The Man with the Blue Guitar

March 17, 2006 at 7:12 pm 13 comments

Wallace Stevens

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.


Entry filed under: English, Wallace Stevens.

Jinhe zurm-e-ishq pe naaz tha Talking in Bed

13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. the One  |  March 18, 2006 at 2:47 am

    Brilliant stuff. But a couple of lines seem to be missing from Part IV ..

  • 2. Falstaff  |  March 18, 2006 at 4:56 am

    One: Oops! Thanks for catching that. My fault for copying poem into the page without checking it first. Have added the missing lines now.

  • 3. Cheshire Cat  |  March 18, 2006 at 2:43 pm

    “Man Number One” : good title for a Bollywood movie, no?

  • 4. carlos  |  November 8, 2006 at 9:12 pm

    what do you think the poem means i think Stevens is trying to explain how he felt because he was a lawer

  • 5. Dave Perelman  |  October 12, 2008 at 7:49 am

    I wonder why he’s a shearsman? He seeks to see what is underneath? But then he can’t really describe it . Whatever we try we can’t really grab hold of the totality so our own limitations are our Blue Guitar and cause us to not be able to play a tune of “things exactly as they are”

  • 6. Mei Zhang  |  January 28, 2009 at 3:44 am

    Beautiful reading. Is it possible to have the whole poem? Thank you.

  • 7. noah  |  March 26, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    what does it mean!

  • 8. c  |  May 10, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    Please!!!!!!!! I don’t get this poem… Sorry.. Can anyone summarize it for me! I read it like 3 times

  • 9. Kisses & kitsch. « The Hour Badly Spent  |  October 19, 2009 at 11:29 pm

    […] muscle fibre? You might think so from watching me translate mathematics into music on my enormous blue guitar every morning, but I assure you, I’m just as humanoid as everyone else. I’m also kind of glad […]

  • 10. Alek  |  May 1, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    I think you are a bit off in your comparison with Picasso. The man with the blue guitar I would say is not cubist – the painting being from his blue Period;I would say it is distinctly modernist or post-impressionist: maybe even expressionist. Correspondingly I don’t feel that Steven’s poetry here is as cubist as in many of his other poems. This poem seems more strictly tied to a consistent rhythmical scheme which emphasizes voice much in the way the blue carves a mood for the painting. Notice that the guitar itself is not colored with blue hues. So neither is the actual content of the lines so much as their consistent effect.

  • 11. Ruffy  |  October 2, 2010 at 11:29 pm

    Think of this poem in line with WS and his soliquolies (cannot spell to save my life).. read it as a story with a common theme… the guitar… read and say the prose as if you were speaking to someone and someone else could retort… makes perfect sence and makes me think more than most poets do…


  • 12. Sylvester Siddens  |  September 15, 2011 at 8:17 am

    this type of The Man with the Blue Guitar pō’Ä­-trÄ“ is almost comparable to my own blog i’m guessing this area of interest is truly increasingly being common

  • 13. Kisses & kitsch. | Physical Flaws  |  July 6, 2014 at 8:53 pm

    […] muscle fibre? You might think so from watching me translate mathematics into music on my enormous blue guitar every morning, but I assure you, I’m just as humanoid as everyone else. I’m also kind of glad […]


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