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Poetry, Word-Play, and Word-War in Wallace Stevens
By Eleanor Cook
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Places, Common and Other: A Rhetoric of Beginning
Place: space, extension in two (or three) directions; a particular part of space, the position of a body in space; a residence, dwelling, house; a particular part, page, or other point in a book or writing; a topic (OED 2, 3a & b, 5b, 7, 7c).
Stevens such a master of openings that we expect the first poems of Harmonium to entice us, and we are a little baffled when they do not. Stevens selected these poems to open Harmonium, choosing from work written between 1916 and 1921; he saw no reason to alter the order in 1931 for a second edition or in 1954 for his Collected Poems. They are the entrance into his work and I propose to begin with the first six. Slight, pleasing poems, they lead into the powerful pair, Domination of Black and The Snow Man, but have themselves attracted little attention. Yet to read these poems well is to begin to learn how to read all of Stevens' poetry. And of the opening poem, Earthy Anecdote, Stevens remarked cryptically, "There's a good deal of theory about it" (L 204, February 20,1918), a gloss no one has attempted to explain, for a less likely theoretical poem, on the face of it, would be hard to find.
At first glance, the six poems appear to be a miscellany, and Stevens did in fact break up earlier pairings that encourage ready classifying. Some arrangement by contrast seems at work, before we come to the two poems that are contraries proper, Domination of Black and The Snow Man. We may attempt a thematic reading. It is not difficult to map themes of old versus new, American-and-desirable versus European-and-undesirable, a progression of earth-heaven-earth-sea, elemental fire-earth-air-water, and so on. The most interesting result of this is the extent to which these are poems of againstness, and not just againstness between poems but within poems, the extent to which each poem is built on contraries, sometimes opposites Almost as interesting is how often some blocking agent is present and must be resisted or overcome Sometimes, as in the opening poem, both blocking agent and resister seem necessary for some kind of vitality — a thesis and antithesis set of contraries Sometimes, as in the second and fourth poems, the blocking agent seems seasonal or generational, an old order that must pass away Only with the sixth poem, Infanta Marina, do we come to the end of struggle between contraries
One common experience new readers of Stevens' poems share is a sense of being blocked, and even experienced readers may have that sense here at the beginning of Stevens' volume. Of his poems, we sometimes say what D. H. Lawrence said of the Australian landscape "You feel you can't see — as if your eyes hadn't the vision in them to correspond with the outside landscape." If these opening poems are both about blocking and themselves block, then it looks as though our sense of bafflement over them is very much to the point.
One difficulty is that outside place and the figures which inhabit it are not stable. Neither are the order of words and the figures which inhabit that realm. Stevens' word-play functions to keep this so, and the interest lies in mapping the kind and degree of dislocation. For the figures who inhabit these first poems are singularly difficult to locate, they appear to live in a world that is neither properly realistic nor legendary nor allegorical. They tend to be moving figures, and in their motions we may see the act of crossing from place to words and back again — in short, of reading. The culmination of place, words, and figures comes in the two powerful poems, Domination of Black and The Snow Man, for here figure either becomes one huge encroaching figure or else the figure of the self as nonfigure. Instead of landscapes inhabited and perceived, the self becomes inhabited or else gives up the notion of habitation altogether The first six poems offer us a series of possible genu loci bucks and firecat, swans or geese or crows, Venus as alma or aspic, a new if paltry Venus, the giant and the three Graces, the Infanta Marina The infanta comes closest to a conventional genius loci, as if Stevens were working toward some such figure through these six poems. In Domination of Black, the mind is threatened by a terrible genius loci; in The Snow Man, the mind tries to become the genius loci itself. In thematic terms, it is possible to say that these poems show new versus old, and so on, but I should say that these first poems show Stevens' desire for a place that is a poetic home.
Paul de Man says that Proust "dramatizes tropes by means of landscapes or descriptions of objects." Stevens does not so much dramatize tropes as dramatize ways of reading by means of landscapes or the actions of figures. His opening poems act out various ways of opening a volume of poetry in 1923. It is as if Stevens were not only doing it, and implicitly showing us what he is doing, but also finding the appropriate tropes for doing and showing. See, I swerve, he might be saying in Earthy Anecdote, but not randomly or forever; the energy of my swerve is formed, thus, and this is an anecdote of my new beginning (like Oklahoma's), both its energy and its shaping. Or, see, I inveigh in Invective against old ways, both encoding them and breaking with them. Or: see how, in In the Carolinas,I empty American spring of its Whitmanian associations and its Lucretian associations also, the breast of mother earth being sweet but utterly untrustworthy as nourishment. Or: here overtly is my new American muse in The Paltry Nude, both understated as paltry and overstated as pomp, both high as cloud and high-style diction and low as sea and words like "spick." Or: here in The Plot against the Giant is Polyphemus or a giant earth figure, virile but crude, and this energy will be seduced and civilized by sensuous delicacy (and if you listen well, you may hear my challenge to Whitman). Or, finally: here is the least revision, or it may be the most, a collective ghost-as-genius-loci, the loveliest and least problematic of my female figures, in a flowing that is perhaps too fluid or fluent
But it is time to look at these first six poems My interest is to find precisely where each poem breaks with our expectations, and to consider the kind and degree of these breaks I use the word "break" though I might also use the word "play." Both tropes imply ordinary "working" norms of poetry
Earthy Anecdote blocks the reader in more ways than one it blocks ready paraphrase, ready generic classifying, and especially ready answers to the question, what is the point of this poem? We might begin with an obvious question How can bucks go clattering over Oklahoma any more than I can place a jar in Tennessee? One possible answer is generic if we read the poem as a tall tale, then of course bucks can go clattering over Oklahoma (I surmise that Stevens once thought of it that way, for he paired it with an obvious tall-tale poem, The Jack-Rabbit) Or we may attempt a legendary reading, with Oklahoma seen from an overview or heard from beneath, as if it were a giant body Yet as either tall tale or legend, this seems a tale of meager plot or point Nor does it invite an allegorical reading, we may attach an allegory but someone else may attach quite another, no allegory will adhere Stevens himself remarked that there was "no symbolism in the 'Earthy Anecdote ' There's a good deal of theory about it, however" (L 204, February 20,1918) He offered no further explanation Five months later, he commented wryly of Pach's illustration for the poem it "is just the opposite of my idea I intended something quite concrete actual animals, not original chaos" (I 209, July 10,1918) Here is the poem
Every time the bucks went clattering
A firecat bristled in the way
Wherever they went,
They went clattering,
Until they swerved
In a swift, circular line
To the right,
Because of the firecat
Or until they swerved
In a swift, circular line
To the left,
Because of the firecat.
The bucks clattered.
The firecat went leaping,
To the right, to the left,
Bristled in the way.
Later, the firecat closed his bright eyes
We note that when the bucks swerve, "In a swift, circular line," their metrical feet do just that, for the line describes itself — an anapest back-to-back with a dactyl, the swerve coming over the comma. The reader's eye in the ordinary experience of reading an English text moves in a swift circular line to the right, then to the left (a moving circle along the line, then a hairpin turn). When the firecat closes his bright eyes and sleeps, the poem stops and so does the reader's eye. And some memory of the firecat's leaping is in the -lept of "slept," the closing word, as the memory of the whole poem is enfolded in the moment of closure.
We might move here to speak of this poem as Hugh Kenner speaks of Pound's poems. We might say that poetry is made of the rushing energy of feet and lines, but also made by directing that energy, shaping it, and ending it too. The firecat, bristling as if against aimless chatter (one meaning of "clatter"), gives order to words that grow out of the first two consonants of the word "Oklahoma" (kl: bucks clattering). If Oklahoma is America in its raw state (and it became a state only eleven years before this poem was written), then at the threshold of his volume Stevens has placed a poem about the ordering of the energies of a state, or rather of one form of energy combating another — whether the state is outer Oklahoma or this poem or the reading of this poem. What the "ground" of our seeing and hearing is: that is what this small poem, this "earthy anecdote," makes us think about.
This seems an unexceptionable allegorical reading, yet it still seems an insufficient answer to my first question: how can bucks go clattering over Oklahoma any more than I can place a jar in Tennessee? What would we ordinarily say? Something like: in Oklahoma, every time the bucks went clattering over the ground. ... (We customarily say "in Oklahoma" or "in Tennessee" or "in the Carolinas" without giving the preposition further thought.) Or we might say: "all over" Oklahoma, as Stevens did in 1917, in the opening poem of Primordia (OP7): "All over Minnesota, I Cerise sopranos, I Walking in the snow... ." All over? Well, frequently, in Minnesota, etc. In Minnesota? Well, within the boundaries of, on or extending above the ground for a considerable distance, beyond which it would seem inappropriate to say "over" Minnesota or Oklahoma Not to belabor the point, Stevens seems to me to be introducing here his play with the buried tropes of words that appear to have purely grammatical functions. Stevens' play with prepositions acts to dislocate slightly the logic of referential language, to displace slightly the language of place Both lawyers and poets have to think about the implications of seemingly neutral words, as Stevens well knows "As a lawyer might say it, 'In, on or about the words/ " he once remarked, apropos of the sounds of another poem (L 352, January 12,1940) Roman Jakobson speaks of "words endowed with purely grammatical functions, like conjunctions, prepositions, pronouns, and articles," but such words do not always function this way. And we know how Shakespeare plays with prepositions This little word-play tells us to watch out for Stevens' prepositions, and to watch out for our own
Yvor Winters calls this poem "willful nonsense/ and at first it may seem to have affinities with nonsense verse Yet the more we stay with it, the more it reads as a spirited troping of one complex of tropes for beginning something Though slight (anecdotal), it is also a secret history (anecdote)
In Harmonium and the Collected Poems, Stevens follows Earthy Anecdote with a quite contrary poem, Invective against Swans The effect is to make very pointed the breaking of convention in the first poem and the limits of convention in the second Before this, Earthy Anecdote had appeared twice in print, each time paired with a different and lesser poem whose presence tended to undercut its force It first appeared in 1918, along with what we now know as The Jack-Rabbit (CP50) This tall-tale poem with its caroling Brer Rabbit, akin to the Remus of Ploughing on Sunday, comes with a flourish of puns
In the morning,
The jack-rabbit sang to the Arkansaw.
He carolled in caracoles
On the feat sandbars.
"Feet," "bars," "carolled"? Those sandbars belong also on a sheet of music, where the bass clef resembles the seashell called the caracole. The rabbit could carol in mere car-ols, but caracoles are much better: a shell as variant on the standard Romantic reechoing shell; a word extending the schematic echo of ack-Arka-car-car-ac. The sound effects and exuberant punning together with the unlikely rabbit (but then, jack-rabbits are unlikely per se) are a delight. Yet for all its fun, The Jack-Rabbit tends to undercut Earthy Anecdoteby its stronger humor, its Midwest locale, its obvious generic placing. In a different way, so does Life Is Motion, which Stevens paired with Earthy Anecdote in the July 1919 number of Others. It pulls our reading toward ordinary mimesis. Stevens' opening arrangement demonstrates that he does not want his poems dominated by such a reading.
Earthy Anecdote is an emptied poem. By contrast, Invective against Swans is overfull, a crammed Old World park of tropes. It demonstrates how Earthy Anecdote does not work: regular iambic pentameter, much rhyme, no questions about where "over" is, no Amerindian place names, imitative Shakespearean syntax ("which that time endures" — which disrupts the tone). Stevens is challenging his readers: if you do not like my little anecdote as a beginning, try your hand on this "old-style" poem; let me test your knowledge of old tropes and old legends in a variation of the riddle poem, the chief riddle being the absence of swans.
For of course, not one swan appears in this Invective against Swans, only well-apostrophized ganders. As the poem offers ample invective against ganders, surely Robert Buttel's tentative suggestion is exactly right. The poem takes as its unspoken premise the invective aphorism, "All your swans are geese." Variations abound, including one that Stevens was likely to remember, his father's, when writing to congratulate him on his election to Harvard's Signet Club: "a Cygnet on it — to distinguish you from commoner geese" (L 26, May 21,1899). I see no good reason for pointing to Yeats's swans here. Stevens' ironic revisions of standard tropes suggest a different, more general context. For example, if he had not written "A bronze rain from the sun descending" but instead "A gold rain from the sun descending," we would recognize at once the legend of Zeus visiting Danae in a shower of gold —"that gold snow Jove rained on Rhodes," as Browning has it (The Ring and the Book 1.490). "A bronze rain" is the autumnal version of the impregnating shower of gold, the rain of a weakening sun and dying summer, old gods and old conventions. Their potency gone, their amorous descents on mortals are no longer golden and fruitful. This standard trope for poetic inspiration is itself aging.
At the end of Stevens' invective, the soul flies off beyond the trajectory of such vehicles as chariots. What is this "soul," a word we never encounter again in Stevens' poetry? Surely it is what the soul has always been in legend· Psyche, envied by Venus, loved by Eros, taken up to heaven in an apotheosis, and here the poetic self as the new Venus. The end represents Psyche's triumph over the old Venus, whose swans appear in the phrase "chilly chariot." (Swans are also birds of Venus, though less familiar than her doves.) Camoens, whom Stevens knew, gave his Venus a memorable team of swans to draw her chariot. "The snowy swans of love's celestial queen / Now land her chariot on the shore of green." Stevens' "chilly chariot" is a witty and pointed revision of old tropes like "snowy chariot" or "snow-white chariot." Such old tropes leave him cold.
Yet though wittily built, Invective falters, and Stevens cut it from the opening eight poems of the Faber Selected Poems(1953) My guess is that Invective is related to The Comedian as the Letter C and suffers similar problems. Stevens' crammed lines are like those of The Comedian, and the apotheosis at the end resembles the apotheosis at the end of From the Journal of Crispin, the early version of The Comedian Given the place of Venus in the Journal and the c-sounds in Psyche, I wonder if Stevens once considered a role for Psyche in that poem Stevens' problem here is both logical and formal. Logical because seasonal change seems to bring in new turning or troping as a matter of course, that last flight seems effortless. Formal because Stevens is divided between invective and romance, the romance of a fresh poetic. La Fontaine is wiser than Stevens in the ways of invective when he limits Psyche's story to crisp low comedy As an introduction to ways of reading — to riddle poems, adages, parodies of old tropes — the poem belongs here But for a nonsatiric poem to embody flaws, as well as talk about them, is hazardous.
Excerpted from Poetry, Word-Play, and Word-War in Wallace Stevens by Eleanor Cook. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
- FrontMatter, pg. i
- Contents, pg. ix
- Preface, pg. xi
- Acknowledgments, pg. xv
- Introduction, pg. 1
- 1. Places, Common and Other: A Rhetoric of Beginning, pg. 25
- 2. The Play and War of Venus: Love Poems and Florida Poems, pg. 52
- 3. The Limits of Word-Play: The Comedian as the Letter C, pg. 73
- 4. The Ludus of Allusion: Poems of Voice and Death, pg. 86
- 5. Ways of Ending: Religious and Last Poems, pg. 99
- 6. A Rhetoric of Beginning Again: Ideas of Order, pg. 117
- 7. Concerning the Nature of Things: The Man with the Blue Guitar, pg. 135
- 8. Against Synecdoche: Parts of a World, pg. 152
- 9. Transport and the Metaphor Poems, pg. 171
- 10. War and the Normal Sublime: Esthetique du Mal, pg. 189
- 11. Notes toward a Supreme Fiction, pg. 214
- 12. Commonplace Apocalypse: An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, pg. 267
- 13. Late Poems: Places, Common and Other, pg. 295
- Index to Works by Wallace Stevens, pg. 315
- General Index, pg. 318