Monday, June 13, 2005

Botanist on Alp

Why Wallace Stevens, you may ask. Well, his early poems are beyond words: such amazing lightness of language handling such profound themes - uniting irony and humor and dancelike, capricious rhytms with deep cultural observations. Naturally the academia has more or less sidestepped the poetic side of his poetry and concentrated on his "meaning" and "message" whether in a post-modern or in more old fashioned format. I suspect that the thing that unites academic critics is an intense dislike of all good literature and any virtuosity in writing.

Hmm, enough of me - listen to this:

"No more phrases, Swenson: I was once
A hunter of those sovereigns of the soul
And savings banks, Fides, the sculptor's price,
All eyes and size, and galled Justitia,
Trained to poise the tables of the law"...

or to this:

"That would be waving and that would be crying,
Crying and shouting and meaning farewell,
Farewell in the eyes and farewell at the centre,
Just to stand still without moving a hand."

By far the greatest of that great first modernist generation - maybe also in some way the least modern of them and least dated. Or not at all dated when it comes to this amazing, serious, light hearted music of his early poetry.


helsinkian said...

You got me interested enough to borrow his collected poems from Helsinki City Library.

As always, internet quotes tend to miss a few words from the original (such as "the")... In "Lions in Sweden" it should be "A hunter of those sovereigns of the soul" rather than "sovereigns of soul", which could mean some really hot soul musicians in an anachronistic reading...

In "Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu" it should be "that would be crying" (rather than "that would crying") and "farewell at the centre" (rather than "farewell at centre"). Of course, when it comes to poems, there can be different versions and critical editions and you name it. But internet versions do tend to drop words.

I disagree with what you wrote about academic critics. Very many of us academic critics happen to appreciate the beauty of literature, even if some more philosophically oriented ones may prefer to discuss purely theoretical issues and use the text as a tool in their mind games. Well, you may be right about the critics of Wallace Stevens, I haven't read any of them as it is. I like Edna St. Vincent Millay and I think there's something similar in these Stevens poems.

How do you read "Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu"? To me it sounds like an existential poem. To me "being", "farewell", "heaven" and "the sun" are the key words that lead to a glimpse of the poet's worldview. What would life be if you don't believe in heaven? There is a very speculative tone and no clear answers.

Could the end of the poem be the most direct reference on religion?:

One likes to practice the thing. They practice,
Enough, for heaven. Ever-jubilant,
What is there here but weather, what spirit
Have I except it comes from the sun?

I read it as a contrast between practicing religion and a spontaneous spirituality that stems from nature itself. The funny thing about modern poems is that so many interpretations are possible. "What is there here" is really funny because it makes me think of Gertrude Stein who said "there is no there there" about Oakland, Calif. in the 1930s - I don't know if it was before or after this Stevens poem.

The language of Stevens is really beautiful, flowing. I'll certainly check out some of his other poems.

stockholm slender said...

Thanks for the corrections! No copy pastes these, I copied them by hand from my own copy of his Collected Poems. Too familiar lines for me to see properly as text... Well, the thing is that in some ways I don't "read" poems. Yes, I see they have themes and meanings, but these are unseparable from their "music", from their rhythm. And as they are, they are shaped by that music and that rhythm and are thus transformed. So, I find it an extremely complicated question to ask "how I read a poem". Or an extremely simple one. Well, about academic critics, if they love literature why wouldn't they write like they would? Talk about turgid and dead prose... I once read a long academic "analysis" of "Lions in Sweden" which did not take into account the language of the poem, the sheer virtuosity of its unexpected images, its rhythm. And that, most assuredly was academic criticism. Incomprehensible.

helsinkian said...

You certainly touched a nerve there about academic critics. I think that most academic critics get their training in reading prose. When you read poetry the way you read prose, you miss a lot of the genre-specific characteristics. I certainly have a training in reading prose and a fascination for the narrative in poetry.

But I think a good critic also has an eye for the music and the rhythm in prose. Especially the long poems of Wallace Stevens automatically have a certain relationship to narrative prose. It's not wrong to read the prosaic qualities in poetry or the poetic qualities in prose as long as you're aware of the poetry in the poetry (and the prose in the prose)...

Non-critics often say you can't read poems at all (in the sense of finding messages and tracing systems of thought). Now that I've read more than half of Stevens' collected poems (I'm still no expert, just building an overview) I already dare to say that the combination of humorous thought and musical rhythm make them what they are - analyzing the interconnectedness of the two comes probably closest in interpreting the poetic whole.

But I would say that reading one poem and seeing Stevens in it is not a good idea. He constantly repeats certain key words (as poets do) throughout his early production - relating the words to his poetic universe is a better idea than making too specific conclusions on one poem only. The context is very important, especially as Stevens seems to have written loads of poems about what poetry can be and what it can't be. He consciously writes poetry about poetry searching the limits of poetic expression.

stockholm slender said...

Yes, "tell me pale Ramon, if you can"... (Quoting by heart, so probably incorrectly.) It seems that there are certain philosophical "key" texts where his poetic thinking is most underlined. To be honest, I have only a limited interest in tracing that thought. Yeats would be a more clear example: could not care less of his bonkers occult ideas, but I do passionately love his later poetry. One of the doubtful benefits of post-modernism is that I cannot now be accused of a "wrong" reading, but the natural temptation for academic criticism is to go for that theoretical thought and those "meanings" which can be best portrayed by "academic" analysis. It was - I think - good to get to know that banks used to have these statues in front of them, "Fides, the sculptor's prize", but I think that something more is referred to when the referring is done in the context of this particular poem...