Wallace Stevens: Poems

Wallace Stevens

“THE SNOW MAN,” 1921

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.

The poem does not introduce the completion of the first line “One must have a mind of winter” until the seventh line, “and not to think.” The frozen elongation of imagery over the intervening lines gives a picture of winter itself, of what a “mind of winter is” – patience, waiting, even self-effacement. This is reinforced in the final stanza where “the listener,” rendered impersonal, is “nothing himself” and beholds “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” This strange awareness of self as presence/absence and exterior world as presence/absence affords both the possibility of disjunction and a kind of transcendent unity.

HARMONIUM, 1923

“THE EMPEROR OF ICE-CREAM”

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

In Russian Formalist terms, the “story” of the poem differs sharply from its “plot.” It details a visit to the neighbor’s house to prepare a corpse for burial, while in the kitchen, a gaudy preparation of food and drink sharply contrasts the scene in the bedroom. Each stanza of 8 lines ends in a rhyming couplet, emphasizing through repetition the contrast of the two rooms: life and death. “Let be be finale of seem” endorses being over seeming, but acknowledges the power of the latter. “Let the lamp affix its beam” presumes control over the ineffable.

“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.

The blank jar with Nature subdued around it has been read (by Helen Vendler) as an American contrast to Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” where the poet has firm grasp of Western history and culture. Here, instead, the poet places the jar in Nature and makes of it a center “It made the slovenly wilderness/ Surround that hill.” The made, aesthetic object seems to give shape to an otherwise unruly space. The repetition of Tennessee seems to be an insistence on the American locality of the poem. The jar reminds me of the Sybil hanging in a jar in Eliot, as well as Heidegger’s essay on “the jug,” which he takes as an ultimate example of the-thing-in-itself, its use available to us, the process of its making evident and textural. It is in that essay that Heidegger separates being (flux, non-thingliness) from a being (God or a system) that humans try to hang the essence of being upon.

“THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A BLACKBIRD”

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

The frozen landscape is reminiscent of a number of Stevens poems, including “The Snow Man.” The movement of the bird’s eye is that of perception. The choice of a bird to explore epistemological problems places Stevens in a tradition with Keats, Hardy, Yeats, Auden, and others.

II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The speaker imagines the potential multiplicity of the mind as a hypostatic trinity, or three-in-one.

III
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

The speaker emphasizes the smallness  of the individual, again like “The Snow Man.”

IV
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

In this stanza, Williams plays with the problem of unity between beings, versus their necessarily discrete nature.

V
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

The “beauty of inflections” comes in the actual sound of song or verse, while the “beauty of innuendoes” are in the silences and lacunae between experiences, or outside of them.

VI
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

This “barbaric glass” recalls Emerson, Frost, and a tradition of visual American questioning of Nature.

VII
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?

VIII
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

IX
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

Again, this is an Emersonian idea, like the essay, “Circles,” in which Emerson claims interconnectedness through that geometric figure.

X
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

XI
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

XII
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

Again, interconnectedness seems impossible, but mystically tempting here.

XIII
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Here Stevens characteristically plays with the passing of time: the light of evening and its anticipation all afternoon, the experience of snow and the knowledge only after that it “was going to snow” more. The blackbird returns to a stationary place in the trees. Perhaps its eye is moving.

PARTS OF A WORLD, 1942

“STUDY OF TWO PEARS”

I
Opusculum paedagogum.
The pears are not viols,
Nudes or bottles.
They resemble nothing else.

“A small didactic work”: The pears are the things in themselves, and nothing else. They are not mere symbols.

II
They are yellow forms
Composed of curves
Bulging toward the base.
They are touched red.

The pears can be described concretely in visual terms by form and content: shape, color, and heft.

III
They are not flat surfaces
Having curved outlines.
They are round
Tapering toward the top.

They are not merely aesthetic representations, as in a painting. The pears which had round bottoms in the last stanza have tapering tops here.

IV
In the way they are modelled
There are bits of blue.
A hard dry leaf hangs
From the stem.

Nevertheless, Stevens gives a painterly aspect to his description of them.

V
The yellow glistens.
It glistens with various yellows,
Citrons, oranges and greens
Flowering over the skin.

It seems almost impossible to do verbal justice to the variance of color and texture here.

VI
The shadows of the pears
Are blobs on the green cloth.
The pears are not seen
As the observer wills.

The pears impose themselves on the viewer in their materiality: they “are not seen/ As the observer wills,” but as they are.

“OF MODERN POETRY”

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one. The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.

In the first stanza, Stevens enters “in medias res” to “the poem of the mind in the act of finding/ What will suffice,” similar to the beginning of some Williams poems. The speaker recalls a time when “the scene was set,” but now “the theatre” is changed. Poetry has to “be living,” “learn,” “face,” “meet,” “think,” and “find.” Some of this language recalls and contrasts with Prufrock’s anxiety about performance (himself as a Shakespeare character) and need to “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” Here, the poem is “a metaphysician in the dark,” a happening, a process in flux –  music. It is the unity of two seemingly discrete things. It is the relaying of feeling.

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