Sunday, August 10, 2014

"And August The Most Peaceful Month"

As long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall, I, being a creature of habit, have previously identified my "April poem" (Patrick Kavanagh's "Wet Evening in April"), my "May poem" (Philip Larkin's "The Trees"), and my "November poem" (Wallace Stevens' "The Region November").  At the risk of trying your patience, gentle readers, here is my August poem.

           A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur --

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten in the moon;

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of.  It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter.  The grass is full

And full of yourself.  The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone --
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.

Wallace Stevens, Parts of a World (1942).

Is August "the most peaceful month"?  There is a sense of fullness, of culmination, isn't there?  Yet, in about a week or so, an ever-so-slight slant of yellow light will become noticeable, accompanied by an ever-so-slight lengthening of shadows.  Something will be announcing its approach . . .

Norman Rowe, "Span" (1985)

On a previous occasion, I made a feeble attempt to explain what this poem may "mean," but ended up suggesting that it may simply be about a rabbit that was eating the bulbs in Stevens' garden at night, beneath the bedroom window.  This seems perfectly acceptable to me.

But let's put "meaning" aside for a moment and consider only the sound of the poem.  Notice the lovely repetitions (something at which Stevens is a master) -- unobtrusive, but with a cumulative effect:  "And August the most peaceful month.//To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time"; "The grass is full/And full of yourself"; "The trees around are for you,/The whole of the wideness of night is for you"; "A self that touches all edges,//You become a self that fills the four corners of night."

And then there are the lines that are simply marvelous in their own right as perfect combinations of words, regardless of what they mean:  "Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk"; "And east rushes west and west rushes down"; "The whole of the wideness of night is for you"; "the four corners of night"; "And the little green cat is a bug in the grass."  Not to mention the title.  (As I have noted before, reading the table of contents or the index of titles in Stevens' Collected Poems is a delight in itself.)

In one sense, the poem is a humorous nursery rhyme.  In another sense, it is a deeply serious meditation on how we ought to live our life, and what it means to be truly human.

Norman Rowe, "Garden with Chairs" (1978)

Turning back to "meaning" for a moment, perhaps a good way to approach "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" is to compare it with another poem by Stevens.  The two of them play off one another quite well.

       The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain

There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.

He breathed its oxygen,
Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.

It reminded him how he had needed
A place to go to in his own direction,

How he had recomposed the pines,
Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,

For the outlook that would be right,
Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:

The exact rock where his inexactnesses
Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged,

Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,
Recognize his unique and solitary home.

Wallace Stevens, The Rock (1954), in Collected Poetry and Prose (Library of America 1997).

I would suggest that, in both poems, Stevens is describing the same unique and fundamental human activity.  The activity that, he would say, makes us human.

Norman Rowe, "Water Lilies" (1979)


Anonymous said...

A late poem by Stevens, one probably unfamiliar to most of us, is "Things of August." For one thing the poem is rather long, comprising ten sections. It is not one of his anthologized poems probably because, and one is loath to say this about Stevens, the poem is uneven.

In the poem Stevens moves from "bare autumn back to late summer."

He captures brilliantly, as he always does, "August sounds, sights, weather, etc., and memories therefrom."

I quote the last section of the poem, section X (section IV is lovely also):

The mornings grow silent, the never-tiring wonder.
The trees are appearing in poverty.

Without rain, there is the sadness of rain
And an air of lateness. The moon is a tricorn

Waved in pale adieu. The rex Impolitor [King Death]
Will come stamping here, the ruler of less than men,

In less than nature. He is not here yet.
Here the adult one is still banded with fulgor,

Is still warm with the love with which she came,
Still touches solemnly with what she was

And willed. She has given too much, but not enough.
She is exhausted and a little old.

This poem, it's serenity at the end, reminds me of Keats's "To Autumn"--that last moment of ripeness ("still branded with fulgor") before the inevitable fall into decay, though one should not dismay or mourn.

As Keats says,we should sit patiently and watch "the oozings hours by hours."

You have quoted Frost's line in your postings, and it's something all great poets know: "Nothing gold can stay."

Sam Vega said...

Many thanks. I know virtually nothing of Stevens, other than his poems which crop up in anthologies. The rabbit poem is beautiful without me knowing why. I don't even know what it is about, really. Your attempts to explain are gentle and respectful.
And again, I'm struck by how amazingly similar our very different parts of the world are, when it comes to the seasons changing. Best wishes.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: thank you very much for mentioning "Things of August," and for providing Section X. I hadn't paid any attention to that poem until last year, and I agree with you that it contains some fine things. I have more patience with Stevens in his final years!

And your echoes of Keats and Frost are apt as well.

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: your description of how you feel about the poem is perfect: "The rabbit poem is beautiful without me knowing why." This describes exactly how I feel about it (and about quite a few other of Stevens' poems). I think this is perfectly acceptable.

Stevens can be a hard nut to crack. But, for some reason, I have always been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for the sheer beauty of the writing. And I also confess that I was prepared to love the poem (I first read it in college) when I saw the title.

I've always wondered why Stevens has never become better known in the UK. He has been noticed by a few poets and critics -- Frank Kermode, R. S. Thomas (who wrote at least two poems about him), Charles Tomlinson, and Roy Fuller come to mind -- but, as a general matter, he seems to be fairly unknown. On the other hand, his poetry is a cottage industry over here for academics (a decidedly mixed blessing, of course). I would say that he runs a close second to T. S. Eliot in terms of critical attention. Which I suppose stands to reason given the surface difficulty of his poetry -- he provides a great deal of fodder for "interpretation." Alas.

By the way, as a sympathetic introduction to Stevens, I highly recommend an essay by Roy Fuller titled "Both Pie and Custard," which appears in Fuller's book Owls and Artificers: Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1971). The essay mentions in particular Stevens' letters, which I also recommend.

Yes, we are a great deal like England here when it comes to the seasons. As I may have mentioned to you before, the correspondence is even more striking about 150 miles north of here in Vancouver, British Columbia -- which may explain why, over the years, English expats have found their way there.

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for your thoughts. And I'm pleased you liked the Stevens poem.

Clarissa Aykroyd said...

A Rabbit As King of the Ghosts reminds me of Richard Adams' Watership Down. Some descriptive similarities, the sort of magical realism, etc. Of course, Watership Down is a later work. I wrote about the similarities (as I see them in my personal way) here:

I like Stevens very much but he makes me a bit tired in a head-turning-around way. He is highly philosophical and perspective-bending, and depending on my mood it can be wonderful, or a bit irritating.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms Aykroyd: it's good to hear from you again. Thank you for the link to your post -- I'm aware of, but haven't read, Watership Down, so the parallels you draw are interesting. Also, I never thought I would hear Bill Murray reading "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" -- quite a surprise. Although I had the feeling that he had never seen the poem before. I could be wrong.

I agree with you about Stevens: I've been reading his poetry for nearly 40 years now, and I still get, as you say, tired and irritated at times. But as the years pass, one finds that, although some poems will always remain impenetrable, there are dozens of others that are irreplaceable. At least that's been my experience. Which is why I keep returning to him, despite the frustrations.

As ever, thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts.