A Postcard from the Volcano
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.