I probably like Stevens more than any other poet of the last 100 years because it always seems like he's wrestling with Plato. At least, that's all my ear picks up. That's pretty much the sum of the reading below, the final paper in a "Close Reading" seminar. There's not a lot to it, just a gerrymandered reading of three poems of Stevens I happen to like, barring "Of Mere Being," my favorite, because I'd already written on it.
You can find the three poems online here:
Anecdote of the Jar
The Idea of Order at Key West
The Poems of Our Climate (scroll down)
To motivate my close reading, I’d like to remark at the outset that Stevens seems obsessed with the poet’s capacity to create order with words. Every poem, by being a poem, would seem to create its own implicit order, but what this means for order to be created by words is a theme Stevens often takes up in the poem. In Anecdote of the Jar, the problematic is set in the ambiguity that ensues as the jar attempts to order the landscape. In The Idea of Order at Key West, the poet’s relationship to her power in ordering is focused and takes on a sad, lonely tinge. Finally, The Poems of Our Climate takes the other side of the relationship, and shows a perfect order to not even be desirable.
The landscape of Anecdote is dominated by a hill, a jar, the wilderness, and—in a more subtle way—the “I.” The spare set-up of the anecdote begins: “I placed a jar in Tennessee,/And round it was, upon a hill.” (1-2) The “I” almost appears to look out onto the poem, never really moving from its position before placing the jar and disappearing. Like the singer’s voice in Idea of Order, the placing of the jar has a similar power of causation. The “I” creates a proxy in the “jar,” transferring its power as a finger pushes over the first domino. The effect of the jar being placed on the hill is felt immediately: “It made the slovenly wilderness/Surround that hill.” (3-4) Specificity is drawn out in “a hill” and again in “that hill,” a repetition of the anecdotal thematic. The truly curious thing about that jar on that hill, of course, is that it made the wilderness surround the hill.
The difficulty in the jar’s relationship to the hill appears more boldly when we add the next two lines: “The wilderness rose up to it,/And sprawled around, no longer wild.” (5-6) This is the moment of ordering, but the ambiguities implied are twofold: 1) the verbs of “surround” and “rose” are ambiguous between a literal movement on the part of the wilderness, as if the jar caused the wilderness to march up to the hill, and a change in perspective caused by the jar being placed in the landscape, the juxtaposition of the newly placed jar making the wilderness appear differently than it did before. And 2) “slovenly” and “sprawled” give a very untidy appearance to the wilderness, but the effect of the jar on the wilderness is to make it “no longer wild.” To remove the “wild” from “wilderness” would be to disembowel, one would think, its very essence. Yet the “making” began in line 3, when it was first introduced as “slovenly” (let alone as “wilderness”), and even if we imagine its slovenly appearance to be in the midst of a makeover, the second action taken by it (“rising”) is accompanied by its sprawling and its no longer being wild. These two ambiguities create a sense of failed change, failed ordering. The actions of surrounding and rising are the appearance of action, simply a created effect—the jar suddenly appears on the hill and so the wilderness appears to surround and rise up to it. The wilderness is announced as no longer wild, yet it still sprawls. Just as the jar is taking “dominion everywhere” (9), the wilderness appears like a child who was ordered by its mother to clean up, but does so in name only.
The ambiguity of order is continued between lines 7 and 8: “The jar was round upon the ground/And tall and of a port in air.” Line 7 has a kind of ordering with the internal rhyming of “round” and “ground,” but the squatness of “round” when it is on the ground is juxtaposed in line 8 with its tallness when it is in the air. Further, the jar’s two different appearances are not vigorously separated by a “but,” but rather softly distinguished by the “and.” And whereas on the ground the jar is squat, in the air it has a certain “port,” or carriage. This shift in outward appearance, or carriage, is matched by a shift in diction, “port” being an archaic usage, age carrying with it a raised dignity. The movement we should notice is that while on the one hand, as the jar goes into the air, the diction rises and the jar appears more regal, on the other hand, all of the jar’s power occurs in its movement towards the ground. Just as the powers of order occur low to the ground, so does Stevens lower the poetic diction in shifting from the traditional “ode” (like to, say, a Grecian urn) to the “anecdote” (five appearing in Harmonium). Whereas the ode now gives the semblance of being over-composed, “anecdote” is from the Greek for “things unpublished.” If the ode gives us the sense of an embarrassedly raised diction, something too well-ordered, then Stevens’ anecdote gives us its proper opposite. In Anecdote of the Jar, we are treated to a jar that orders, but within the loose assemblage of the “anecdote.” In a similar way, Stevens achieves this contrast of dictions in the title of The Idea of Order at Key West. On the one hand there is “the idea of order,” with its high, Platonic-like diction, and on the other there is “Key West,” an American resort town.
The powers of ordering in Anecdote are transferred from the jar to the “she”-singer of Idea of Order:
The sea was not a mask. No more was she.We were introduced to the sea as a “body wholly body” (3) that makes “mimic motion” (4). Lines 8-14 further differentiate the sea from the singer’s song. As we are introduced to the song, like in Anecdote, the verse itself takes on “melodic” attributes to mimic the order being created. The above is in blank verse, in perfect pentameter with near perfect iambs. Most of the poem is in something near blank verse, with a random dispersion of 10 to 12 syllable lines, and indeed takes on the form of something like a Homeric hymn, with its long stanzas of description, and particularly with the split five feet between lines 33 and 34 (“Of sky and sea./It was her voice that made”). Somehow the single rhyming sound at the end of lines 10, 11, 12, and 14 don’t seem overbearing or repetitive, possibly upset by “word by word,” with the first “word” sonically disturbing the perfect rhyme and so setting up the next between 11 and 12. Further melodic ordering includes the mirroring of “grinding water” and “gasping wind” and the beautiful closing internal rhyme before the final “heard” in line 14.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard. (8-14)
The singer is a poet. “For she was the maker of the song she sang.” (15) Homeric poets were rhapsodes, and their poetry was actually sung, thus beginning poetry’s long romance with metaphors of song. “Poet” comes from the Greek poiētēs, which meant “maker.” But there seems to be a tension in “The maker’s rage to order words of the sea” (53). “Making” seems to imply an act of creation, whereas “ordering” seems to imply an arrangement of things already there. The poem seems to be granting that creatio ex nihilo is an impossibility, but goes further still in honing a tension between the singer’s attempt to create something new as opposed to simply arranging things that were already there. Most of the poem spends its time consolidating the singer’s power in contradistinction to the sea. The simply stated “The song and water were not medleyed sound” (9) creates the impression that the “fluttering” (3) of the sea’s “empty sleeves” (4) are a mere epiphenomena to the song, yet the “It may be that in all her phrases stirred/The grinding water and the gasping wind” (12-13) compromises this sense. Even as lines 8-14 begin the consolidation of the singer’s power, the lines seem sad. This sadness begins to set in with “yet its mimic motion/Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry” (4-5). In the odd epanorthosis which corrects the sea crying to simply causing a cry, it is difficult to tell which is the more disturbing, though in the end the correction merely appears as a repetition for emphasis as “we understood” (6) the cry to be “of the veritable ocean.” (7) After the singer begins her ordering of lines 8-14, the tone of melancholy reaches its denouement for the sea when we find that the “tragic-gestured sea/Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.” (16-17)
I sense a transference beginning, however, when the next line begins “Whose spirit is this? we said” (18). The audience, of which our hidden narrator is but one (never fully making an appearance until he begins talking to Ramon Fernandez), makes a distinction between the “spirit” and something else. At first we might simply take it to be the sea, that “body wholly body” (3). But as the auditor continues to listen, the answer seems to change. Lines 21 to 28 contain a long conditional that begins “If it was only the dark voice of the sea” (21) and finally ends “it would have been … sound alone” (25, 28). The sea is “sound alone”—no spirit. But then: “But it was more than that,/More even than her voice, and ours, among/The meaningless plunging of water and the wind” (28-30). This is an effusive “more,” more than sound alone, more than the singer’s voice, more than the audience’s voice (the implication that the audience makes sounds similar to the singer’s). Yet this effusive “more” seems to obscure the spirit-body distinction that we would’ve identified with the song-sea distinction. It is this same effusive “more” that is cut off by the split pentameter of lines 33 and 34. Almost asking to begin again, 34 restores the singer’s voice to power: “It was her voice that made/The sky acutest at its vanishing.” (34-35) But as the singer accumulates more and more power (“when she sang, the sea,/Whatever self it had, became the self/That was her song,” 38-40) she becomes more solitary: “Then we,/as we beheld her striding there alone,/Knew that there never was a world for her/Except the one she sang and, singing, made.” (40-43) This near solipsistic moment achieves the singer’s own melancholic denouement. We find that the sad cry of the sea is a mirror for the sad, solitary cry of the singer, obscured before, but now mimicked by the parity between her measuring of the sky’s “solitude” in line 36 and striding “alone” by the sea in line 41.
The narrative of Idea of Order is the auditor’s coming to terms with the song and the sea, between ordering and making. On the one hand, the “words of the sea” simply do what the singer tells them to do, the more power taken, the more alone she is. On the other hand, the audience espies a spirit behind both the sea and her voice, something more. As a mere ordering (as in lines 8-14) turns into a stronger making, the singer becomes solipsistic—and yet even then, something escapes. This something “more” arises again in The Poems of Our Climate. We are presented with “Clear water in a brilliant bowl,/Pink and white carnations.” (1-2) The syntax in which the carnations are pictured in the bowl gives a kind of simple, lyric quality to the lines. And yet:
Pink and white carnations—one desiresThe “brilliant bowl” of “clear water” achieve some of the jar’s causal power as the day seems to be simplified by the bowl itself. Compare the bowl’s “complete simplicity” (11), how it is “low and round” (9), with the jar being “round upon the ground” (Anecdote, 7) and “gray and bare” (10).
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there. (6-10)
Certainly with the jar one would want more, and as the jar neuters the wilderness, so does the bowl strip down the surrounding world:
Say even that this complete simplicityThe “complete simplicity” of the bowl is opposed to complexity, to the “evilly compounded, vital I,” yet as light and airy as the “newly-fallen snow” appears in the first stanza, the bowl itself seems the sinister element, the pink and white carnations a mere façade. The “evilly” in the second stanza seems imposed by the order of the bowl, not fitting with the I’s vitality. In fact, I take the “vital I” to be the same “I” that places the jar on the hill, the only real, unambiguous action in that poem. In Poems, the sense is that as nice as the carnations and clear water seem, there is something missing that one wants, and the “vital I” seems the key.
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white snowy scents. (Poems, 11-17)
The “more” seems even more incessant than in Idea of Order, and whereas the “more” of Idea of Order was of something more that escaped the sea and the voice, the “more” of Poems turns into a desire to escape:
There would still remain the never-resting mind,The ambiguity of order in Anecdote, where it isn’t clear if the jar succeeds in neutering the still sprawling, un-wild wilderness, compares well with the ambiguity of both success of an ordering-turn-making (with the spirit still escaping) and our desire for the resultant solipsism in Idea of Order. The latter’s “blessed rage for order” (Idea of Order, 52) should be compared to the juxtaposing of delight and bitterness and paradise and imperfection in Poems. Indeed, the “however clear” (25) that the sea was in Idea of Order finds its way into “clear water” of the bowl. And while our imperfection is “hot” (Poems, 23), the bowl is “Cold, a cold porcelain” (9). The tensions in Anecdote and Idea of Order become explicitly manifest in Poems, becoming the exact source of not only our sadness, as in Idea of Order, but also our happiness.
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds. (18-24)
Stevens’ sense of order is an imperfect arranging. In Anecdote, the order that appears only does so by its contradistinction to the wilderness which surrounds it, that even as it takes “dominion everywhere,” the wilderness is only ambiguously tamed. In Idea of Order, the singer’s “rage to order words of the sea” masters the mimicking sea, but the spirit still escapes. In Poems, order takes its appearance as an unsatisfactory, “complete simplicity.” In each poem, something escapes the order, and Stevens seems to be suggesting that we should delight in this imperfection of our imposed order. The jar’s perfect ambiguity is expanded into the singer’s solipsistic rage and focused in the bowl as our imperfect paradise.