We live in an old Chaos of the Sun
Our words want to turn the world into a human world, a place where humans live. Name something, write a sentence about it, talk about it, think up an adjective that applies to it, and you are bringing it into the human world. Go for it: write a metaphor—all the world’s a stage—a simile—o my love’s like a red, red rose—apostrophize it—o rose, though art sick!—write a poem, develop a myth, articulate a philosophy. Pray. Write aphorisms, sutras, tack your thesis to a church door. Order a sandwich for lunch. Propose to your beloved. Teach somebody something. Educate the masses. Establish liberal democracy…
Words have been helping mankind cozy up to the cosmos since…well, since ‘in the beginning’. God must have given us words. Words must have given us God. Take your pick on the two previous sentences…
It’s Sunday morning. People used to go to church on Sunday morning. Wallace Stevens (or his protagonist) has decided to spend the day at home. Complacent as one can be in a peignoir, she and he are still young, reveling in the green freedom that youth has, quite certain they have seen through the ancient myths. That tomb in Palestine is just that, a tomb, a grave. All that other-worldly stuff—okay, okay, it still has its appeal—but let’s face it, we’re talking mythology here. Truth is, we live in a purposeless world, we live on a pale blue dot in a vast cosmos of empty space, we live an old chaos of the sun, that’s all. A sunny Sunday. Is this is a hard place to be, even if you’re young and healthy and you have a taste for aesthetic contemplation? The poem Wallace Stevens wrote, Sunday Morning, doesn’t quite tell us. We are left with pigeons, floating off the horizon—on extended wings.
I’m going to be an annoying kid here and tug at Uncle Wallace’s coat. Where have those pigeons landed exactly? And aren’t those pigeons really us, soaring around, not sure of what to do next? Are you really sure they’re pigeons and not doves? Couldn’t they be, like, Christian birds, symbolic of the aimless condition religion has gotten itself into? Couldn’t this be a kind of reverse Kierkegaard? A leap into doubt? Birds live by leaping, don’t they? On the precipice they spread their wings and jump. The flying part is just mitigation; they have to land at some point. Come on, Uncle Wallace, you can’t just leave them floating up there. Where do they land?
Nobody does titles better than Wallace Stevens. Just pick a few out of the hat— Tea at the Palaz of Hoon; The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad; The Snow Man. They could be tickets to a secret world. Take The World as Meditation: Just think about ‘the world as meditation’: it redefines ‘world’; it redefines ‘meditation’; and it leaves you wondering about that ‘as’. Really, not even the ‘the’ is safe.
Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.
Even with these great titles, Stevens remains a problematic poet for a lot of people. Canvas the room and you’ll likely come up with a list of adjectives: dry, deliberate, emotionless, elaborate, abstract, too abstract, philosophical, philosophical (both the bad kind and the very bad).
This is surely to miss the point. Stevens offers us a rare bouquet. Philosophy and poetry float together in his lines and sentences. They mingled in his mind; his mind merged them. It has long been something of an insult in philosophy circles to call your opponent’s work ‘poetry’. Can one reverse the gambit? Can one look down one’s nose and dismiss a poem as mere philosophy?
Here’s what I’d like you to do. Get your hand s on a nice rock, something you can put on the coffee table, a piece of backyard quartz, a lump of granite, gneiss. Get a big rock. What we want is something to remind us how time flies, something to remind us how short a fuse our particular life is set to. We want something that will intrude on our lives. Why will a rock do this? Just as a prominently placed skull was once thought to serve as a reminder of death, the rock will intimate a long perspective on time. Death moves us away from our temporal being. We don’t want that; your rock may have been in existence for many thousands of years. For us, time flies. For the rock, it simply doesn’t. It’s an ancient being, on a different scale of existence than we are.
Wallace Stevens, I suspect, would simply deplore this idea. Messing up the living room with a boulder! Towards the end of his life he wrote a poem called The Rock. The poem he wrote doesn’t evoke or necessitate a particular rock; it certainly is not about collecting rocks or carving them. When Keats wrote about a Grecian urn, it seemed like he was at least looking at a Grecian urn. Not so with The Rock. Mr. Stevens seems to have a theoretical rock in mind.
The rock is the habitation of the whole,
It’s strength and measure, that which is near, point A
In a perspective again,
As a title The Rock sounds rather impenetrable. The Rock suggests a monolith, something so unitary, so primitive it can only be understood in a great intuitive embrace of being. The Rock reeks of Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’. Analysis, some sort of break down into component parts, some procedural divide and conquer methodology, simply won’t work. We may have to make some deep philosophic apprehension to understand this Rock, not divide it up, right Uncle Wallace? This is what you had in mind with this title, something to challenge knowledge.
Wallace Stevens divided his impregnable Rock into three sections: Seventy years later; the Poem as Icon; and Forms of the Rock in a Night Hymn—titles that must be footholds to help our climb. Thanks, Uncle Wallace.