Perversely, I ask you to consider the poetry of Wallace Stevens. A white man of inheritance and marked privilege—the education and attainments of the Ivy League, law school, and employment in a Hartford, Connecticut, insurance business—Stevens could scarcely seem less relevant to this moment. We are convulsed by a cataclysmic, long-overdue reckoning with state violence against black lives (and indigenous, and LGBT, and Latinx, and other “othered” lives) and a criminal justice system that has kept America’s sin of slavery continuously alive in the streets, courts, and prisons; by a pandemic bred from our overpopulation and degradation of the planet; by the stark divide between the forces of authoritarian and democratic governance; by the persistent injustice of men towards the other half of the human race; and, through it all, capitalism’s power to grow ever stronger, while leaving wreckage in its wake.
So allow me to offer you the first stanza of “Anecdote of the Jar,” from 1919:
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
“Anecdote of the Jar” is from Stevens’s first book, Harmonium. On a separate, but closely parallel, track with Marianne Moore, Stevens was finding a way to voice an American modernist idiom that was also elegant and distinct—a sort of poetic equivalent of the “mid-Atlantic” movie accent exemplified by the speech of Katharine Hepburn. (If you are ever interested, I can explain at length how this voice differs from that of other modernists such as W. C. Williams or e. e. cummings or Langston Hughes; how T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound essentially were English; and how Robert Frost was not a modernist; but not here, not now.)
Part of what made modernists “modern” to themselves was a wrenching away from the Christian view of the world in art and philosophy, after it had already been much eroded in the sciences. Moore remained Christian, albeit an actively complaining one, sparring with her mother’s militant Puritan tenets for much of her writing life. And she was drawn to the gaudy, the baroque, and sheer exuberance of beauty, qualities that her family’s religion had little room for. Other poets and philosophers turned to nihilism, or Eastern religions, or Marxism, or fascism, or more idiosyncratic beliefs; some famously took refuge in Roman Catholicism. Stevens, like his predecessors Mallarmé and Oscar Wilde, turned to aestheticism, a very French faith that beautiful things, and the making of beauty, create meaning. Artifice, in this world, is the highest human activity; composing a poem or choreographing a dance, like writing a mathematical proof or building a suspension bridge, aspires to the creation of ideal form.
“Anecdote of the Jar” sets out Stevens’s expansion of the aestheticist creed; his idea is that the man-made thing (here, a jar) actually tames the messy, chaotic natural world.
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 everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
The word “dominion” stands out, as it was intended to do, as a signal to the book of Genesis; when Adam was given “dominion” over the flora and fauna, he exercised it by naming them, in the first act of poetry. Stevens swiftly jerks the dominion away from any Father God here, and gives it solely to Man, whose jar — the human self, and a kind of belly-button Omphalos, or prick, or nipple, standing up on the hill—now has dominion, as a made thing. The kind of scholars I love have also pointed out that “Dominion” is, in addition to the name of a university in the South (“Old Dominion”), also the name of one of the companies that manufactures canning jars, and places its logo across the glass. I hope, but do not know, that it was one of their jars from which Wallace Stevens drank, in the company of friends, as they sat out on a hill in Tennessee and picnicked from their basket. I imagine the glass “Dominion” jar, when emptied of its hooch, or lemonade, was indeed “gray and bare.”
The humorous tone is unmistakable, as it often is with Stevens, and yet also serves a serious “idea”—here, as in many other poems, the idea that Man organizes into artifice, and thereby gives meaning to, the material world. That, by making his poem or jar, the human being, Adam, has named, made, and held dominion over the chaos that otherwise would overwhelm us all. And although many other ideas can be found circulating in Stevens’s work, this remains the central one to which he returned, again and again—in “Sunday Morning,” “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” and “The Snow Man;” and in those “ideas of order” poems set at Key West, along with “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” where the singing voice of a person or guitar creates the musical poem that organizes, and transforms, “things as they are.”
A necessary pause here: Yes, I know I am using “Man” to refer to human beings writ large. I am dwelling in the poet’s idiom, not my own, for the purposes of clarity. And yes, I also know that Stevens’s casually-expressed views in his letters—on women, race, and class—often express an ugly bigotry common to much of white male America in the twentieth century. Please stay with me, in this perverse journey with a poetry I nevertheless love. I ask you to consider the artist as a mixture—an intersectional mixture, if you will—of the conservative “good boy” who goes into the insurance business and makes the usual capitalist choices; the always heartbroken man living a heteronormative life who probably longed for male love; the shy and grumpy man who took long solitary walks every evening; and the wild, beauty-drunk, word-drunk Aesthete who pondered his cage’s lock and fashioned a way out through the skeleton key of poetry. I am quite sure that I would have found him, as a person, unbearable; but it is not necessary to love Stevens to love his poems—those gestures towards a clarity, beauty, and serenity he so obviously did not have in his daily life.
My point is not only to ponder this unregenerate paradox; it is, also, to show how and why Stevens changed his mind, at least about his “idea,” and I would guess about many other things as well. What changed him was a world calamity: the Second World War, and the dropping of the atom bomb in 1945. We who are living through our own world calamity are also changing. At least I know I am.
In his long poem, “The Auroras of Autumn,” written in 1947-1949, Stevens offers a retraction. In it, again and again, he says, “Farewell to an idea.” The poem unites scenes from Stevens’s youth, when at five years of age he witnessed a season of extraordinary aurora borealis displays. Memories of his childhood in the poem include a cartoon-like patriarch, the father, who like some colonial pasha brings in a circus of entertainers that includes African dancers and singers from India; a mother whose gentle hands soothe the boy’s fears; and a sense that the display of the aurora borealis is both magical and terrifying, a snake-like movement across the sky that cannot be explained. Stevens connects this memory to the flashes in the sky that must (in my reading) refer to the atomic bomb’s flashes that have so recently alerted and terrified the entire world.
There is nothing until in a single man contained
Nothing until this named thing nameless is
And is destroyed. He opens the door of his house
On flames. The scholar of one candle sees
An Arctic effulgence flaring on the frame
Of everything he is. And he feels afraid.
And what of that old idea, that the man-made thing organizes and makes sense of the chaotic world? Farewell to that idea, says this poem. Man has made an atomic bomb, the great destroyer. Artifice has led to this. Man cannot be trusted. White men, even smart ones, cannot be trusted to “civilize,” or to make a better world. And possibly, probably, this means that a life lived in the service of poetry, of aesthetic striving towards perfection, has been all wrong, too. But if poetry is not for the improvement of the world through beauty, what is it for? That is not a question that Stevens, late in his life, can answer.
I am not sure to what “idea” I am saying farewell on this overheated July day, in the midst of a summer of deaths in the streets, deaths on emergency wards, and more crazy language filling the air than has ever before been uttered. Since I have no firm aesthetic doctrines from which I write—or if I do, I have found it useful to disguise them from myself so as to keep writing—I can only say that these last weeks have marked an ending I cannot yet name. Perhaps I need to make my own farewell to an idea about literature, and art; but one thing I am sure of: that I can never say farewell to Stevens’s poetry. And that the tormented wisdom of “The Auroras of Autumn” has much to say to us now.
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