Sunday, July 24, 2016


My daily walk takes me through several tree tunnels.  Here is my variation on Wordsworth:  "My heart leaps up when I behold". . . a tunnel of trees awaiting me.  I never tire of walking down the tunnels, and I hope I never will.  Wordsworth again:  "So be it when I shall grow old,/Or let me die!" These Romantic effusions are nearly always correct, despite what ironic moderns may think of them.

The delights of being cocooned beneath the trees are innumerable and ever-changing, but one sunny afternoon this past week it was the sound that enthralled me.  In a strong breeze out of the northwest, coming off the water, the boughs and leaves soughed and rustled and whispered overhead. "Yet still the unresting castles thresh."  I thought of this two-line poem, which has appeared here on more than one occasion:

The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves.
Us, listening to a river in the trees.

Seamus Heaney, The Haw Lantern (Faber and Faber 1987).

Recently I have been thinking about the presence of rivers in the poetry of Wallace Stevens.  Heaney's lovely joining of trees and rivers has much in common with Stevens's preoccupation with the motion of rivers:  rivers as rivers, and rivers as the World flowing around us and past us.

       The River of Rivers in Connecticut

There is a great river this side of Stygia,
Before one comes to the first black cataracts
And trees that lack the intelligence of trees.

In that river, far this side of Stygia,
The mere flowing of the water is a gayety,
Flashing and flashing in the sun.  On its banks,

No shadow walks.  The river is fateful,
Like the last one.  But there is no ferryman.
He could not bend against its propelling force.

It is not to be seen beneath the appearances
That tell of it.  The steeple at Farmington
Stands glistening and Haddam shines and sways.

It is the third commonness with light and air,
A curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction . . .
Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing,

Space-filled, reflecting the seasons, the folk-lore
Of each of the senses; call it, again and again,
The river that flows nowhere, like a sea.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (Alfred A. Knopf 1954).

The poem was published for the first time in a section of The Collected Poems titled "The Rock."  "The Rock" was the final collection of Stevens's poems published prior to his death in 1955.  "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" is the penultimate poem in the collection.  A note: Farmington and Haddam are towns in Connecticut near Hartford, where Stevens lived and worked (as a lawyer and executive at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company).

"The River of Rivers in Connecticut" has appeared here several times.  It is perhaps my favorite poem by Stevens.  In fact, it is one of my favorite poems, period.  But please, I beg you, don't ask me to explain what it "means."  I can only tell you that my life would be different without it.

James Paterson (1854-1932), "Moniaive" (1885)

Vast tracts of Stevens's poetry remain impenetrable to me.  He can fall into an abstract philosophizing that is baffling and, at the same time, cold.  Yet he is one of my favorite poets.  Why?  Because he wrote a large number of poems that I return to again and again (even though a fair number of them still puzzle me).  I long ago concluded that the beauty outweighs the obscurity.

Randall Jarrell has observed of Stevens's poetry:  "the poems see, feel, and think with equal success."  (Randall Jarrell, "Reflections on Wallace Stevens," Poetry and the Age (Alfred A. Knopf 1953), page 133.)  Of course, what Jarrell says is not true of every poem that Stevens wrote.  In particular, there is often far too much thinking going on in many of the poems.  But Jarrell's point is an excellent one:  at their best, Stevens's poems capture what it means to be fully human.  For that reason, they can provoke an exhilaration that is hard to find in poetry.  "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."  Another of those Romantic effusions that turn out to be exactly right.

In the same essay, Jarrell writes:  "A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great."  (Ibid, page 134.) As long-time readers of this blog know, I am not fond of classifying poets as "good" or "great" (or as "major" or "minor").  But I do believe that Stevens was struck by lightning quite often.

               The Countryman

Swatara, Swatara, black river,
Descending, out of the cap of midnight,
Toward the cape at which
You enter the swarthy sea,

Swatara, Swatara, heavy the hills
Are, hanging above you, as you move,
Move blackly and without crystal.
A countryman walks beside you.

He broods of neither cap nor cape,
But only of your swarthy motion,
But always of the swarthy water,
Of which Swatara is the breathing,

The name.  He does not speak beside you.
He is there because he wants to be
And because being there in the heavy hills
And along the moving of the water --

Being there is being in a place,
As of a character everywhere,
The place of a swarthy presence moving,
Slowly, to the look of a swarthy name.

Wallace Stevens, The Auroras of Autumn (Alfred A. Knopf 1950).  Swatara Creek is a tributary of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania.  It lies to the west of Reading, Pennsylvania, where Stevens was born and raised.

"The Countryman," which was written several years prior to "The River of Rivers in Connecticut," feels like a rehearsal for the later poem.  It retains some of the wordplay of Stevens's earlier years:  "Swatara" and "swarthy;" "cap" and "cape."  But the characteristic mood of Stevens's final years -- the willingness to accept the World on its own beautiful terms -- emerges in the final stanzas:  "He is there because he wants to be/And because being there in the heavy hills/And along the moving of the water --//Being there is being in a place."

Alfred Parsons (1847-1920), "Poplars in the Thames Valley"

I am one of those who believes that Stevens wrote his most moving, most human (and his best) poetry in the last five years of his life, between the publication of The Auroras of Autumn in September of 1950 and his death on August 2, 1955, at the age of 74.  These poems are found in "The Rock" and in a section titled "Late Poems (1950-55)" in Collected Poetry and Prose (edited by Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson) (The Library of America 1997).

Mind you, Stevens's essential theme never changed from beginning to end: the belief that the back-and-forth between the Imagination and Reality is the central element of what it means to be human.  This opens him to the dangers of abstraction and coldness that I mentioned above.  Stevens seems to have been aware of this:  "I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life,/As a disbeliever in reality,//A countryman of all the bones in the world?"  (There's that word "countryman" again.)  These lines appear in "As You Leave the Room," parts of which were written in 1947 (when he titled the poem "First Warmth" -- a hint in itself), but which he apparently revised as late as the year of his death.

But there is a softening and a warming at the end.  "As You Leave the Room" contains the following lines:  "as if I left/With something I could touch, touch every way."  These lines contain a single revision of the same lines in "First Warmth:  "as if I lived/With something I could touch, touch every way."  (Italics added.)  Interestingly, a speech that Stevens gave in 1951 when he received an honorary degree from Bard College contains an echo of the lines:

"The poet finds that as between these two sources:  the imagination and reality, the imagination is false, whatever else may be said of it, and reality is true; and being concerned that poetry should be a thing of vital and virile importance, he commits himself to reality, which then becomes his inescapable and ever-present difficulty and inamorata.  In any event, he has lost nothing; for the imagination, while it might have led him to purities beyond definition, never yet progressed except by particulars. . . . He has become like a man who can see what he wants to see and touch what he wants to touch.  In all his poems with all their enchantments for the poet himself, there is the final enchantment that they are true."

Wallace Stevens, "On Receiving an Honorary Degree from Bard College," in Collected Poetry and Prose, page 838 (italics added).

Here is the first poem in "The Rock."  Stevens did not place it there by chance.

                         An Old Man Asleep

The two worlds are asleep, are sleeping, now.
A dumb sense possesses them in a kind of solemnity.

The self and the earth -- your thoughts, your feelings,
Your beliefs and disbeliefs, your whole peculiar plot;

The redness of your reddish chestnut trees,
The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.

Given that the "explication" of Stevens's poetry is an academic cottage industry in the United States, a great deal of ink has been spilled over what "An Old Man Asleep" "means."  I will only say that "the river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R" is an exceedingly lovely line.  There is no need to speculate as to whether the "R" in "the river R" stands for "reality" or "are."  Read in conjunction with "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" and "The Countryman," the line makes perfect sense (in addition to being perfectly beautiful).

James Paterson, "The Last Turning, Winter, Moniaive" (1885)

See how easy it is to get diverted into a discussion about "the poetry of Wallace Stevens"?  But it is the words of the poems that matter.  "There is a great river this side of Stygia . . ."  In the beginning, and at the end, the river is always present.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

Wallace Stevens,  Poem XII, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," Harmonium (Alfred A. Knopf 1923).

"Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing."  "The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R."  "Call it, again and again,/The river that flows nowhere, like a sea."

     From out of the darkness
Of the short night
     Comes the River Ōi.

Buson (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 29.

Alfred Parsons, "Meadows by the Avon"


RT said...

Thank you for your posting. Rivers as a trope or motif in poetry had never occurred to me. You have (again) done much to improve my appreciation of poetry, a friendly companion to me in my solitude. Personal note: even as I must endure the Swiss-cheese memory of early Alzheimer's, I take comfort in the hope that poetry will remain my lifeline to reality.

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

Thank you for this delightfully inspiring post. I love your comments on Wallace Stevens and his superb work.

Stephen Pentz said...

R. T.: As always, it's a pleasure to hear from you. I'm pleased you liked the post.

I'm very sorry about your memory issues. Although it may be a cliché, dealing with problems such as these is indeed a one-day-at-a-time struggle. Thus, a poem a day (or any other passage of good writing) can indeed be, as you say, a "lifeline." I try to begin each day by reading a short poem (often a haiku), and it can help to set the tone for the entire day.

You are in my thoughts, and I wish you all the best. I hope to keep hearing from you (whether here or on your blog) for a long time to come! Thank you very much for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

sunt_lacrimae_rerum: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post. I'm happy that you liked it. I always feel a sense of delight when I return to Stevens's poems -- which prompted the post. Thank you for visiting again.

Bruce Floyd said...

Another superb poem from "The Rock" is "Lebensweisheitspielerei.'((The poem is below.) The title can be translated "playing with the wisdom of life." Speculation is that the title comes from something Schopenhauer wrote. (Stevens was an omnivorous reader, an erudite man.) The poem assumes "that old age grants a true vision of things. Everything in the poem is diminished. The sunlight 'falls weaker and weaker' in 'an indigence of light.' The speaker places himself among 'the unaccomplished," those left after the 'proud and the strong / Have departed.' It is in this 'poverty' of autumn that 'Each person completely touches us / With what he is and as he is.' The implication of the poem's imagery is that everything imaginative, fanciful, falsifying has been removed and what is left is the 'finally human.'"

Many of the poems in "The Rock" reveal Steven's understanding that the torpor and confusion of old age lead to an epiphany. He finds himself finally awake from "sleep's faded papier-mâché." In the weakness and ailments of old age, the fact of it and its manifestations, forces Stevens to discovery a reality that had eluded him though his life. The abstraction at last gives way to the reality of an impoverished world. Old age is an alembic, in which in the end all the detritus is boiled away and the reside that is left, what pitiful dregs, is what is real.


Weaker and weaker, the sunlight falls
In the afternoon. The proud and the strong
Have departed.

Those that are left are the unaccomplished,
The finally human,
Natives of a dwindled sphere.
Their indigence is an indigence
That is an indigence of the light,
A stellar pallor that hangs on the threads.

Little by little, the poverty
Of autumnal space becomes
A look, a few words spoken.

Each person completely touches us
With what he is and as he is,
In the stale grandeur of annihilation.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: Thank you very much for the poem, which is one I am fond of. (In fact, it appeared here way back in October of 2010.) Reading it again now, I notice the word "touches." In the post, I mentioned Stevens's use of "touch" in "First Warmth," "As You Leave the Room," and in his Bard College speech. Here we have it again.

I wonder though: does Stevens's late poetry speak only of, to use your phrase "the reality of an impoverished world"? I wonder the same thing about your phrase: "the residue that is left, what pitiful dregs, is what is real." I would respectfully suggest that, overall, Stevens's final view is not so unremittingly bleak. There is a great deal of joy in the final poems as well. Stevens goes back and forth.

To cite just one instance: I am sure you are familiar with the poem which follows "Lebensweisheitspielerei" in "The Rock": "The Hermitage at the Center" (which has appeared here before as well). It is cleverly contrived to be three poems in one, and, I would argue, strikes a balance between bleakness and joy. The first lines of each stanza, when read in sequence, constitute a poem of bleakness (autumn or winter); the last two lines of each stanza, when read in sequence, constitute a poem of joy (spring or summer); the overall poem plays the two views off against each other. But look how the poem concludes:

And yet this end and this beginning are one,
And one last look at the ducks is a look
At lucent children round her in a ring.

"Lucent": "glowing with or giving off light." As you know well, Stevens chose his words with care.

To cite another instance, I would argue that "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" is suffused with joy. "The mere flowing of the water is a gayety,/Flashing and flashing in the sun."

Finally, it is, of course, significant that Stevens concludes "The Rock" (and his Collected Poems -- his life's work) with the poem "Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself." Here again, there is a movement back and forth between bleakness and joy. The poem begins in bleakness: "At the earliest ending of winter,/In March, a scrawny cry from outside/Seemed like a sound in his mind." But look at how it ends (I know you know it well):

That scrawny cry -- it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

Those are Stevens's final words as a poet. They had to have been carefully chosen. It is entirely possible that I am reading the lines incorrectly, but I find them to be joyful, not bleak.

Please note that (1) all of this is said in good spirit, and (2) with an awareness that I may be completely misreading Stevens's late work. I appreciate your prompting me to examine my own views of his poetry. Actually, I have never been much of an optimist myself. But reading late Stevens makes me feel better in my own senescence!

As ever, thank you very much for your always thought-provoking comments. I greatly appreciate your sharing them because, as I say, you always prompt me to look into these things more deeply. And I don't claim to be right! Thank you very much for stopping by again.

mary f.ahearn said...

Here's a poem from Sam Hamill's wonderful "Crossing the Yellow River" by Li Shang-yin[813-858]

All spring, my sorrows grew like lotus leaves
Now they wither as my autumn sadness grows.

Grief is as long and wide as life.
Watch the autumn river. Listen to it flow.


Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: It's a pleasure to hear from you again. Thank you very much for sharing Li Shang-yin's poem, which is lovely, and which fits perfectly here. It happens to be one I am familiar with: Hamill's Crossing the Yellow River is one of my three key sources for Chinese poetry (the other two being Arthur Waley's Chinese Poems (the 1946 edition, which collects nearly all of the poems he translated) and Burton Watson's The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century). Here's a nice coincidence: I took Hamill's volume down from the shelf to see if he has translated other poems by Li Shang-yin, and I found a bookmark at the poem you posted.

As you know, rivers are a constant presence in Chinese poetry. Your sharing of this poem gives me the thought that I should devote a post (or several) to Chinese river poems. Here is one of the most famous (and one I'm sure you are familiar with), as translated by Hamill. It is by Liu Tsung-yuan (773-819).

Snowy River

The birds have vanished
from a thousand mountains.
On a thousand trails,
not a single human sign.

A little boat,
a bamboo hat and cloak --
the old man, alone,
fishing the snowy river.

Thank you again for sharing the poem. And thank you very much for visiting again. I hope your are enjoying the summer.