poetry reading

Absurd Almost-Humor: Wallace Stevens

I think — I am not sure, but I think — Wallace Stevens is one of my favorite poets, up there with Blake and Dickinson (a various lot!). Perhaps it is silly to have a favorite poet I can often understand only with help (when I get the help, though, it’s so exciting). And this is why I found myself rereading his first book of poems, Harmonium, instead of reading Stevens that was new to me this year.

The poetry in Harmonium is not simple, but it’s a bit simpler than the later poetry. I read it first for my poetry class last year, when we were given the assignment of choosing two “master poets.” We were to read their work extensively, observe their techniques, and journal about our responses to them. I really appreciated this portion of the course (my other poet was Gerard Manley Hopkins), and I think I’ll share some of the notes I took during it; I did not, alas, generate any thoughts as helpful when I reread this year.

The very first poem in the book, “Earthy Anecdote,” struck me so much I wrote about it at some length. Since the whole collection is (I believe) out of copyright in the US, I’ll reproduce it in its entirety here:

Earthy Anecdote

Every time the bucks went clattering
Over Oklahoma
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
And slept.

This poem made me laugh. It felt playful, and impossible, and somehow just right, so at once I read it to someone as an example of Stevens that “is not incomprehensible” and my friend protested justly that she had no idea what it meant, and I realized I didn’t either…. So much for that.

I was reacting to the simplicity of the structure and relative simplicity of the vocabulary and the fact that a reader can at least visualize what is happening. Then my friend pulled up this article: .

I like Vendler’s idea that the bucks are thought’s inertia and the firecat is a process of questioning, though I was slightly saddened that a firecat is probably a mountain lion and not a cat made of fire.

I wanted to explain to myself what I liked about it so much even though I totally missed the point, and I decided a lot of the appeal was the humor, or what I’d call the almost-humor, because here and elsewhere such techniques serve serious poetic purposes and aren’t anything you could call simply jokes. So I tried to explain these absurd effects as follows:

  1. Departure from reality: There’s the obvious departure, in that in the real world, the firecat/mountain lion might, like, eat a deer, or the deer might go in another direction, and this computer-game-like ritualistic repetition would be almost impossible. There are subtler oddities, though: one that struck me was the verb clatter. I have been around a lot of deer in my life and they don’t clatter. They’re very quiet—they might thump occasionally if they’re really moving or splash if they’re crossing water. However, the offness of both the verb and the scenario is in itself funny, because it’s surprising, and it also highlights the fact that we’re not reading about real bucks but rather about some kind of metaphor. Clatter just feels right, too: it communicates with both its sound and its sense that the bucks are clumsy, irritating, persistent, and shallow…
  2. Relatedly, this scene is presented with improbable and inexplicable specificity, especially for something that is clearly a metaphor. Why, we wonder, are the bucks in Oklahoma? Why are they bucks and not just deer of unspecified sex? Why are do they turn in a specific way? Which brings me to the third characteristic,
  3. Repetition with variations. The repetition of words (“clattering,” “in a swift, circular line,” “bristled”) matches the repetition in action. The cumulative effect is of something like Groundhog Day (a movie I’ve never seen but have heard enough about I feel as if I’ve seen it): eerie, mysterious, hilarious, absurd, futile.

If this is, as Vendler posits, a description of thought, how thought functions, it is very much a frustrated, self-mocking one. The word bucks in this context suggests a stupid and herd-driven form of masculinity; he bewails (perhaps) the clumsy, mindless, repetitious nature of so much human thought; the firecat, while probably the hero, isn’t much better; its main accomplishment seems to be discomfiting and irritating the bucks. The one hint of positive emotion is, to my ear, in the firecat’s “bright eyes,” a phrase that would be a touch sappy and cliche in another context.

These forms of humor persist throughout Stevens’ poetry, particularly in Harmonium — the repetition, absurdity, and “off”-ness seem a key part of his early style (later, these things persist but grow subtler and more complex; early on, they can feel — a bit like a game or a puzzle or a joke without as much depth, though they are also more accessible). Even in Harmonium, though, the techniques take on different roles in different poems, ranging from posing a philosophical puzzle (“Metaphors of a Magnifico”) to, I would guess, half-serious meditation on death (“The Domination of Black) to hypnotic, almost onomatopoetic, imitation of the sound of waves (“The Place of Solitaires”).

Moving on, here are general notes I made after reading Harmonium last year:

  1. Formally, Stevens ranges from iambic pentameter stanzas to nonce forms to free verse; especially interesting to me was his use of “sporadic rhyme”: bits of end-rhyme in poems that otherwise lack rhyme. This is something I might like to look into more. 
  2. One poem, “The Plot Against the Giant,” in which apparently lovely ladies drive off a giant by doing things like “diffusing the civilest odors,” actually repelled me: I think because the femininity that the reader has been trained to expect to be awe-inspiring is instead “civil,” domesticated and defamiliarized at once, so it’s almost a grossed-out child’s view of femininity. An artistic effect powerful enough to turn me against a poem is clearly doing something worth looking at, even though Stevens’ contemptuous (?) tone there is not something I want to permeate my sensibility.
  3. I enjoy Stevens’ metaphysical speculations via near-nonsense MUCH more than I enjoy his reflections on society (or, perhaps, better to say, his search for reality more than his deflation of unreal beauty), but both are major components of what he’s doing; that said, his long poem “Comedian as the Letter C” shows he sees more interesting, appealing alternatives to the over-refined unreal beauty he deflates (even if those alternatives are, in part, Otherizing, which they probably are, since the poem’s protagonist sails south and tries to set up a colony in South America, which seems to represent a rawer, bolder aesthetic).
  4. Several of the poems are titled “Anecdote of the [something]” and fail to be narrative in any meaningful way. I don’t know if this is a joke or something more, but it’s amusing.
  5. I’m into many forms of unreality in writing, as you have…probably noticed…if you’ve been around this blog for any length of time, and Stevens certainly uses the fantastic, or the surreal, or something very different from ordinary realism.
  6. Reading a lot of Stevens at once is exhausting and a bit unpleasant. I appreciate many of these poems enormously more upon coming back to them to transcribe and elaborate on notes, because I’m not drowning in his idiosyncrasy and because I can focus on them individually. I prefer the way Stevens feels in my head when I understand him to the usual feel of the “surface” of his poems.
  7. “The Comedian as the Letter C” seems like a very important poem which many of the other poems echo, and I should (someday) try to explore how Stevens structures this book.

In other news…expect other news soon! (Maybe even tomorrow!!) I have some exciting stuff going on; I’m hoping to start blogging a little more often.

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