Thursday, July 7, 2011

From A Mountain In Vermont To A Jar In Tennessee

On more than one occasion, I have expressed a preference for the more direct (relatively so), more emotional later poetry of Wallace Stevens over his more precious, more abstract earlier poetry.  "July Mountain," which appeared in my most recent post, was one of the last poems written by Stevens.  A poem from Stevens's earlier years provides, I think, a good companion piece (or perhaps a bookend?) to "July Mountain."

          Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

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.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (1923).

And what, exactly, is that all about?  Professors and Ph.D. candidates -- enthusiastic members of the Wallace Stevens explication industry in the United States -- have had a field day with that question, of course.  But their guesses are as good as yours or mine.  We should also remember what Mr. Stevens (down-to-earth lawyer and insurance company executive) said:  "I have the greatest dislike for explanations.  As soon as people are perfectly sure of a poem they are just as likely as not to have no further interest in it; it loses whatever potency it had."  (Letter to Ronald Lane Latimer, November 15, 1935.)

But T. S. Eliot may provide an oblique approach:  "the still point of the turning world."  As may Robert Frost:  "a momentary stay against confusion."  As may Edward Thomas:  "And for that minute a blackbird sang/Close by, and round him, mistier,/Farther and farther, all the birds/Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire."  And, finally, as may Philip Larkin:  "Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:/The sun-comprehending glass,/And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows/Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless."

                   John Everett Millais, "The Vale of Rest" (1858-1859)


Fred said...

I go along with TS Eliot and Robert Frost here. The Jar seems to be a focal point, a momentary locus that organizes? dominates? renders motionless? its surroundings.

S R Plant said...

My simplistic take on this is that poems like the above are a result of Stevens deliberately employing an 'Eastern' approach (doing a Rumi). They are always interesting, but I too prefer his later stuff.

George said...

Since we are speaking of terrain and since "July Mountain" begins "We live in", how about the last section of "Sunday Morning"?

We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or an old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
weet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

(Courtesy of a University of Michigan web site)

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: that was what I was getting at, I think. Given Stevens's preoccupation with the interaction between the Imagination and Reality (i.e., the natural world), I've always thought of the Imagination as "the jar", and thus the momentary "organizing" principle that you speak of.

As always, thank you for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

S R Plant: I am ashamed to say that I have never gotten around to reading Rumi, but I think I know what you mean by an "Eastern approach": gnomic utterances along the lines of Buddhist or Taoist poetry or philosophy. For instance: "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," which sounds like Chinese poetry (but more abstract).

Thanks for dropping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Thank you for visiting and commenting again, George. And thank you for the lines from "Sunday Morning" -- they are among Stevens's best, aren't they?