translucent would no doubt be a better description of the jar – light passing through here, allowing any contents to appear. I probably used transparent to indicate the jar’s essential quality – essence – nothing hidden. And right or wrong – the gray indicates to me its age, use, wear – showing the long process of the wilderness rising to meet it.

    As for ‘of’ – I like John’s description, connecting the word with otherness. That’s stands out to me. In some ways the jar functions as a bridge, an otherness, between the human hand and the hill.

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