Wednesday, November 29, 2017


The time has come, dear readers, to return once again to my "November poem."  I beg your forbearance, for this is the sixth such visit.  But I'm afraid that I never tire of this poem:  its mystery, its ever-unfolding and ever-evolving intimations, and -- above all -- its beauty will never be exhausted (at least not for me).

               The Region November

It is hard to hear the north wind again,
And to watch the treetops, as they sway.

They sway, deeply and loudly, in an effort,
So much less than feeling, so much less than speech,

Saying and saying, the way things say
On the level of that which is not yet knowledge:

A revelation not yet intended.
It is like a critic of God, the world

And human nature, pensively seated
On the waste throne of his own wilderness.

Deeplier, deeplier, loudlier, loudlier,
The trees are swaying, swaying, swaying.

Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous (edited by Samuel French Morse) (Alfred A. Knopf 1957).  The poem was likely written in 1954, the year prior to Stevens's death at the age of 75.  It was not published during his lifetime.

In his final years, Stevens's poems reflected a greater recognition of intimations of Immanence in the self-sufficient, beautiful particulars of the World around him.  He had devoted his life to a grand project to construct, through poetry, a "supreme fiction."  The defining feature of this project was a constant interplay between Imagination and Reality, an interplay that Stevens regarded as essential to living a fully human life.  I am wholly sympathetic with this way of placing oneself into the World.  Yet it carries with it a risk of abstraction:  the Imagination may assume primacy over Reality.

I think that, toward the end of his life, Stevens harbored doubts about his project.  I am not suggesting that he ever abandoned or repudiated it, or his belief in the human importance of the back-and-forth between Imagination and Reality.  But one senses a bit of uncertainty, an awareness of other possibilities.

                    First Warmth

I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life,
As a questioner about reality,

A countryman of all the bones in the world?
Now, here, the warmth I had forgotten becomes

Part of the major reality, part of
An appreciation of a reality;

And thus an elevation, as if I lived
With something I could touch, touch every way.

Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous.  The poem was written when Stevens was 67 years old.

But notice the qualification: "as if I lived/With something I could touch, touch every way."  (One comes across the phrase "as if" a number of times in Stevens's poetry.)  And there is this:  "I wonder . . ."

Ian Grant (1904-1993), "Cheshire Mill" (1939)

The change in Stevens can perhaps be appreciated by comparing "The Region November" with one of his best-known poems (which was first published in 1921).

               The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (Alfred A. Knopf 1923).

January, not November.  But, in both cases, we have a listener, listening to the wind in the trees.  One could say that both scenes are marked by bleakness and emptiness.  But are they?  It is a great deal more complicated than that.  Consider a comment made by Stevens in a letter to a scholar who had inquired about the "meaning" of some of his poems:  "I shall explain The Snow Man as an example of the necessity of identifying oneself with reality in order to understand it and enjoy it."  Wallace Stevens, letter to Hi Simons (April 18, 1944), in Holly Stevens (editor), Letters of Wallace Stevens (Alfred A. Knopf 1966), page 464.

This goes a long way toward explaining the magnificent (and lovely) puzzle of:  "For the listener, who listens in the snow,/And, nothing himself, beholds/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." "Nothing that is not there."  In other words:  "Everything is there."  If we fail to realize this, we have "a mind of winter" and "have been cold a long time":  we are incapable of seeing that we have it in us to construct something out of "the nothing that is," to engage in the never-ending (for the brief time we are here) interplay of Imagination and Reality.

Which leads us to a crucial (and beautiful) line in "The Region November": "A revelation not yet intended."  This is where I see a change in Stevens. One is hard put to find Immanence in "The Snow Man":  the focus is on "the necessity of identifying oneself with reality in order to understand it and enjoy it."  As I said before, this is a perfectly fine way to live.  But is it enough?  Does it fully account for the "saying and saying" and the "swaying, swaying, swaying" of the trees?  They have no need of us, do they?  And what, indeed, are they saying?  I believe that this is what gave Stevens pause in the final years of his life:  the possibility of revelation.  But I may be completely wrong.

Josephine Haswell Miller (1890-1975), "The House on the Canal"

At this point, a pause is in order.  Long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall one of my two fundamental poetical precepts:  Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  (The other, for those who may be interested, is:  It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.)  I fear that I may be veering into forbidden territory with all of this palaver.

Hence, let me be clear:  the poems by Wallace Stevens that appear in this post are here because they move me and because I find them beautiful. When all is said and done, you are well-advised to ignore everything that I have said about the poems.

With that, let us turn to another cold, windy, and ostensibly bleak landscape.

                         The Course of a Particular

Today the leaves cry, hanging on branches swept by wind,
Yet the nothingness of winter becomes a little less.
It is still full of icy shades and shapen snow.

The leaves cry . . . One holds off and merely hears the cry.
It is a busy cry, concerning someone else.
And though one says that one is part of everything,

There is a conflict, there is a resistance involved;
And being part is an exertion that declines:
One feels the life of that which gives life as it is.

The leaves cry.  It is not a cry of divine attention,
Nor the smoke-drift of puffed-out heroes, nor human cry.
It is the cry of leaves that do not transcend themselves,

In the absence of fantasia, without meaning more
Than they are in the final finding of the ear, in the thing
Itself, until, at last, the cry concerns no one at all.

Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous.  The poem was first published in the spring of 1951.

I find this to be one of Stevens's loveliest and most affecting poems, even though I have only the faintest sense of its "meaning."  This is, again, a late poem, and the correspondences between it, "The Region November," and "The Snow Man" are remarkable.  The Stevens of "The Snow Man" still remains:  "It is the cry of leaves that do not transcend themselves,/In the absence of fantasia, without meaning more/Than they are in the final finding of the ear."  "Fantasia" is preferable to "a mind of winter."

But the Stevens of "The Region November" is here as well, in this wonderful (and absolutely beautiful) line:  "One feels the life of that which gives life as it is."  No fantasia is necessary.  "Deeplier, deeplier, loudlier, loudlier,/The trees are swaying, swaying, swaying."

Ian Grant, "Winter Scene, Provencal" (1938)

"The thing itself."  This phrase appears in "The Course of a Particular."  It also appears in the title of the final poem in his final volume:  The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, which was published on October 1, 1954, the day prior to his seventy-fifth birthday.  One presumes that Stevens placed the poem in this position with intent.

He died the following August.

   Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow . . .
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mâché . . .
The sun was coming from outside.

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.

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

"One feels the life of that which gives life as it is."

     All the long day --
Yet not long enough for the skylark,
     Singing, singing.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 195.

Josephine Haswell Miller, "Studio Window" (1934)


Janet said...

I recognise that Cheshire mill! Lovely cafe in it now.

Another beautiful post . Thank you.

John Ashton said...

The Region November, though I hadn’t known it before reading it here, is I would agree, a poem that makes you want to return to it. I don’t feel I understand it, but that’s what makes me want to return, not only to it but so many of Stevens poems. That sense of mystery, the inexhaustible feeling that makes the poems fresh, imbued with a sense of wonder each time you come back.

One of the Stevens poems I always return to is, “The house was quiet and the world was calm”. It has a wonderful sense of stillness and poise, almost a meditative quality. There are moments, sitting and reading when we ourselves seem to approach or sometimes arrive at something like the condition which I think is being described in this poem. I’m sure you know it well.

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

We read and discover unexpected correlations. They do not explain, but create new mysteries that exist and are wholly exempt need for further clarification of meaning.

These lines demonstrate that quality beautifully.

“It is the cry of leaves that do not transcend themselves,
In the absence of fantasia, without meaning more
Than they are in the final finding of the ear”

The haiku of Basho reminds of walking along the north Norfolk coast some years ago on a beautiful morning in early summer.
There was no one to be seen, only the sound of the sea below the crumbling, sandy cliffs and above us, accompanying us, or so it seemed, skylarks were singing. They were there on our outward walk and still there, still singing on our return. It was as if the hours of daylight were not long enough for them.

George said...

I have just read Fichte's The Vocation of Man, his attempt to write in plain language what he wrote in technical language in The Science of Knowledge. The argument of it is that in proceeding from the "objective", realistic side, the world of cause and effect, one finds oneself caught in the structure of necessity, without freedom; in proceeding from the "subjective", idealistic side, one finds oneself as free, in a way the source of the world, but without reason to suppose that there is anything independent of one's representations; that the way out of the dilemma is on the one hand to accept the world outside one on faith--as a working hypothesis, say--, and on the other to prove one's freedom by exercising it.

I wonder about your reading of the line "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is there." I'd say that this viewer perceives only what is in front of him, and sees also sees the emptiness. "[T]he nothing that is there" recalls to me Frost's "The loneliness includes me unawares" in "Desert Places".

You raise some interesting points. I should find the volume of Stevens on my shelves and have another look.

Stephen Pentz said...

Janet: It's nice to know the building is still there, and is being put to good use. Thank you very much for your kind words about the post, and for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much for sharing those thoughts, and for sharing Stevens's poem as well: as you suspected, it is one of my favorites by him. It brings to mind two other poems by him (which I'm sure you know) which appear in sequence in "The Rock" section of his Collected Poems: "A Quiet Normal Life" and "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour." Both of these are wonderful late poems which share, with the poem you quote, those qualities "of stillness and poise" that you describe. For instance, these lines are from "A Quiet Normal Life": "Here in his house and in his room,/In his chair, the most tranquil thought grew peaked/And the oldest and the warmest heart was cut/By gallant notions on the part of night."

I completely agree with your description of why one returns to Stevens's poems, even though one may not "understand" them fully. I have given up the attempt to "understand" every line that he wrote: I return for the beauty.

Your memory of the skylarks in Norfolk is lovely: it replicates exactly what prompted Bashō's haiku! How fortunate you are to have had such an experience. In the same company as Bashō.

As ever, I greatly appreciate your stopping by. I wish you and your family a happy holiday season.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you very much for those thought-provoking observations. I confess that I'm unfamiliar with Fichte's work. I only know of him second-hand through Schopenhauer, and through reading about Schopenhauer. But, from what I understand, he was one of the purveyors of German idealism, which I have never been fond of. I'm afraid I'm like Samuel Johnson and Berkeley's idealism: I always feel like kicking a stone and saying: "I refute them thus!" But many have accused Johnson of misunderstanding and oversimplifying, and that is no doubt true of me as well. I also suspect that I am greatly mischaracterizing Fichte's philosophy by focusing on idealism.

Based upon your description, that is an interesting way of looking at "The Snow Man," and it is certainly worth considering. As you know, Stevens was well-read when it came to philosophy, so he was no doubt familiar with Fichte, Kant, et al. That being said, we should remember something he wrote to Robert Pack, who had asked him to review a draft of an essay Pack had written on his poetry (the letter is dated December 28, 1954): "I don't mean to try to exercise the slightest restraint on what you say. Say what you will. But we are dealing with poetry, not with philosophy. The last thing in the world that I should want to do would be to formulate a system."

Of course, we shouldn't take everything a poet says about his or her own poetry at face value: there may be other agendas at work. Still, my sense is that what Stevens enjoyed was the ever-changing nature of his ongoing poetic activity. In this regard, a comment made by Stevens at the outset of his letter to Pack may be pertinent: "At the top of page 16 of your paper you say: 'Mr. Stevens' work does not really lead anywhere.' This is not quite the same thing as get anywhere . . . That a man's work should remain indefinite is often intentional. For instance, in projecting a supreme fiction, I cannot imagine anything more fatal than to state it definitely and incautiously."

Your thought connecting "The Snow Man" and "Desert Places" is lovely. That is one of my favorite Frost poems.

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts. I hope you have a wonderful holiday season.

Jeff said...

Now that I live in a place where I can step outside in the middle of the night and see and encounter nothing but the woods (and the things that live in it), I'm struck by how perfectly "The Region November" gets the sense of the season, the sense that the woods are trying to tell you something profound in a language you'll never master. Stevens wrote so much that I've never quite known what to make of him; this poem is a way into his work for me.

Stephen Pentz said...

Jeff: You are fortunate to be able to have that sort of daily contact with the World's particulars. It is something hard to come by.

Your observation that "The Region November" is "a way into [Stevens's] work" for you resonates with me: the poem (along with a number of others, many of which have appeared here before) has played exactly that role for me. I also agree that it can be difficult to know "what to make of him." I struggled with that for many years, until I decided that I would establish a foothold with a handful of poems that greatly moved me (and were beautiful), and move outward into his work from them, while regularly returning to them. There are still vast stretches of his poetry that confound me -- that will always confound me. But that handful of poems has expanded greatly, bit by bit, over the years, and they are an important part of my life. And new ones continue to be added. You know how it is with these things: one has to be patient, and let things sit.

It is always a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for stopping by again. Best wishes for the holidays.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Mr Pentz for your wonderful posts this year. And to your readers for their incisive comments. Your blog is a reprieve from the daily news and brings much enjoyment.

Happy Holidays and may the new year be exactly what you most hope for.

Tim Guirl

hart said...

I don't post often--but it such a pleasure to read your blog, the poems and the pictures make a perfect package.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Guirl: Thank you very much for your kind words. And thank you as well for your long-term presence here, which I greatly appreciate. It is always good to hear from you.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and your loved ones.

Stephen Pentz said...

hart: That's very kind of you: thank you very much. And I owe thanks to you for being a regular visitor here, for which I am grateful. I hope you will continue to stop by. I wish you all the best in the coming year.