Wallace Stevens is one of America's most respected poets. He was a master stylist, employing an extraordinary vocabulary and a rigorous precision in crafting his poems. But he was also a philosopher of aesthetics, vigorously exploring the notion of poetry as the supreme fusion of the creative imagination and objective reality. Because of the extreme technical and thematic complexity of his work, Stevens was sometimes considered a willfully difficult poet. But he was also acknowledged as an eminent abstractionist and a provocative thinker, and that reputation has continued since his death. In 1975, for instance, noted literary critic Harold Bloom, whose writings on Stevens include the imposing Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, called him "the best and most representative American poet of our time."
Stevens was born in 1879 in Reading, Pennsylvania. His family belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church and when Stevens became eligible he enrolled in parochial schools. Stevens's father contributed substantially to the son's early education by providing their home with an extensive library and by encouraging reading. At age twelve Stevens entered public school for boys and began studying classics in Greek and Latin. In high school he became a prominent student, scoring high marks and distinguishing himself as a skillful orator. He also showed early promise as a writer by reporting for the school's newspaper, and after completing his studies in Reading he decided to continue his literary pursuits at Harvard University.
Encouraged by his father, Stevens devoted himself to the literary aspects of Harvard life. By his sophomore year he wrote regularly for the Harvard Advocate, and by the end of his third year, as biographer Samuel French Morse noted in Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life, he had received all of the school's honors for writing. In 1899 Stevens joined the editorial board of the Advocate's rival publication, the Harvard Monthly, and the following year he assumed the board's presidency and became editor. By that time Stevens had already published poems in both the Advocate and the Monthly, and as editor he additionally produced stories and literary sketches. Because there was a frequent shortage of manuscript during his tenure as editor, Stevens often published several of his own works in each issue of the Monthly. He thus gained further recognition on campus as a prolific and multi-talented writer. Unfortunately, his campus literary endeavors ended in 1900 when a shortage of family funds necessitated his withdrawal from the university.
Leaving Harvard was hardly a setback, though, for Stevens was not working towards a college degree and was not particularly invigorated by the school's literary environment. Once out of Harvard, Stevens decided to work as a journalist, and shortly thereafter he began reporting for the New York Evening Post. He published regularly in the newspaper, but he found the work dull and inconsequential. The job proved most worthwhile as a means for Stevens to acquaint himself with New York City. Each day he explored various areas and then recorded his observations in a journal. In the evenings he either attended theatrical and musical productions or remained in his room writing poems or drafting a play.
Stevens soon tired of this life, however, and questioned his father on the possibility of abandoning the newspaper position to entirely devote himself to literature. But his father, while a lover of literature, was also prudent, and he counseled his son to cease writing and commence law studies. Stevens heeded the advice, and in October, 1901, he enrolled at the New York School of Law. Two years later Stevens graduated, and in 1904 he was admitted to the New York Bar. He then worked briefly in a law partnership with former Harvard classmate Lyman Ward. After parting from Ward, Stevens worked for various law firms in New York City. In 1908 he accepted a post with the American Bonding Company, an insurance firm, and he stayed with the company when it was purchased by the Fidelity and Deposit Company.
Stevens's early years with the insurance firm brought great personal change. Financially secure, he proposed marriage to Elsie Viola Kachel, who accepted and became his wife in September, 1909. Two years later Stevens's father died, and in 1912 his mother also died. During this period Stevens apparently wrote no poetry, but he involved himself in New York City's artistic community through his association with several writers, including poets Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams. Of keen interest to Stevens at this time were the art exhibitions at the many museums and galleries in the city. He developed a fondness for modern painting, eventually becoming a connoisseur and collector of Asian art, including painting, pottery, and jewelry. He particularly admired Asian works for their vivid colors and their precision and clarity, qualities that he later imparted to his own art.
By 1913 Stevens was enjoying great success in the field of insurance law. Unlike many aspiring artists, however, he was hardly stifled by steady employment. He soon resumed writing poetry, though in a letter to his wife he confided that writing was "absurd" as well as fulfilling. In 1914 he nonetheless published two poems in the modest periodical Trend, and later that year he produced four more verses for Harriet Monroe's publication, Poetry. None of these poems were included in Stevens's later volumes, but they are often considered his first mature writings.
After he began publishing his poems Stevens changed jobs again, becoming resident vice-president, in New York City, of the Equitable Surety Company (which, in turn, became the New England Equitable Company). He left that position in 1916 to work for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he remained employed for the rest of his life, becoming vice-president in 1934.
This period of job changes was also one of impressive literary achievements for Stevens. In 1915 he produced his first important poems, "Peter Quince at the Clavier" and "Sunday Morning," and in 1916 he published his prize-winning play, Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise. Another play, Carlos among the Candles, followed in 1917, and the comic poem "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle" appeared in 1918. During the next few years Stevens began organizing his poems for publication in a single volume. For inclusion in that prospective volume he also produced several longer poems, including the masterful "Comedian as the Letter C." This poem, together with the early "Sunday Morning" and "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle," proved key to Stevens's volume Harmonium when it was published in 1923.
Harmonium bears ample evidence of Stevens's wide-ranging talents: an extraordinary vocabulary, a flair for memorable phrasing, an accomplished sense of imagery, and the ability to both lampoon and philosophize. "Peter Quince at the Clavier," among the earliest poems in Harmonium, contains aspects of all these skills. In this poem, a beautiful woman's humiliating encounter with lustful elders becomes a meditation on the nature of beauty (and the beauty of nature). Stevens vividly captures the woman's plight by dramatically contrasting the tranquility of her bath with a jarring interruption by several old folk. Consistent with the narrator's contention that "music is feeling," the woman's plight is emphasized by descriptions of sounds from nature and musical instruments. The poem culminates in a reflection on the permanence of the woman's physical beauty, which, it is declared, exists forever in memory and through death in the union of body and nature: "The body dies; the body's beauty lives. / So evenings die, in their green going, / A wave, interminably flowing."
"Peter Quince at the Clavier," with its notion of immortality as a natural cycle, serves as a prelude to the more ambitious "Sunday Morning," in which cyclical nature is proposed as the sole alternative to Christianity in the theologically bankrupt twentieth century. Here Stevens echoes the theme of "Peter Quince at the Clavier" by writing that "death is the mother of beauty," thus confirming that physical beauty is immortal through death and the consequent consummation with nature. Essentially an analysis of one woman's ennui, "Sunday Morning" ends by stripping the New Testament's Jesus Christ of transcendence and consigning him, too, to immortality void of an afterlife but part of "the heavenly fellowship / of men that perish." In this manner "Sunday Morning" shatters the tenets, or illusion, of Christianity essentially, the spiritual afterlife—and substantiates nature—the joining of corpse to earth as the only channel to immortality. In her volume Wallace Stevens: An Introduction to the Poetry, Susan B. Weston perceived the replacement of Christianity with nature as the essence of the poem, and she called "Sunday Morning" the "revelation of a secular religion."
Less profound, perhaps, but no less impressive are Harmonium's comedic highlights, "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle" and "The Comedian as the Letter C." In "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle" the narrator, a middle-aged poet, delivers an extended, rather flamboyantly embellished, monologue to love in all its embodiments and evocations. He reflects on his own loves and ambitions in such carefree detail that the work seems an amusing alternative to T. S. Eliot's pessimistic poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Like "Sunday Morning," "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle" celebrates change, and it further suggests that even in fluctuation there is definition—"that fluttering things have so distinct a shade."
In the mock epic "Comedian as the Letter C" Stevens presents a similarly introspective protagonist, Crispin, who is, or has been, a poet, handyman, musician, and rogue. The poem recounts Crispin's adventures from France to the jungle to a lush, Eden-like land where he establishes his own colony and devotes himself to contemplating his purpose in life. During the course of his adventures Crispin evolves from romantic to realist and from poet to parent, the latter two roles being, according to the poem, mutually antagonistic. The poem ends with Crispin dourly viewing his six daughters as poems and questioning the validity of creating anything that must, eventually, become separate from him.
"The Comedian as the Letter C" is a fairly complex work, evincing Stevens's impressive, and occasionally intimidating, vocabulary and his penchant for obscure humor. Stevens later declared that his own motivations in writing the poem derived from his enthusiasm for "words and sounds." He stated: "I suppose that I ought to confess that by the letter C I meant the sound of the letter C; what was in my mind was to play on that sound throughout the poem. While the sound of that letter has more or less variety ... all its shades maybe said to have a comic aspect. Consequently, the letter C is a comedian."
Although the aforementioned poems are perhaps the most substantial in Harmonium, they are hardly the volume's only noteworthy ones. Also among the more than fifty poems that comprise Stevens's first book are "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," an imagistic poem highly reminiscent of the Japanese poetry form haiku, and "The Emperor of Ice Cream," an eloquent exhortation that death is an inevitable aspect of living. These and the other entries in Harmonium reveal Stevens as a poet of delicate, but determined, sensibility, one whose perspective is precise without being precious, and whose wit is subtle but not subdued. Harriet Monroe, founder and first editor of Poetry, wrote in reviewing Harmonium for her own periodical: "The delight which one breathes like a perfume from the poetry of Wallace Stevens is the natural effluence of his own clear and untroubled and humorously philosophical delight in the beauty of things as they are."
Few critics, however, shared Monroe's enthusiasm, or even her familiarity, concerning Harmonium following its publication in 1923. The book was ignored in most critical quarters, and was dismissed as a product of mere dilettantism by some of the few reviewers that acknowledged Stevens's art. Although apparently undaunted by the poor reception accorded Harmonium, Stevens produced only a few poems during the next several years. Part of this unproductiveness was attributed by Stevens to the birth of his daughter, Holly, in 1924. Like his autobiographical character Crispin, Stevens found that parenting thwarted writing. In a letter to Harriet Monroe he noted that the responsibilities of parenthood were a "terrible blow to poor literature."
In 1933, nine years after his daughter's birth, Stevens finally resumed writing steadily. The following year he published his second poetry collection, Ideas of Order, and in 1935 he produced an expanded edition of that same work. The poems of Ideas of Order are, generally, sparer and gloomier than those of Harmonium. Prominent among these bleak works is "Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery," comprised of fifty verses on subjects such as aging and dying. Perhaps in reference to these fifty short verses, the racist title refers to the litter that, in Stevens's opinion, accumulated in blacks' cemeteries. He ends this poem by noting the futility of attempts to thwart nature and by commending those individuals who adapt to change: "Union of the weakest develops strength / Not wisdom. Can all men, together, avenge / One of the leaves that have fallen in autumn? / But the wise avenges by building his city in snow.
Stevens more clearly explicated his notion of creative imagination in "The Idea of Order in Key West," among the few invigorating poems in Ideas of Order and one of the most important works in his entire canon. In this poem Stevens wrote of strolling along the beach with a friend and discovering a girl singing to the ocean. Stevens declares that the girl has created order out of chaos by fashioning a sensible song from her observations of the swirling sea. The concluding stanza extolls the virtues of the singer's endeavor ("The maker's rage to order words of the sea") and declares that the resulting song is an actual aspect of the singer. In his book Wallace Stevens: The Making of the Poem, Frank Doggett called the concluding stanza Stevens's "hymn to the ardor of the poet to give order to the world by his command of language."
Following the publication of Ideas of Order Stevens began receiving increasing recognition as an important and unique poet. Not all of that recognition, however, was entirely positive. Some critics charged that the obscurity, abstraction, and self-contained, art-for-art's-sake tenor of his work were inappropriate and ineffective during a time of international strife that included widespread economic depression and increasing fascism in Europe. Stevens, comfortably ensconced in his half-acre home in Hartford, responded that the world was improving, not degenerating further. He held himself relatively detached from politics and world affairs, although he briefly championed leading Italian fascist Benito Mussolini, and contended that his art actually constituted the most substantial reality. "Life is not people and scene," he argued, "but thought and feeling. The world is myself. Life is myself."
Stevens contended that the poet's purpose was to interpret the external world of thought and feeling through the imagination. Like his alter-ego Crispin, Stevens became preoccupied with articulating his perception of the poet's purpose, and he sought to explore that theme in his 1936 book, Owl's Clover. But that book comprised of five explications of various individuals' relations to art proved verbose and thus uncharacteristically excessive. Immensely displeased, Stevens immediately dismantled the volume and reshaped portions of the work for inclusion in a forthcoming collection.
That volume, The Man with the Blue Guitar, succeeded where Owl's Clover failed, presenting a varied, eloquently articulated contention of the same theme the poet, and therefore the imagination, as the explicator of thought and feeling that had undone him earlier. In the title poem Stevens defends the poet's responsibility to shape and define perceived reality: "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.'" For Stevens, the blue guitar was the power of imagination, and the power of imagination, in turn, was "the power of the mind over the possibility of things" and "the power that enables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal."
The Man with the Blue Guitar, particularly the thirty-three-part title poem, constituted a breakthrough for Stevens by indicating a new direction: an inexhaustive articulation of the imagination as the supreme perception and of poetry as the supreme fiction. Harold Bloom, in acknowledging Stevens's debacle Owl's Clover, described The Man with the Blue Guitar as the poet's "triumph over ... literary anxieties" and added that with its completion Stevens renewed his poetic aspirations and vision. "The poet who had written The Man with the Blue Guitar had weathered his long crisis," Bloom wrote, "and at fifty-eight was ready to begin again."
In subsequent volumes Stevens singlemindedly concentrated on his idea of poetry as the perfect synthesis of reality and the imagination. Consequently, much of his poetry is about poetry. In his next collection, Parts of a World, his writing frequently adopts a solipsistic perspective in exemplifying and explicating his definition of poetry. Such poems as "Prelude to Objects," "Add This to Rhetoric," and "Of Modern Poetry" all address, to some extent, the self-referential nature of poetry. In "Of Modern Poetry" Stevens defined the genre as "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 Wallace Stevens: An Introduction to the Poetry, Susan B. Weston wrote that in "Of Modern Poetry," as with many poems in Parts of a World, "Stevens cannot say what the mind wants to hear; he must be content to write about a poetry that would express what the mind wants to hear, and to render the satisfaction that might ensue." She added, "Stevens's is a conditional world indeed."
Stevens followed Parts of a World with Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, which is usually considered his greatest poem on the nature of poetry. This long poem, more an exploration of a definition than it is an actual definition, exemplifies the tenets of supreme fiction even as it articulates them. The poem is comprised of a prologue, three substantial sections, and a coda. The first main section, entitled "It Must Be Abstract," recalls Harmonium's themes by hailing art as the new deity in a theologically deficient age. Abstraction is necessary, Stevens declares, because it fosters the sense of mystery necessary to provoke interest and worship from humanity. The second long portion, "It Must Change," recalls "Sunday Morning" in citing change as that which ever renews and sustains life: "Winter and spring, cold copulars, embrace / And for the particulars of rapture come." And in "It Must Give Pleasure," Stevens expresses his conviction that poetry must always be "a thing final in itself and, therefore, good: / One of the vast repetitions final in themselves and, therefore, good, the going round / And round and round, the merely going round, / Until merely going round is a final good, / The way wine comes at a table in a wood." Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction concludes with verses describing the poet's pursuit of supreme fiction as "a war that never ends." Stevens, directing these verses to an imaginary warrior, wrote: "Soldier, there is a war between the mind / And sky, between thought and day and night. It is / For that the poet is always in the sun, / Patches the moon together in his room / to his Virgilian cadences, up down, / Up down. It is a war that never ends." This is perhaps Stevens's most impressive description of his own sense of self, and in it he provides his most succinct appraisal of the poet's duty.
Although Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction elucidates Stevens's notions of poetry and poet, it was not intended by him to serve as a definitive testament. Rather, he considered the poem as a collection of ideas about the idea of supreme fiction. Writing to Henry Church, to whom the poem is dedicated, Stevens warned that it was not a systematized philosophy but mere notes—"the nucleus of the matter is contained in the title." He also reaffirmed his contention that poetry was the supreme fiction, explaining that poetry was supreme because "the essence of poetry is change and the essence of change is that it gives pleasure."
Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction was published as a small volume in 1942 and was subsequently included in the 1947 collection, Transport to Summer. Also featured in the collection is Esthetique du Mal, another long poem first published separately. In this poem Stevens explored the poetic imagination's response to specific provocations: pain and evil. Seconding philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Stevens asserted that evil was a necessary aspect of life, and he further declared that it was both inspirational and profitable to the imagination. This notion is most clearly articulated in the poem's eighth section, which begins: "The death of Satan was a tragedy / For the imagination. A capital / Negation destroyed him in his tenement / And, with him, many blue phenomena." In a later stanza, one in which Bloom found the poem's "central polemic," Stevens emphasizes the positive aspect of evil: "The tragedy, however, may have begun, / Again, in the imagination's new beginning, / In the yes of the realist spoken because he must / Say yes, spoken because under every no / Lay a passion for yes that had never been broken." In Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, Bloom called Esthetique du Mal Stevens's "major humanistic polemic" of the mid-1940s.
In 1950 Stevens published his last new poetry collection, The Auroras of Autumn. The poems in this volume show Stevens further refining and ordering his ideas about the imagination and poetry. Among the most prominent works in this volume is "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," which constitutes still another set of notes toward a supreme fiction. Here Stevens finds the sublime in the seemingly mundane by recording his contemplations of a given evening. The style here is spare and abstract, resulting in a poem that revels in ambiguity and the elusiveness of definitions: "It is not the premise that reality / Is solid. It may be a shade that traverses / A dust, a force that traverses a shade." In this poem Stevens once again explicates as the supreme synthesis of perception and the imagination and produces a poem about poetry: "This endlessly elaborating poem / Displays the theory of poetry, / As the life of poetry." Other poems in The Auroras of Autumn are equally self-reflexive, but they are ultimately less ambitious and less provocative, concerned more with rendering the mundane through abstraction and thus prompting a sense of mystery and, simultaneously, order. As fellow poet Louise Bogan noted in a New Yorker review of the collection, only Stevens "can describe the simplicities of the natural world with more direct skill," though she added that his "is a natural world strangely empty of human beings."
Stevens followed The Auroras of Autumn with a prose volume, The Necessary Angel, in which he articulated his poetic notions without resorting to abstraction and obfuscation. In the essay "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words" he addressed the imagination's response to adversity, and in "The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet" he once again championed the imagination as the medium toward a reality transcending mere action and rationalization. Consistent in the volume is Stevens's willingness to render his ideas in a precise, accessible manner. Thus The Necessary Angel considerably illuminates his poetry.
By the early 1950s Stevens was regarded as one of America's greatest contemporary poets, an artist whose precise abstractions exerted substantial influence on other writers. Despite this widespread recognition, Stevens kept his position at the Hartford company, perhaps fearing that he would become isolated if he left his lucrative post. In his later years with the firm, Stevens amassed many writing awards, including the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, the 1951 National Book Award for The Auroras of Autumn, and several honorary doctorates. His greatest accolades, however, came with the 1955 publication of The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, which earned him the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and another National Book Award. In this volume Stevens gathered nearly all of his previously published verse, save Owl's Clover, and added another twenty-five poems under the title "The Rock." Included in this section are some of Stevens's finest and most characteristically abstract poems. Appropriately, the final poem in "The Rock" is entitled "Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself," in which reality and the imagination are depicted as fusing at the instant of perception: "That scrawny cry—it was / A chorister whose c preceded the choir. / It was part of the colossal sun, / Surrounded by its choral rings, / Still far away. It was like / A new knowledge of reality."
After publishing his collected verse Stevens succumbed increasingly to cancer and was repeatedly hospitalized. He died in August, 1955. In the years since his death Stevens's reputation has remained formidable. The obscurity and abstraction of his poetry has proven particularly appealing among students and academicians and has consequently generated extensive criticism. Among the most respected interpreters of Stevens's work are Helen Hennessy Vendler, who has demonstrated particular expertise on the longer poems, and Harold Bloom, whose Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate is probably the most provocative and substantial, if also dense and verbose, of the many volumes attending to Stevens's entire canon. For Bloom, Stevens is "a vital part of the American mythology."
On "Anecdote of the Jar"
Wallace Stevens is, at times, the exemplary figure of the austere Modernist, shorn of Transcendental excess, wary of its expansionist programme for consciousness: �Anecdote of the Jar� has been mined by generations of students teasing out its seemingly endless self-referentiality to demonstrate that �less is more�. The poem is, of course, an ironic critique of the Romantic yearning for the creative interfusion of consciousness and nature as the basis of art. Its circular self-enclosing form seems an austere rebuke to Emerson�s more expansive solipsism. Emerson wrote, �The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end�,but Steven�s circling is a demarcation line, an exclusion zone. Similarly the poem cheats the reader�s desire for narrative lift-off; this is an anecdote which leads nowhere, which fends off chatty familiarity, and in which there is no significant joining that transcends its constitutive elements.
These refusals are particularly evident when comparing the poem with its famous Romantic precursor, Keats�s �Ode on a Grecian Urn�. The heated imagination of the narrator of Keats�s Ode desperately interrogates the �cold� and �silent� Urn about the narrative significance of its figures; this is frustrating for the questioner, but at least the Urn bears signs of nature to which consciousness can respond. Stevens�s jar, more exigently, has no trace of nature, human or otherwise, and the �I� of the poem does not attempt to read the jar or to express feeling, but merely notes its regulatory effect with a punctilious disinterestedness. The poem itself jars, repels the reader�s consciousness. Keats�s poem concludes in enigmatic utterance, yet the very ambiguity as to whose voice the final words are to be attributed is a kind of merger:
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say�st,
�Beauty is truth, truth beauty� -that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
The voice is rhetorically identified as the voice of art, whose utterance has been achieved by the coming together of passionate warmth and cold silence; together they have produced the epigram (literally �an inscription�) which, although circular, seems to suggest something beyond its apparent limited prescription.
Most strikingly and consolingly, the reader of Keats�s poem is aligned with nature, with �breathing human passion�; the reader and the poet share the intensities of transience, whereas the bald statements of Stevens�s poem are indifferent to such intensities. The jar is a visual surveillance point, not teasingly enigmatic but blank, without cordial allusions to illustrious urn forebears and implicitly a rebuff to Keats�s expression of ardent longing for a consummate reciprocity between art and nature. Stevens�s own Keatsian proclivities are being kept well in check in this self-admonitory anecdote �an anecdote for the artist.
But Stevens�s modernist austerity nakedly reveals that his theme is power. In an American context the poem engages with Emerson�s Transcendentalist emphasis on the possessive power of the eye. The genteel tradition, of which Emerson was the principal representative, might seem to have existed in rarefied seclusion from the commercial energies of the age, but it underwrote the expansionist energy of the era by transforming its power into an aesthetic of consciousness. In his essay �Nature�, Emerson comments on property:
The charming landscape which I saw this morning is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet.
What is significant here is that this is not a rejection of ownership �indeed it expresses land-hunger � but a relinquishment of an inferior category of ownership for a superior, more active one. Similarly, Emerson�s �transparent eyeball� utterance is the expression of a colonising consciousness � there is space which the eye can acquire:
Standing on the bare ground � my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, � all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing: I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God ... I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.
The disclaimer, �I am nothing� is disingenuous within the overall context of the egotistical sublime in which �I� becomes �eye�, infinitely expansive, capable of encircling nature. Consciousness is prehensile and invasive, its transports masking its annexations.
In �Anecdote of the Jar�, Stevens�s curious use of the word �slovenly�to describe the �wilderness� converts the traditional meaning of the expression to a positive rather than a pejorative sense, as well as drawing on the more recent and more neutral American meaning of �uncultivated�. Indeed, in �Anecdote of the Jar� the Tennessee wilderness is less satisfactorily assimilated by the power of the colonising consciousness: the jar may take �dominion�, but the wilderness is not internalised as an active source of creative power; it does not give its energy and fecundity to the jar. Emerson, �crossing a bare common�, is exhilarated by the winter landscape and the initial bleakness is suffused with a rhetoric of euphoric exchange; however, when Stevens�s starting point in the Harmonium volume is an Emersonian one, the bleakness is not the occasion of rapturous interfusion.
From Righelato, Pat, "Wallace Stevens." In American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal. Ed. Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty. New York: St. Martin�s Press, 1995. � 1995 The Editorial Board Lumiere (Cooperative Press) Ltd.
[Note: The "readymade" described herein is defined as the urinal that Marchel Duchamp upended and signed as "R. Mutt" and submitted to the 1913 Arsenal Show as "Fountain by R. Mutt." "Mutt" was a notoriously debased name, one half of a popular cartoon strip, Mutt and Jeff.]
"It is not the execution but the idea behind the work that makes the readymade interesting. In the creation of a readymade, emphasis is thrown upon the object itself, placed in a strange environment and divorced from its practical function, so that it is viewed solely as a "thing" without relation to its use. As Duchamp put it, "functionalism was obliterated by the fact that I took it out of the earth and onto the planet of aesthetics." And equal emphasis is placed upon the artists, not as a craftsman, but as gifted perceiver whose choice of an object is seen as a creative act. The readymade thus becomes the focus of a meditation on the relation between external things and our perception of them or to use the terms Stevens would later employ to describe the same effect in his own poetry a self-conscious meditation on the relation between reality and the imagination.
Characteristic of both "Anecdote of a Jar" and Duchamps Fountain is an essential ambiguity: To place a jar on a hill in Tennessee, and to place a porcelain urinal on its side atop a pedestal, are both ambiguous (as well as strange) gestures. In each case the nature of the object is also ambiguous: Is it to be considered a machine-made object, without aesthetic value in itself, an instance of anti-art? Or is it, on the other hand, to be considered a worthy example of utilitarian design? It is the nature of the readymade to inspire these questions without resolving them.
If we are willing to consider "Anecdote of a Jar" as a readymade, then Roy Harvey Pearce may well have discovered the particular mass-produced object Stevens had in mind when he wrote the poem [see photo of "Dominion" canning jar]. This fruit jar was in use in Tennessee in 1919 when Stevens traveled there prior to writing "Anecdote of a Jar." It is specially designed to take "Dominion" everywhere" and it is unquestionably "gray and bare." In meditating on such an object, Stevens was adapting Duchamps enigmatic art form to his own poetic purposes. And this meditation resulted in one of his most successful and popular poems. That fact alone suggests the importance of Duchamp to Stevens poetic development."
From Glen MacLeod, Wallace Stevens and Modern Art: From the Armory Show to Abstract Expressionism (New Haven: Yale U P, 1993) 20-22.
Formalists must all sooner or later come to the grievous conclusion about "Anecdote of the Jar" that the aged Ezra Pound came to about his Cantos: it will not cohere. And things only get worse: the imposing jar is also a "port" (haven? gate? but for whom?). The original structural opposition of "jar" and "wilderness," an opposition of nouns as substances, modulates into an opposition of verbs or actions: jars "take," the wilderness "gives." Jars take power--"dominion" (supreme authority, sovereignty, absolute ownership). Who is responsible for this power? Certainly not "I"; the jar did it. No longer can we avoid the question of tone; the postulate of the literary universe will not help us now, no amount of knowledge--not even Frye's--about literary structure will help us here to hear. Structuralists, by definition, cannot attend to non-repeatable textures of voice; structuralists, by definition, are tone-deaf. So what are we to make of the reiterated sounds of jar music, in the major key of "round"? A whole lot of "round" for such a short poem: surround, around, round (twice), ground. "Round": an insidiously invasive sound which evokes at this poem's aural level all of the big thematic points condensed in the key word of the poem: "dominion." Dominion "everywhere"--"everywhere"/"air"/"bare"--this triplet, in a poem otherwise devoid of rhyme, is unavoidable to the ear: a saturating totality, a faceless totality of authority. The jar is into every damn thing. In the world according to the jar, this aural imperialist, there is barely, just barely, one letter's worth of ground: mainly, in this world, there is "g-round." This madly incisive and potentially scary jabberwockian sense is the decisive entry to the poet's panoramic point of view, his presiding tonality: detached, above it all, neither for jars nor for nature, he writes in playful self-possession (whatever else you can say about him he's certainty not frightened of anything) this line, best read in the manner of W C. Fields: "The jar was round upon the ground."
From Ariel and the Police: Michel Foucault, William James, and Wallace Stevens. Copyright � 1988 by The University of Wisconsin Press.
Being placed on top of a hill gives the jar an apex of human purpose through nature. But the jar asserts authority even more through the implied design of its own rotundity. It is the design of a created object embodying a human, cultural purpose. Further, the roundness is the symbolic design of purpose placed in nature, which in itself lacks purpose or order. The jar's roundness, exerting a centripetal force on the "slovenly wilderness," endows the wilderness (including the hill) with the order of a center. All the natural disorderliness of the wilderness acquires a purposive spatial character through "centering," and is given a figurative order in the way "rounded" and rounding human purpose shapes significance into the raw matter of earthly phenomena. Accordingly, human circularity, human centralization, civilizes "wilderness," not only the wild, that is, but chaos, nullity, meaninglessness, by providing it structure. This governing force is so powerful that even in its plainest, simplest representations ("grey and bare") the jar compels a "surrounding."
"Anecdote of a Jar" is a metaphor about the magnetic power of mind and art to order a void (and the void). Stress is laid upon its non-naturalness (11.10-12) to accentuate the crucial power of artistic and thus human purpose. Art (mind) governs its antithesis, nature"It took dominion everywhere," even, indeed, especially, in a non-civilized, non-human place.
The shaper here is himself "round"; he rounds significances through symbolic artifacts which express his desire to dominate all that is senseless or shapeless or wild by compelling it into pattern, thus transferring from God to art and man the force of the ancient gnosis that "God is a Circle, whose Circumference is nowhere and whose Centre is everywhere."
from "Circular Art: Round Poems of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams." Concerning Poetry 14:1 (Spring 1981).
Roy Harvey Pearce
I think it worth noting that Stevens as he wrote the poem must have had in mind a specific fruit jar, the "Dominion Wide Mouth Special." Although manufactured in Canada, the jar has been widely distributed in the United States from 1913 to the present, The exemplar photographed dates ca. 1918; Stevens was in fact traveling in Tennessee in April and May 1918. As a "wide mouth special," the jar is particularly notable, of its kind, as "tall and of a port in air." And its glass, compared to that of other fruit jars, is especially "gray and bare." Whether in Tennessee in 1918 fruit jars were used as containers for "moonshine," I have not been able to establish definitively. Surely, granting Stevens penchant for "moon" and "shine," the matter is worth investigating.
From Roy Harvey Pearce, "Anecdote of the Jar": An Iconological Note," The Wallace Stevens Journal 1:2 (Summer 1977), 65.
There is a persistent strain in modern poetry that has a great deal to do with this sense of objects. The conclusion to Yeats's "Among School Children" is one example:
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
The answer to both questions is each possible answer. The chestnut tree manifests itself in each of its parts, as with the Tree of Life; and the tree can be a unity of these parts only because it is totally proliferated in each of them. Similarly, the dancer is and is not herself in the perfect unity of the dance. The dance is not a shape imposed upon her body; it is shape as act, as the unity of the dancer with her motion and her medium, her space, just as in modern physics a particle is perfectly united with its trajectory, its act.
Many of Wallace Stevens' poems are also about this sense of objects. His persistent theme is the relationship of seer, world, and object. In "Someone Puts a Pineapple Together" he asserts that each person sees in the pineapple a "tangent of himself," and that "the fruit so seen" is also "a part of the nature that he contemplates." In "Connoisseur of Chaos" be says that "the pensive man ... sees that eagle float / For which the intricate Alps are a single nest." The point of both poems is that the wholeness of the world is composed by a single object that opens upon it, the pineapple or eagle, and this unity of object and world in turn passes through the perspective that opens upon it, the someone who puts the pineapple together or "the pensive man" who sees the eagle.
This is why the jar in "Anecdote of the jar" can "Make the slovenly wilderness / Surround that hill." And it is why such an object as the jar couldn't possibly be an inert thing enclosed in its shape; it reaches out for the eyes of whoever is watching and with those eyes arranges the world around it--it infuses the world with itself and itself with the world by means of the point of view, the body, it is anchored in. Objects are like the glass of water in the poem of that title; they are both defined and released by their boundaries:
That the glass would melt in heat,
That the water would freeze in cold,
Shows that this object is merely a state,
One of many, between two poles.
The two poles are not only heat and cold but also the seer and the world. If objects are events as Whitehead says, they are events that mediate between the body of the seer and the world, events that carry that body into the world and the world into that body.
The sense of an object as an event rather than a thing goes hand in hand with the sense of form as act, as temporal form, which characterizes a great deal of modern poetry.
From The Garden and the Map: Schizophrenia in Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973. Copyright � 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
"Anecdote of the Jar" (1919) . . . celebrates a moment of aesthetic triumph. Stevens achieves this triumph by means of a tactic similar to that of "The Snow Man"; he transfers his own imaginative activity to an inhuman medium. The effect of this tactic in "Anecdote of the Jar" is to represent the conflict between the mind and external reality as an impersonal play of aesthetic forces:
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill. (CP, 76)
The three stanzas of the poem move in a circling pattern, repeating first elements in a jubilant manner and gradually coming closer to the concentrated focus of the third stanza: "The jar was gray and bare." The jar serves as an extension of the poet's own drive to order, but it achieves dominion over the chaotic wilderness precisely because it is inanimate. "It did not give of bird or bush." The jar does not itself move or change; it merely sheds influence. The source of its power is its perfection of empty form. It is "of a port in air," stately and imposing but also vacant, a mere circular opening in the air. The dominion of the jar is evoked on the level of sound and image by the repetition of the word round. The jar is round upon a rounded piece of ground, a hill, and the image of roundness is picked up again, phonetically, in the word ground: "The jar was round upon the ground." Stevens catches the assimilation of chaos to order in the moment of transformation. The wilderness, though "slovenly," surrounds the hill, and though it sprawls, it sprawls "around." The transformation to controlled pattern is reflected even in the metrical structure of the poem. The smoothness of contour in the short, tight iambic lines is broken only once, by "slovenly wilderness," and at this point the wilderness is already being rounded up. The word slovenly is a backward glance at irregularity. Whatever potential form or roundness there may be in the wilderness answers to the realized form of the jar. The jar simply is round, and because it is round, the wilderness moves to surround it.
The jar in Tennessee represents a purely formal principle of order, and this kind of order cannot satisfy the deepest needs of Stevens' imagination. He ultimately seeks not only to impose order on the external world but to integrate the mind and the world within a sentient unity of being. As long as he remains fixed within a dualistic conception of the world, this fulfillment will elude him.
From Wallace Stevens' Supreme Fiction: A New Romanticism. Copyright � 1987 by Louisiana State UP.
Although other sounds are more numerous, round is what we hear as it imposes itself on the poem:
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.
Just as the sound of round appears to dominate the poem once we fix on it---that is, once we read from a perspective that concentrates on roundness--so too does our understanding that the jar orders the wilderness depend on our adopting momentarily the point of view of the jar. The jar orders the wilderness by interpreting it from its own perspective, by imposing its own shape, making the wilderness surround it. And one must note here that the wilderness as a whole is not ordered, only the edge that has been made round (given form) by surrounding the jar. That is, the order imposed by the jar is a perspectival order. From the point of view of the jar, the wilderness is no longer wild, alien; it has been given a shape familiar to the jar (the only shape it knows or needs to know, to paraphrase another text on a jar). But to adopt any perspective other than that of the jar is to see that the wilderness is in no real sense changed; it is to recognize the arbitrary quality of the ordering, as the poem eventually does.
The issue of point of view is clearlv central to the poem, as Frank Lentricchia has recently noted, although Lentricchia's own perspective--he wants to read it as an anti-imperialist anecdote--does not allow him to pursue the issue to its conclusion. He writes that point of view in "Anecdote of the Jar" is mainly "panoramic," but at two crucial points limited. At first we view the world "according to a jar, refusing to keep its proud sense of its own well-formed self to itself, smugly taking itself as the distributing point of order and sole topographical coordinate: we see the wilderness forced out of itself into order." At the end "we experience the point of view of the wilderness in the sense that the panoramic speaker takes the side of the wilderness" (10). This is also the side Lentricchia takes. He argues that the old point of controversy--is the poem for art or for nature?-- disappears "when we note that [Stevens] lets nature get the last word by characterizing the autonomous jar of art, at the end of the poem, as an absence of nature." Nature is "maternal, creative, pliant," while the jar is "inflexible, hard," a "receptacle that doesn't receive and from which nothing emerges." Lentricchia suggests as well that the poem does not achieve coherence on its own terms; it asks us to go outside the text for an understanding of its implications: "Formalists must all sooner or later come to the grievous conclusion about "Anecdote of the Jar" that the aged Ezra Pound came to about his Cantos:it will not cohere" (10). Whether or not a poem coheres depends in large measure on the way we opt to read it. In my reading of "Anecdote of the Jar" Lentricchia's brand of incoherence, which arises from the absence of a political context, is of less importance than the incoherence that arises from the poem's epistemological and aesthetic ideologies.
"We'd better look harder at point of view," Lentricchia writes of the poem, but he chooses to ignore its most crucial perspective, that of the "I" who initiates the action. He finds that "this is an anecdote that does not, apparently, centrally involve the human actor who places the jar" (7), and, in truth, the poem's first line--"I placed a jar in Tennessee"--has never been sufficiently emphasized. To put it another way, the speaker's perspective on the opposition of order and chaos needs to be uncovered, which also means that we need to be more careful in our phrasing of what actually happens in the poem. To speak of the jar's "refusing to keep its proud sense of its own well-formed self to itself," to accuse it of being smug, or to say that the wilderness is "forced out of itself into order"--these are products of Lentricchia's own point of view and not sanctioned by the poem itself. Neither does the poem sanction the question of whether it is for the jar or for the wilderness. All of these issues are a result of personifying the jar as human intelligence, forgetting that it is itself the result of an arbitrary imposition of order and that another ordering principle lies behind it. The first line of the poem modifies our entire reading if we recognize that the speaker takes full responsibility for this arbitrary imposition of order. He places the jar, imposes a "geometrical simplification" onto the void, notes the domination of any center of power, but, being more mobile and more sophisticated than a jar, also notes that from another perspective the jar's ordering power is illusory. The wilderness is not physically changed; it is not literally "forced out of itself into order," as Lentricchia claims, any more than a text is physically changed by a new interpretation. The jar "made" the wilderness surround it only in an interpretation that adopts for a moment its point of view. Interpretation here means the imposition of sense and value, these being reduced in this case to roundness.
To ignore the interpretation that lies behind the jar's interpretation and initiates it is to be surprised by what has appeared to many readers a sudden and arbitrary shift in point of view. In the third and last quatrain the speaker says of the jar's ordering power
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
Readers who have assumed that the poem is for the jar against the disorderly wilderness may feel that the speaker's attention to the jar's sterility is not sufficiently prepared for, or, like Lentricchia, who is for the wilderness, they may feel that the poem does not cohere. But the point of view that controls the poem, that comprehends both the jar and the wilderness, does not blunder into incoherence. It recognizes instead the ironies of perspectivism--that it is only through the adoption of a willful and arbitrary point of view that one is able to interpret a world too slovenly (not only "slipshod," but "of low character" and thus, like the giant, "uncultivated" or "uncivilized") to provide its own meaning, and, simultaneously, that the perspective through which the world is given form is not itself a part of that world. The jar, as the speaker's form of artifice, is utterly alien to the world of bird and bush, which is to say (as does "The Snow Man") that any order, any interpretation of the Tennessee wilderness would be an imposition and therefore not a true depiction of that world as it is. To follow the development of the poem we must understand that it reflects the speaker's point of view, which exceeds that of the jar and identifies with it only momentarily. It is for this reason that Lentricchia is, I think, mistaken in arguing that the preposition of in the title "means not 'about' but something like 'belonging to,' as if the jar could speak, as if the poem were really about a story that a jar might tell about itself" (8).
Against Lentricchia I would argue that the poem is neither for nor against the jar, and that a political context that includes our forefathers' slaughter of the Indians who lived in the Cherokee village for which Tennessee is named is not particularly helpful in our understanding of the wilderness. It is a poem primarily about perspective and interpretation, which come to mean very much the same thing. It is aware of the dilemma it dramatizes--that perspective is both necessary and untrue--but it cannot escape another dilemma inherent in its own perspectivist assumptions, which we recognize once the speaker's point of view is no longer identical with that of the jar. The poem ceases to cohere with the line "The jar was gray and bare," for at this point the speaker recognizes the jar's alien status. It is like "nothing else in Tennessee" since it is static, not "natural," incapable of change and generation. To make this distinction between the jar and the wilderness, however, the speaker must assume that we can know the Tennessee wilderness as it is, that it presents itself to us, in Macherey's suggestive metaphors, as "an open fruit" or as "a discourse already constituted" (6), and not as something whose only meaning is that given to it by the jar. The first two stanzas of the poem are however based on the assumption that reality will be known only as it is interpreted by such a geometrical simplification as the jar represents, and that to interpret is to create according to one's own sense and values. If the description of the jar's effect on the wilderness is to be taken seriously, the speaker must also impose his sense and values on that which he identifies with the living world antithetical to the artificial jar. And we now see that what was presented as disorder was by necessity already ordered from the beginning. By associating the wilderness with a particular region, Tennessee, by characterizing it as sprawling, slovenly, by referring to its vegetation and animal life, the persona had given form to that which he then set against form. And in the end, by asserting the jar's alien presence in a readily apprehended world of bird and bush, the instigator of this epistemological exercise unmasks a naive empiricism that lies behind the more official perspectivist stance of the poem. The first two stanzas give us a world that is "fully made," while the last gives us one that is "fully found." If the character of the Tennessee wilderness is a given, if it can be known as it is, then the ordering power of artifice over unordered nature, seemingly the point of the anecdote, is made unconvincing. The poem, that is, has it both ways--the character of reality is a creation of perspectival seeing and ordering; the character of reality as a given exposes the artificiality of any given perspective.
From Early Stevens: The Nietzchean Intertext. Copyright � 1992 by Duke UP.
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