Posts filed under ‘Wallace Stevens’
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the black bird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
I can remember reading this in the lit books and thinking, “Eh?”. I think when you’re young you expect art, especially high art, to reveal something to you about life, instead of thinking of it as simply its own kind of artificial experience that occupies and hopefully improves the passage of time. So while “13 Ways…” deals with a serious subject, death let us say, the poem may not have a great deal to say to us other than: “Hey, this is a poem. Enjoy!”
Stevens seems to have posed himself the problem of whether a series of thoughts, impressions, he used the term sensations, sharing a common theme, but without clear logical continuity, could be somehow arranged to form an aesthetic whole, and enjoyed both as a whole but also as a disconnected, kaleidoscopic set. A verbal collage. What is needed to achieve then the barest sense of unity we might ask? While not saying much, and perhaps not to be agreed to by all, we will still assert that temporal art needs an opening, a progression of impressions or ideas, and a close. For a poem this can be achieved either semantically or phonetically, usually both. “13 Ways…” opens with a winter scene and closes with, let us say, the same scene. A certain degree of cohesion is thus achieved. In between the episodes expand and contract, and move through various moods, rhythms, and associations. The sections are brief, haiku-like, but perhaps self-consciously so, and not to be taken too seriously as such. (“A man and a woman are one. …”)
The almost inevitable theme, given the large number of sections, is that death is everywhere, surrounding all we do (stanzas: 1, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13), in sex and love (stanzas: 4 & 7); and cannot be avoided (stanza 11); but possesses humor (stanzas: 2, 4, 5 – a blackbird whistling!), and like many of Stevens’ own poems, a quiet, austere beauty (stanzas: 1, 3, 6, 9, 12, 13). To fail to see the humor in “I was of three minds./like a tree /in which there are three blackbirds”, and to search for some greater meaning there, well you might as well try to explain what semolina pilchards are. Many of the lines and sections end on unaccented syllables and this gives the work as a whole a generally unsettled feeling, which does resolve though quite effectively in the final verse. While a scansion of the poem is beyond the range of this discussion, such a metrical analysis would show such a wide variety of rhythmic patterns that the poem may be viewed as a study of metrical techniques. As such it deserves close reading, listening, study.
The work is anthologized a lot, so seems to achieve a satisfaction for a great number of readers, and has surely been imitated frequently, but I think that the failure of many of its imitators to achieve its level of popularity points towards the difficulty in finding an audience for this kind of loose associative structure (although I’m sure there are a lot who would disagree with that assertion).
Listen (to Hoon read)
Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill;
And that in autumn, when the grapes
Made sharp air sharper by their smell
These had a being, breathing frost;
And least will guess that with our bones
We left much more, left what still is
The look of things, left what we felt
At what we saw. The spring clouds blow
Above the shuttered mansion-house,
Beyond our gate and the windy sky
Cries out a literate despair.
We knew for long the mansion’s look
And what we said of it became
A part of what it is . . . Children,
Still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know,
Will say of the mansion that it seems
As if he that lived there left behind
A spirit storming in blank walls,
A dirty house in a gutted world,
A tatter of shadows peaked to white,
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.
Stevens’ verse, as I found it in the various lit books I was brought up on, was always a puzzle to me. Nothing in it seemed to make sense. It all seemed lacking in purpose and, for lack of a better word, beauty. Much later in life, when I began to record poetry, my main motivation was a belief that hearing a poem recited, especially a difficult poem, makes it more comprehensible; since a certain amount on the meaning is encoded in the interpretation, in the prepared inflections of the reader. Thus it was natural that I should turn to a poet whose work I never felt I understood as a source for material to test this proposition. It was. then, a considerable and pleasant surprise to me that I should become so taken in with Stevens’ work. But what surprised me even more than my being able to understand the stuff was the sense of lyrical delight that comes with reciting Stevens. The works are clearly conceived with much more than just a regard for semantics, but with a deep appreciation for the sound and rhythm of words. It was “A Postcard…”, from IDEAS OF ORDER(1936), it’s rhythm and phrasing, which first opened my ears to how carefully Stevens composes in this regard.
And so on to the semantics.
I hate to discuss the meaning of this poem since it seems so much better that the reader/listener should engage the poem repeatedly and have its meaning revealed, reconstituted, in such a slower, more personal and self-reliant way; and I encourage the reader to break off reading here to pursue such a course. But Stevens can be difficult, and not just for the novice reader.
Edward Hirsch in his book Poet’s Choice(2006) gives a miserable interpretation of the poem under the chapter heading “Poetry Responds to Suffering”. Responding to the “Volcano” mentioned in the title, and phrase “gutted world” near the end, he reads the poem as “a prophetic elegy for a civilization that will be destroyed”. The sense is of a civilization in decline, but hardly destroyed.
The notion of a future generations handling, desecrating, our bones is not new. Hamlet’s graveyard scene comes easily to mind. The ignorance with which these future children do so leads directly to, is subsumed by, the general naivete that they bring to past culture, the words of the past, “the look of things”, their whole cultural inheritance. Indeed the central metaphor of the poem is the dilapidated mansion, which stands, quite simply, for this collective culture, but especially poetry. (Stevens’ symbols can be frequently, and somewhat surprisingly, stiff and conventional).
Their miscomprehension of the past takes place in a physical world that is itself devoid of a sense of aesthetics, that “cries out a literate despair”, eclipsing even the children’s naivete. The children though are “still weaving budded aureoles”, still growing halos of holiness and innocence. They walk past, presumably, the mansion on their way to school, and encounter it in their studies, where they may well “speak our speech and never know”: will only dumbly come to terms with their inheritance, but will dimly sense in it a haunted, lingering, “storming”, presence, the presence of the poet, the creative spirit of the past. This is the Volcano. The children’s neglect is, of course, something that recurs with every generation. Similar to how Wallace himself, let us say, disdained the Romantics. This would be all quite depressing, especially to the restless dead; or the under-read, unappreciated poet of the present; were it not partially compensated-for by the ever rejuvenating presence of the sun which copiously “smears” the mansion, and the whole landscape, with the same spirit that originally informed the poet. (This triumphal compensation is the surprise that the poet has been setting-up all along).
So did Stevens foresee the destruction of civilization?
Certainly he saw the radio, and the telephone, and the movies that they
made, and these things, in their own ways, destroy or erode literary culture-
I think he foresaw that.
There will be more Stevens this week. And, Xu Zhimo.
Listen (to Hoon read)
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.
The poem is from Steven’s TRANSPORT TO SUMMER (1947). He was 67
when it published.
For me it is remarkable how similar in mood this poem and music are. One thinks of Steven’s affection for the tropics and his love of the guitar, which he himself played. I don’t know if he played classical or not; or listened to Segovia who championed Ponce’s work and made recordings as early as 1927, but it’s nice to imagine that he had. The poem is in iambic pentameter, and though formatted as couplets makes more sense as verses of 4,5, 3, and 4 lines respectively. …The truth in a calm world,/ In which there is no other meaning, itself/ Is calm,
In this line it seems that Stevens, who was an atheist, is trying to demonstrate to the mind that requires a belief in a God-head, that the universe viewed from a non-believing point-of-view, is not necessarily chaotic; or at least has its own moments of meditation and quietude, that are as perhaps profound as those discovered by the believer. As in The Place of the Solitaire, and The Snow Man, the state of the mind is wonderfully reflected in the way the external world itself is presented to it. (Yes the guitarist is non-other than hoon).
(The music is of the Mexican composer Manuel M. Ponce (1882 – 1948), his Prelude No. 6 for guitar of 1930.)
Listen (to hoon read)
Let the place of the solitaires
Be a place of perpetual undulation.
Whether it be in mid-sea
On the dark, green water-wheel,
Or on the beaches,
There must be no cessation
Of motion, or of the noise of motion,
The renewal of noise
And manifold continuation;
And, most, of the motion of thought
And its restless iteration,
In the place of the solitaires,
Which is to be a place of perpetual undulation.
A Speculative Analysis
The poet goes to the seashore
and sees there a man playing solitaire with a deck of cards
on the beach, and is struck by the similarity between the man’s game,
its ceaseless yet always varying repetition, and the action, motion, of
the sea itself. More though, the analogy is between the spirit behind
the game and the sea, that spirit being the mind.
And so he writes a poem about the nature of the human mind. It is a
series of mock edicts or decrees declaring that the mind is meant to be
as restless, even repetitious, as the sea, and that we are most
conscious of this mental restlessness when we are alone.
And so we are left to wonder: Is this entertainment? to the mind?
for it to see itself reflected in the vast mindless and unending
plungings of the sea?
Well, is it?
(The washing machine is, of course, yet another restless metaphor.)
Not less because in purple I descended
The western day through what you called
The loneliest air, not less was I myself.
What was the ointment sprinkled on my beard?
What were the hymns that buzzed beside my ears?
What was the sea whose tide swept through me there?
Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.
I was myself the compass of that sea:
I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.
“One short poem for a man,
One giant leap for mankind.”
is close to how I feel about this poem-
which, in the English language and its tradition and canon,
so greatly expands what a poem is and can be about.
Like stepping onto the moon?
better, perhaps, a nearby, undiscovered country;
a land that can be however strange as we can conceive it;
and the poet/reader, a solipsistic astronaut, moon-walker, sea-shore wanderer.
Solipsism is the theory that the self is the only thing that can be
known and verified, that the self is the only reality. The term is
often associated with Stevens.
Eliot had his wasteland, a broken decayed ruin of imagined past glories,
and Coleridge his Xanadu, and its haunted longings of the repressed self.
But Stevens sought, like the graphic abstractionists,
to put together whatever seemed to belong together,
knowing that that sense of belonging together grew out of the poet’s mind
and therefore makes sense.
The model for Hoon with his anointed beard and his solipsism,
may well be Walt Whitman. For consider these lines from Song of Myself:
Divine I am inside and out;
and make holy whatever I touch or am touched from;
The scent of these armpits is aroma finer than prayer
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.
I dote upon myself. There is that lot of me,
and all so luscious,
Each moment and whatever happens thrills me with joy.
— from: Song of Myself (first published: 1855).
(musical accompaniment courtesy of the Redford Gamelan Band)
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
I know it is turning spring-like in much of the country, but yesterday
Redford had snow.
But the real reason for posting Wallace Stevens’ The Snow Man is that
it illustrates the use of music to accompany the recitation of poetry;
something I employ occasionally in my recordings. Adding existing music
to recitation often yields bad results when the two modes move against
each other, and cadences don’t line up. But when appropriate musical
works, or fragments thereof, are discovered, or new music composed for
the occasion, and the modes are in synch, uncanny effects can result.
The music here is from Claude Debussy’s Des Pas sur la Neige,
Footprints in the Snow, from his first book of preludes for piano.
I hope you enjoy it.
Wallace Stevens’ The Snow Man is sometimes viewed as a depressing,
despairing work, but ought not be so.
Stevens believed that the mind was always interpreting reality,
projecting its own values into the world-at-large, as in religion,
romantic poetry, etc. Over time these interpretation fail to be
convincing to the mind and a new set of projections must be created.
This new way of looking at the world can only come about when the mind
tries to comprehend the world without illusions, which this poem tries
to do. A brisk, brusque, brittle, yet tranquil, sense of the world is
what then results.
Crossposted on Hoon’s website, http://innerlea.com.
More commentary here.
Listen (Parts I to VI)
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."
The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."
And they said then, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are."
I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.
I sing a hero'd head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,
Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.
If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,
Say that it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.
Ah, but to play man number one,
To drive the dagger in his heart,
To lay his brain upon the board
And pick the acrid colors out,
To nail his thought across the door,
Its wings spread wide to rain and snow,
To strike his living hi and ho,
To tick it, tock it, turn it true,
To bang it from a savage blue,
Jangling the metal of the strings…
So that's life, then: things are they are?
It picks its way on the blue guitar.
A million people on one string?
And all their manner in the thing,
And all their manner, right and wrong,
And all their manner, weak and strong?
The feelings crazily, craftily call,
Like a buzzing of flies in autumn air,
And that's life, then: things as they are,
This buzzing of the blue guitar.
Do not speak to us of the greatness of poetry,
Of the torches wisping in the underground,
Of the structure of vaults upon a point of light.
There are no shadows in our sun,
Day is desire and night is sleep.
There are no shadows anywhere.
The earth, for us, is flat and bare.
There are no shadows. Poetry
Exceeding music must take the place
Of empty heaven and its hymns,
Ourselves in poetry must take their place,
Even in the chattering of your guitar.
A tune beyond us as we are,
Yet nothing changed by the blue guitar;
Ourselves in the tune as if in space,
Yet nothing changed, except the place
Of things as they are and only the place
As you play them, on the blue guitar,
Placed so, beyond the compass of change,
Perceived in a final atmosphere;
For a moment final, in the way
The thinking of art seems final when
The thinking of god is smoky dew.
The tune is space. The blue guitar
Becomes the place of things as they are,
A composing of senses of the guitar.
Read the whole poem here
There is, quite simply, no one like Wallace Stevens. He is the 'impossible possible' poet, a voice of such labyrinth like intellect, of such infinite talent, that at his best he risks making all other writing irrelevant. Michael Ondaatje once compared him to King Kong ('King Kong meets Wallace Stevens') – the comparison seems paradoxical and yet is strangely apt, because Stevens is to brain what Kong is to brawn – a beast so ferocious, so beyond all ordinary perspective, that we scarcely know where to begin to apprehend him. To read Stevens is to experience the same sense of awe one gets from a Bach fugue.
That sense of Baroque variation is particularly strong in Man with a Blue Guitar, which remains one of my favourite poems of all time, and the inspiration for the picture in my blogger profile. The connection to Picasso is apt as well, because Stevens' method (both here and elsewhere) could easily be thought of as cubist – the juxtaposition of a multiplicity of planes and perspectives, to create a holistic image that is so much more than the sum of its parts. Read the full poem. Listen to its rhythm, relish its images, marvel at its overall perfection. And then try not to find everything else you read disappointing.