Twisted, stooping, polymathic Z
When we last saw Wallace Stevens he was in a bar, in a bad mood. Indeed, late style might be thought of as bringing a bad mood (and the bar) to the process of creation. Anyway, Uncle Wallace is in a Blarney Stone in downtown Hartford, seventy years later. After some prefatory grumbling he writes this monster of a sentence, which I have taken the liberty of copying out without the line breaks:
The meeting at the edge of the field seems like an invention, an embrace between one desperate clod and another in a fantastic consciousness, in a queer assertion of humanity: a theorem proposed between the two—two figures in a nature of the sun, in the sun’s design in its own happiness, as if nothingness contained a métier, a vital assumption, an impermanence in its permanent cold, an illusion so desired that the leaves came and covered the high rock, that the lilacs came and bloomed like a blindness cleansed, exclaiming bright sight, as it was satisfied , in a birth of sight.
The meeting at the edge of the field seems like an invention.
A long sentence has the advantage of ordering information. You get to show the reader the relative importance to be placed on each and every clause in the story. The periodic sentence is the mother of long sentences. Here’s Ann Radcliffe in Romance in the Forest:
While he was declaring the ardour of his passion in such terms, as but too often make vehemence pass for sincerity, Adeline, to whom this declaration, if honourable, was distressing, and if dishonourable, was shocking, interrupted him and thanked him for the offer of a distinction, which, with a modest, but determined air, she said she must refuse.
She said she must refuse.
The English language is not particularly suited to the periodic sentence. Write too many of them in a row and one is apt to get seasick—all that rolling around! And you have to know at the beginning what the end will be. Stevens here, however, seems to have launched a counter-attack. If the danger of the periodic sentence lies in the possibility that either the author or the reader will get lost in all those rolling clauses, if the danger lies in the chance that the author will distract himself from the central thesis, lose his train of thought, as it were, the danger in Stevens’ construction lies in that the central assertion will be covered over, clause by clause, addendum by addendum, appendage by appendage, codicil by codicil, leaf by leaf. Get to its end and you’re wondering, what exactly was the point here? Stevens was nothing if not deliberate. He had his reasons for writing that sentence: He wanted a burial. A great disorder is an order. That meeting at the edge of the field has to have been important. Harold Bloom sees it as the one genuine moment of romance in Stevens’ life, a meeting—a tryst—with the future Mrs. Stevens, back when she was beautiful and unformed, the perfect mate for the young lawyer—and poet. This could well be the case. It’s hard to know for sure. The point Stevens makes at the start of The Poem as Icon, seems relevant here. It is not enough to cover the rock with leaves. You can pile up a lot of leaves in seventy years; this seems to be what Stevens is doing. Consider that bumpy, brilliant, crabbed and capacious quality that Adorno and Said hear in Beethoven. Consider Seventy Years Later. What about that String Quartet in A minor? Does this sentence remind you of that?
Let’s hold hands and walk through this sentence.
The meeting at the edge of the field seems like an invention
This is the core assertion, and it is not terribly disclosing. The meeting between whom? At the edge of what field, and for what purpose? Was the field on edge or were the participants just edgy? And to say, in this case, that it seems like an invention, sounds like he’s saying ‘an invention in the mind’—seventy years later—that it really didn’t happen. But of course since it only ‘seems’ like an invention (that didn’t happen), then it must not be an invention. For God’s sake, something must have happened! Let’s go with young Wallace and the attractive Elsie Moll. Perhaps this is where Stevens proposed.
an embrace between one desperate clod and another in a fantastic consciousness
She said yes! But looking back on things, well, one sees desperation (‘one’? yes, I think ‘one’ is the best way to put it), a couple of clods…did they really know what they were doing? Did he? That perspective from the Rock—if one really has found the Rock—is bound to make one’s previous actions seem flighty.
Now this word, ‘clod’—call someone a ‘clod’ and you’re hurling insults. ‘Clod’ is only insulting, though, when you’re making comparisons with the ground: no one likes to have his intelligence compared with a lump of soil, right? It’s interesting that in Old English there is the word clod-hamer, or ‘field-goer’, which does seem what our Wallace and Elsie did do—and, Uncle Wallace, isn’t man the intelligence of his soil? Be careful here. A clod is close to the ground. It can cover the Rock.
So, an ‘embrace’ out in a field between two clods…creatures of the ground still meeting to embrace seventy years hence…
This is a ‘fantastic’ consciousness. A sad one too. If man is the intelligence of the soil, he is also its lament.
But—a desperate clod with a fantastic consciousness—how’s that for model making? While you’re sitting in the living room contemplating your rock, get yourself a nice clump of grass. Let that interpret your world and person. (Pause: or get a reproduction of Albrecht Durer‘s Great Turf. What has that painting to do with this poem? Steven’s wasn’t…naw.)
Anyway, take the insulting implications out of the mix; do you want in to this world or not? Or—ahem—do you have the courage to see things this way? Maybe you’d like to keep things warm and fuzzy and not join Wallace on the rock?
in a queer assertion of humanity: a theorem proposed between the two—two figures in a nature of the sun,
It seems things have gone wrong here. Why should this meeting—seems to be the most natural thing in the world—have turned ‘queer’? You can lay a lot of leaves down in the course of a marriage, leaves of regret.
The word ‘theorem’—it seems to be functioning a little like ‘clod’ in the above clause. Proposing marriage, one doesn’t usually propose a ‘theorem’, does one? And one doesn’t usually deduce love. But let’s go on.
in the sun’s design in its own happiness,
This might be the time to mention the pathetic fallacy. Can the sun truly be happy? Can the sun design happiness? Can it design anything at all? Before you voice an indignant ‘Of course not’, let’s go back to our little analysis of words, and their tendency to humanize the world. This is true as far as it goes, but it does presuppose an original condition where man is in need of this humanizing process, a situation where man is outside the world, an isolated consciousness, a being with a mind—a being inside a mind—reaching out with his words, trying to make the world—or is ‘remaking’ the right word?—somehow human, magic in the making. Steven’s is perhaps suggesting it is unlikely—if one really can speak so lightly of an ‘original condition’—that this was the case. That isolated consciousness is more likely something we invented along the way—or perhaps we discovered it, or dramatized it, or perhaps we’ve been busy writing a poem about it.
The sun of course is one of the great models for God. And our words at their best might ‘speak Being’. Our words might articulate the world…not ourselves. When our words speak the world speaks. Man is the intelligence of his soil. We are the voice of the cosmos.
This is a nice idea; it pushes us towards cacophony; it absolves us of that ‘foolish consistency’ Mr. Emerson warned us about; it lets us contain Mr. Whitman’s multitudes; it eases death, for God sakes…
Trouble is, most of don’t believe it. We’ve come to like that isolated consciousness—you know, the one that’s me.
But will we miss it when it’s gone?
Mr. Stevens continues—
as if nothingness contained a métier, a vital assumption, an impermanence in its permanent cold,
As if? What is ‘nothingness’ anyway? It doesn’t quite sound like it’s the same as ‘nothing’. I looked up the suffix ‘–ness’ and came up with ‘indicating state, condition, or quality, or an instance of one of these’. ‘Nothingness’ thus seems to be something that has the quality of being nothing…
Wall-ace! This is unworthy of you.
Okay. Presumably we are sifting down, clause weary though we are, to origins, to a place where our language and our syntax is no longer reliable. The origin of life—along with the origin of everything—present strange problems to our understanding. Not only is ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ a problem, but we have to wonder how has this something come out of that nothing. There must have been ‘something’, some vital assumption hidden in the proposition that proposed this nothingness, something that kept it from remaining nothing. Nothingness must have been good at something, right? There must have been a little spark of ‘somethingness’.
We’d best see how this sentence ends.
an illusion so desired that the leaves came and covered the high rock, that the lilacs came and bloomed like a blindness cleansed, exclaiming bright sight, as it was satisfied , in a birth of sight.
On the surface of it, an illusion isn’t something one hankers after. Stevens leaves us reeling at this desire. If we’ve attained some sort of knowledge of the Rock, if we’re perched on its hard implacable surface, if we’re in touch with the really real at last, then why, pray tell, is he suggesting that we need some good old fashioned illusion? The Rock appears to need the lilacs. Let’s go back to Sunday Morning for a minute. Is he really suggesting that since we live in an old chaos of the sun, we’d best spend our time studying pigeons flapping around at sunset?
First and Last Things
Pair up two thoughts, this from Wallace Stevens—I am the necessary angel of earth, since in my sight you see the earth again—and this, from Theodor Adorno—We don’t understand music, it understands us—and we might find a place for those pigeons to land. Strictly speaking, poems don’t ‘see’ and music doesn’t ‘understand’, but I think it safe to say you are not a lover of either poetry or music if you don’t see the value in such statements. Not all music understands me and not all poetry helps me see, but the right song, sonata, or symphony, the right sonnet, stanza, or simile clearly does—does, that is, allow me to feel understood, allow me to see that I have seen the world anew. It may be one of the primary reasons for our involvement with poetry and music. Since the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been serving more and more as the model for how we think of what counts for knowledge, and science and scientific method is a good model, so far as it goes—and it goes pretty far—but, like the old cowboy movies, we cattlemen don’t want the sheepherders—or was it the farmers?—to fence in the fields. Science wants categories, taxonomy, deep specialization, analysis, all that stuff. We need more science and scientists. We need more technicians and technology too. But we can’t let science drive the other models off the ranch—big mistake, civilized man.
The poem, I would like to suggest, can be a vehicle for probing the world; it can be a way of knowing the land and sea, the turf and the tundra, the slippery sides of our iceberg minds, both the visible and the invisible parts. Shaping words into a whole perhaps does form a perch for our pigeons to land. Science aims at understanding, technology at control—good for them—but they don’t propose an intense rendezvous. Poetry does, at least this poetry does.
Out of this same air, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.
Good models for knowledge allow for knowledge and they allow for reflection on that knowledge. This reflection on poetic knowledge is where Uncle Wallace lives. After all, if you take geometry as a model for what is real, you will think of the real quite differently than if you take a rock as a model. Poetry that shows us the world anew and speculates about showing us this world anew is rare—and beautiful, and complex. Reading The Rock, then…Why, this might be the place for us to start… again… with this contemplation…with the grey particulars…
You must become an ignorant man again
And see the sun with an ignorant eye…
Yeah, it might…
Or it might be the place to confess that it’s way too late. The epistemology wars are over, the fields are fenced in, the wild horses are corralled—some smart-aleck scientist type will point out they weren’t indigenous out there anyway—and those cattlemen were shooting bison, which were native.
And the Indians…
The Rock does not exist
Do you really believe all great poems are complex? Consider—and be careful here, make sure you’re not defining ‘great poem’ and ‘complex poem’ the same way—consider:
O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy;
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
Or this, by Simonides, written a long time ago:
Being man, you can’t ever say what will happen tomorrow
nor, seeing a man prosper, how long it will last.
For swift—not even of a longwinged fly
so! the change.
(Translation: Anne Carson)
The great medium for simplicity in the arts is stone sculpture. Think about Brancusi, Noguchi, Michelangelo’s Rondanini pieta: Even late style can achieve a kind of simplicity. Perhaps we can carve the Rock. Perhaps the ice and snow will melt and we can return to summer, to the suburbs, spend another ordinary evening contemplating Connecticut from our verandas. Perhaps reality can be thought of as a process of beginning.
Reality is the beginning not the end,
Naked Alpha, not the hierophant Omega,
Of dense investiture, with luminous vassals.
It is the infant A standing on infant legs,
Not twisted, stooping, polymathic Z,
He that kneels always on the edge of space
In the pallid perceptions of its distances
Perhaps the Rock in all its solidity, is not old at all, but young.
Here, then, is an abstraction given head,
A giant on the horizon, given arms,
A massive body and long legs, stretched out,
A definition with an illustration, not
Too exactly labeled, a large among the smalls
Of it, a close parental magnitude,
At the centre on the horizon, concentrum, grave
And prodigious person, patron of origins.
The sun is rising, Uncle Wallace. Some say the sun is a burning rock. A rock can’t burn, can it? There is no air out there. How can it breathe?
Edward Said again: Lateness is being at the end, fully conscious, full of memory, and also very (even preternaturally) aware of the present.
Stevens brought tremendous ambition to his work. The poem is the act of finding what will suffice. The poem is the growth of the mind of the world. Does a rock seem an unpropitious emblem of that ambition? Perhaps it does, perhaps it should…
The rock is the stern particular of the air,
The mirror of the planets, one by one,
But through man’s eye, their silent rhapsodist…
The rock is the habitation of the whole…
The starting point of the human and the end,
That in which space itself is contained, the gate
To the enclosure, day, the things illumined
By day, night, and that which night illumines,
Night and its midnight fragrances ,
Night’s hymn of the rock, as in a vivid sleep.
Okay, you can get that damn boulder out of your living room now.