The Sun, on the Horizon…
Wallace Stevens was fond of writing and speculating—and (if I may) poetizing and philosophizing—about ‘the poem’. Inscribing a copy of his Collected Poems to one of Holly Stevens’ English professors, he wrote:
When I speak of the poem, in this book, I mean not merely a literary form, but the brightest and most harmonious concept, or order, of life; and the references should be read with that in mind.
Stevens also wrote about ‘the poem’ in Reply to Papini, that it was:
The growth of the mind .
Of the world, the heroic effort to live expressed
And from Notes towards a Supreme Fiction, a statement of origins:
From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves
And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.
The brightest concept of life, the most harmonious concept of life. The growth of the mind of the world…
Stevens clearly wants to do some heavy lifting here. We’re not writing simple sonnets about a simple sunrise. He wants to write poetry about The Poem, write poems that narrate The Poem, meditate on it, philosophize about it, and, yes, compose it. The brightest concept of life…
Now, there was a time when I would have told you the ‘brightest concept of life’ must be the sun–or at least the idea of the sun.
Is it Ulysses that approaches from the east,
The interminable adventurer? The trees are mended.
That winter is washed away. Someone is moving
On the horizon and lifting himself up above it.
A form of fire approaches the cretonnes of Penelope,
Whose mere savage presence awakens the world in which she dwells.
This how The World as Meditation begins: The sun is coming up, rising on the horizon, a form of fire. This is not a simple—or un-simple—sonnet, to be sure, and not about a simple sunrise either, but a rather complex narrative that blends Penelope waiting for Ulysses and Penelope waking with the sun cresting the horizon.
She has composed, so long, a self with which to welcome him,
Companion to his self for her, which she imagined,
Two in a deep-founded sheltering, friend and dear friend.
Now, there was a time when I would have told you that ‘the sun’—maybe ‘the idea of the sun’–was the model for God. Consider Robert Nozick’s riff on just this possibility:
If there were some object which was the energy source of all life on earth, one which dominated the sky with its brilliance, whose existence people could not doubt, which couldn’t be poked at or treated condescendingly, an object about which people’s existence revolved, which poured out a tremendous quantity of energy, only a small fraction of which reached people, an object which people constantly walked under and whose enormous power they sensed, one they even were unable to look at directly yet which did not oppress them but showed how they could coexist with an immensely dazzling power, an object overwhelmingly powerful, warming them and lighting their way, one their daily bodily rhythms depended upon, if this object supplied energy for all life processes upon earth and for the beginning of life as well, if it were dazzlingly spectacular and beautiful, if it served to give the very idea of God to some cultures that lacked the concept, if it were immense and also similar to billions of others scattered throughout the universe so that it couldn’t have been created by more advanced beings from another galaxy or by any being lesser than the creator of the universe, then that would be a suitable message announcing God’s existence.
How we model our ideas about God is, of course, a big topic, and one we will only touch on here, but the sun—over us in the sky, warming us, giving us light, of a power and magnitude we can’t conceive—surely was part of the equation when we began to think about monotheism. You can’t miss Old Sol up there in the sky. Stevens’ use of ‘the poem’ and his poetry of ‘meditation’ suggest another model available to us: the brain and its kissing cousin, the mind. Think about it, the brain/ mind controls our physical body, gives us our sense of self, makes us human, gives us the understanding we have of the universe. The brain/ mind bestows upon us poetry and philosophy…and science, technology, medicine. The brain sits at the top of our body, running things. Really, you can’t miss the brain either. The brain/ mind could easily serve as a paradigm for God,
Penelope, of course, hasn’t been doing neuroscience all these years. She has been doing what Stevens calls ‘composing’. Penelope has composed a ‘self’ with which to welcome Ulysses.
But was it Ulysses? Or was it only the warmth of the sun
On her pillow?
This composition seems more than the creation of a ‘self’, however; it seems more ambitious and ambiguous; Penelope is preparing to welcome more than Ulysses. An essential exercise in an inhuman meditation, larger than her own . What could it mean, the world as meditation?
The World as Meditation
Penelope has been waiting a long time for Ulysses, but she has faith that one day his ship will appear on the horizon and he will return home, and she misses him. Because of this, in the morning she walks on the beach, thinking about her husband and reflecting about the world as she sees it. She studies the sky and the sea; she studies the reflections of the sun; she studies her own reflections on the world. Penelope, in the process of waiting and watching, has become something of a philosopher. The world as she perceives it has become her meditation. The horizon is always almost full with Ulysses.
‘The world as meditation’ is a simile, and at base a simile compares two disparate things in the hope of showing something new about them. ‘The world as meditation’ shows us something about the world—and it shows us something about meditation. In what way is the world like meditation? What is there about meditation that it can be compared to the world?
Suppose we were to say that the world is meditation. How would we view Penelope walking on the beach, thinking and reflecting on the world and her place in it? How would we think about Penelope thinking about Ulysses and the sun?
Penelope, like the rest of us, is not separate from the world; Penelope’s thoughts about the world are in the world. When Penelope thinks, the world meditates. Penelope is a vehicle of the world as it comes to know itself. She has composed, so long, a self with which to welcome him. She is, in essence, composing a ‘poem’ about herself and Ulysses and the world at large, as an essential exercise in an inhuman meditation…
Penelope, like the rest of us, lives in a place that is not her own, and, much more, not herself. And hard it is—she thinks—in spite of the warm sun on her pillow.
Nota: man is the intelligence of his soil,
The sovereign ghost. As such, the Socrates
Of snails, musician of pears, principium
And lex. Sed quæritur: is this same wig
Of things, this nincompated pedagogue,
Preceptor to the sea?
I had to look up sed quæritur (but, it is asked), but I know a preceptor when I see one. Suppose we regard ‘the world as meditation’ an act of pedagogy, as a recommendation? Suppose the author of The World as Meditation is saying, “The world is capable of being thought of as meditation. Here is an example. Can you understand this? Can you see the type of thinking this entails? Can you do it?”
Helen Vendler reports that Stevens once remarked to an acquaintance about one of his poems, that “I don’t think you’d understand this unless you wrote it.” This could be a grumpy Wallace Steven, tired of explaining one more time what the poem means, but in fact Professor Vendler recommends the idea: Perhaps there is no better way of understanding Stevens than to imagine oneself writing the poem—to write it out as if it were an utterance of one’s own.
Huh. Penelope as the muse to The Poem, as the comedian as the letter C, and a preceptor to the sea…the poem as a continuing soliloquy, as the intensest rendezvous, the final song of the interior paramour, friend and dear friend: the lover writes, the believer hears, the poet mumbles, and the painter sees. Write it out as if it were an utterance of your own.
Out of this light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough
So, maybe it is simple: a kind of pedagogy of poetry: Not just this poem—but the poems, the world. Write them out.