I haven’t had a course in poetry since seventh grade, and that consisted of memorizing pieces like Wordsworth’s “Daffodils,” so from time to time I set aside contemporary poetry to read something more classic.  This fall I tackled Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Like Homer, this is an epic, and a long one with long speeches.  One can skim large parts of it.  I was glad to discover what this famous work has in it: a fidelity to the Biblical record combined with a wildly imaginative representation of the spiritual world, lots of classical references in its comparisons, and a firm belief in reason.

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) is quite a different case.  I came upon his Collected Poems in the local library.  Dipping into it, I found myself in over my head.  Since the collection consists of six separately published books, more or less complete, plus some later work, I chose to read the section Parts of the World, published in 1942.  There are sixty-three poems in this division, quite enough for the rereading and going back and forth it took me to really grasp what he was up to.  The rereading was well worth it.

One of the first things I had to learn was that a poem title may give no clue to the poem.  Why is a poem about Cotton Mather and a mouse titled “The Blue Buildings in the Summer Air”?  Stevens is not forthcoming about the sources of his poems, and it often seems that he is writing entirely for himself.  Sometimes I felt that the writing might be a project to avoid insanity caused by a very active imagination. He doesn’t use the first person a lot, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t talking about himself.  Consider the opening of “The Hand As a Being”

In the first canto of the final canticle,
Too conscious of too many things at once,
Our man beheld the naked, nameless dame,

At other times word play is apparently what started him off, as in “Country Words”:

I sang a canto in a canton,
Cunning-coo, O, cuckoo cock,
In a canton of Belshazzar
To Belshazzar, putrid rock,
Pillar of a putrid people,
Underneath a willow there
I stood and sang and filled the air.

One thing careful reading and rereading taught me was to enjoy the surprise but not be thrown off by radical shifts and unusual comparisons, as in this section from “”Variations on a Summer Day”:

xi

Now, the timothy at Pemaquid
That rolled in heat is silver-tipped
And cold.  The moon follows the sun like a French
Translation of a Russian poet.

Here is a sample complete poem, a description of a work of art.  It is one of 52 poems by Stevens available on Poemhunter.com, for anyone who would like to see a few more.

Study Of Two Pears

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very elaborate attention to detail ends in the observation that the artist has determined what the observer sees.  Then there’s this poem, which made me, as a poet myself, think – a lot.

Poetry Is a Destructive Force

That’s what misery is,
Nothing to have at heart.
It is to have or nothing.

It is a thing to have,
A lion, an ox in his breast,
To feel it breathing there.

Corazon, stout dog,
Young ox, bow-legged bear,
He tastes its blood, not spit.

He is like a man
In the body of a violent beast.
Its muscles are his own . . .

The lion sleeps in the sun.
Its nose is on its paws.
It can kill a man.

The animals are in the man, then the man is inside the animal.  Is being a poet this uncomfortable?  Is this what pushed him to produce so much amazing and puzzling work?  The book is due at the library soon, but it is likely I’ll get it out again to explore another section of Stevens’s work another time.  I think I’ve made great progress in learning to read his poems.

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