Wallace Stevens: Adorning the Rock


This is the longest piece I ever wrote. I published it on extrasimile in four parts. it also appeared (and still appears, though it difficult to find) on00 arduity.com. You will be forgiven if you don’t read it, but it is something of f an Ars Poetica for me.




Donald Hall goes right to the point: I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems. Steven Spender is equally succinct: I think continually of those who were truly great./ Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history.

Great Poetry is Difficult Poetry, but…

It seems an unimpeachable point. Maybe we could quibble over this ‘soul’s history’ stuff, but who wants to write a mediocre poem? Who, indeed, takes pencil and paper in hand with the intention of writing something merely passable? No one’s forcing you to do this, pal. You can be a commonplace anything. Why write poetry? You’d be better off practicing guitar chords or working on your jump shot.

I won’t get cute here. We all know the evil answer to this question lurks in Hall’s ‘your goal’. We all know there is a great gulf between trying to write a great poem and writing a great poem.

Substitute the word ‘difficult’ for ‘great’ in both Donald Hall’s and Steven Spender’s sentences and you will find an interesting shift in meaning. Let’s face it, if you go through life aspiring to be difficult, all you accomplish is that you’ll stop getting invited to parties. As a goal for your poems, being merely difficult does not seem sufficient-whereas being great does. Still, we do think a great poem is a difficult poem, do we not? Difficulty suggests complexity of vision, insightfulness, a penetration of subject matter, an attempt to wring something from our quotidian lives that makes those lives worth living. A difficult poem attempts to tell us something we don’t want to hear. A difficult poem at least has the potential to be great that an ‘easy’ poem does not. Name one poem that’s great and easy. While they are clearly not identical, if we are going to understand the great poem there is a good chance we are going to have to get there through the door of the difficult poem. Besides, anybody can write a difficult poem.

Why are you doing this to yourself?


I have a non-poetry example. I just saw the movie, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Directed by Julian Schnabel, it throws you into the life of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who as the result of a stroke is ‘locked-in’ to a nearly immobile body. His thoughts are said to be unimpeded, but his functioning body has been reduced to one eye. He can blink. This is how he communicates. A great deal of the film places you behind that eye. We are privy to his thoughts – the mind-body problem in extremis – we see the world as it seems to that one trapped eye. It is a harrowing movie. It may qualify as a great one. I certainly found it difficult to watch. Now, here’s the thing. Pretty much everybody I talked to had the same question- indeed, the film asks it of itself- Why did you want to see this film? Why are you doing this to yourself? What is gained by subjecting yourself to this drama

Death is the Mother of Beauty

My answer: A terrible beauty is born.

I wonder at the source of this beauty; it is unmistakably there.

Though he will break it to us gently, Wallace Stevens has something difficult to tell us. The world is a beautiful place, yes –

Deer walk on our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness-

But –

– in the isolation of the sky,
at evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
ambiguous undulations

There is something alien in that beauty – ambiguous, isolated – something not human. Oh, and by the way, death is the mother of beauty-how about that?

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?

The Rock

Here’s what I’d like you to do. Get your hands 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,

At B.

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.

Seventy years Later

The first section of The Rock (is ‘canto’ appropriate here?) starts off so bleakly that the temptation is to skirt its title. Stevens was seventy or so when he wrote The Rock. It is obvious that he is writing about his life, and the first line- ‘It is an illusion that we were ever alive,’- does rather grab you away from that title. So puzzling. But use ‘seventy years later’ in a sentence. ‘Wallace set out to be a lawyer at a very young age. Seventy years later he was one of the most renowned legal minds in the world.’ ‘Wallace was molested by a pedophile as a child. Seventy years later…’ If we are contemplating anything here, we are contemplating a complex grammatical situation. The phrase ‘seventy years later’ does a lot of work. It establishes a point in time seventy years ago which has relevance to this day. It then travels those seventy years to look back on this past time, assess its significance. Of course, what he is looking back on may not be a thing (‘Rosebud’) it may be a process or the passage of time itself, or the significance of that process, that passage of time. And all this, it seems to say, can only be understood ‘seventy years later’. Not bad for three words.

Refine that: The understanding that ‘seventy years later’ brings is a different understanding than what was possible ‘seventy years ago’. Three score and ten is the traditional, biblical life span. You get your seventy years to understand what you can in this world, Plato be damned. Understanding is a process and it’s bound to time. Understanding is bound to you, your ‘self’. Coming to understand ‘time’ and ‘self’ are some of the things you understand with the self and time you have. What you understand of time and the events and processes of your life, you understand afresh and anew with each drop of your life- as you live in time. (But how long is that ‘drop’? A drop may just be on the short side of time, not quite after the tick, not quite before the tock. A nanosecond is too long.) You stop understanding when you die. Significance, meaning, knowledge, poetry are all bound up in that seventy years.

Stevens drank. It is not difficult to see him sitting at the end of the bar, grumbling the opening of The Rock to some unassuming soul. ‘It is an illusion that we were ever alive. Regard the freedom of seventy years ago. It is no longer air. Even our shadows no longer remain…Absurd. The words spoken were not and are not. They never were.’ Bah, humbug.

Late Style

Just before he died, Edward Said became interested in an idea Theodor Adorno used to describe the music Beethoven had written just before he died. Adorno called it ‘late style’.

Beethoven’s art had overgrown itself… isolated too from sense by loss of his hearing; lonely prince of a realm of spirits, from whom now only a chilling breath issued to terrify his most willing contemporaries, standing as they did aghast at these communications of which only at moments, only by excerption, they could understand anything at all.

What Adorno actually meant by late style can be a little difficult to pin down. Said’s attempt to do so is called ‘Timeliness and Lateness’ and is reprinted in a book Michael Wood put together after Said died, On Late Style: The late Edward Said on the late Theodor Adorno on the late Ludwig Beethoven’s late style. Where is the Mad Hatter when we need him?

Of course some artists get to transcendence in their old age. They achieve wholeness and harmony. They synthesize their knowledge, their experience, and their wisdom at the end of their life. Think Rembrandt, Matisse, Bach, Wagner, Shakespeare’s Tempest, Verdi’s Falstaff. This is some of the greatest art man has made. (Steven Jay Gould, when asked to suggest something to put in a space capsule chose Bach’s Mass in B minor. ‘Tell them it’s the best we’ve done.’) For these artists all the contradictions have been worked out. A harp is playing in their respective heads. Life is worth living; I can die content; and so can you.

Nice work if you can get it.

The other side of the coin is the late style that Adorno thought he found in the deaf Beethoven. Here the contradictions most definitely have not been resolved. Music is produced that is characterized by dissonance and discord; music that’s petulant, bitter, acerbic; music that’s sublime and blunt by turn. Middle class certainties are mocked and lampooned; death has no redeeming qualities.

His late work still remains process, but not as development; rather as catching fire between two extremes, which no longer allow for any secure middle ground or harmony of spontaneity.

Late style can be seen in other artists as well. Said gave a course at Columbia on late style that included such notables as Richard Strauss, Mozart, Glenn Gould, and Thomas Mann. If you’ve read any Adorno, your credulity will not be tested when I tell you that most demanding of late stylists was Theodor Adorno.

Extreme Late Style

Okay, this is interesting. Late style has the artist mimicking his own discontent with, on the one hand, the pettiness of middle class life, and, on the other, with the utter force majeure of death itself. But we know life is unfair; we know we are going to die- we do know these things, right?

Adorno commands our attention further because he perhaps was a late stylist all his life. His prose was always ‘as catching fire between two extremes’. Said thinks:

Adorno uses the model of late Beethoven to endure ending in the form of lateness but for itself, its own sake, not as preparation for or obliteration of something else. Lateness is being at the end, fully conscious, full of memory, and also very (even preternaturally) aware of the present.


What Adorno does is theoretical – that is his construction isn’t supposed to be a replica of the real thing… The location of Adorno’s writing is theory, a space where he can construct his demystifying negative dialectics.

Synthesis is at issue. The late stylist can’t quite get there. And, yes, we can talk of synthesis in terms of Hegel. The artist can construct his thesis, he can construct his antithesis- but …he can’t quite find a way of melding the two.

That fragmentariness will result seems obvious. But one also finds one’s self, how shall I say, up in the air, in a space of one’s own, a space… well, is it theoretical space? One way to think of synthesis in the thesis/ antithesis/ synthesis process is to see it as a return to earth. The synthesis is where reality comes in. Said seems to think, for example- and he was a far closer student of Adorno’s work than I shall ever be- that Adorno wasn’t so much interested in describing what Beethoven’s music was actually like, but rather he was constructing a model. Models are useful in that they help us look at the world; they do not- strictly speaking- describe the world. Adorno was constructing in his own elaborate way- Said uses the word ‘mandarin’- the same thing Wallace Stevens was constructing – in his own mandarin way. Stevens called this thing the Poem.

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.

A little tip about writing poetry

Poetry doesn’t describe anything. Have a little ‘poetic’ experience on the bus? Fine. Just don’t try to describe it in a poem. Gary Snyder gets it right: Lay down these words/ Before your mind like rocks. (Like rocks, not like The Rock.) Poems are constructs of words. Their relationship to the world is not one of description.

I am the necessary angel of earth,
since in my sight you see the earth again.

Write the poem first. And then see if you see the earth in its light – or in its shadows.

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 metier, 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?

The Lovers

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. Stevens 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 metier, 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.


Published by extrasimile

define: extra: excess, more than is needed, required or desired; something additional of the same kind. define: simile: a simile is a type of figurative language, language that does not mean exactly what it says, that makes a comparison between two otherwise unalike objects or ideas by connecting them with the words “like” or “as.” The reader can see a similar connection with the verbs resemble, compare and liken. Similes allow an author to emphasize a certain characteristic of an object by comparing that object to an unrelated object that is an example of that characteristic. define: extra: an minor actor in a crowd scene

3 thoughts on “Wallace Stevens: Adorning the Rock

  1. John,
    Truth be told, I think there are many poems that are simple and great. Or do I mean ‘seemingly’ simple. As I’m sure you realize there is nothing harder than writing a simple poem (great or not¬). The examples you cite are excellent. Elizabeth Bishop is one of my favorite poets.
    When I was writing this, I was corresponding with John Armstrong (arduity.com) about difficult poetry and how you should explain it. Did you simply paraphrase it, explain its meaning—or what? I remember suggesting Hugh Kenner as a model of the proper way to handle a difficult poem. This piece was (in all modesty) my attempt at a Kenner essay.
    The problem I had when writing this was tying great poetry with difficult poetry. I launched a trial balloon, ‘can you think of a poem that is great and simple?’ I could. I thought to start over. But I began to see some advantages of getting the reader to think about some poetry they knew and loved.
    At the very end I offer Blake’s poem ‘The Sick Rose’ and a translation from Anne Carson’s book on Simonides and Paul Celan as examples of simple and great.
    By the way, I plan to take some of my own medicine. I will read the poems you referred to today.
    This video

    comparing Shakespeare and Milton is worth looking at—if only for the acting of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

  2. Ok, I’m back.

    You challenged us to name a poem that was great without being difficult. I was thinking of offering you poems by Ted Hughes or Seamus Heaney but decided instead to go for your own countrywoman Elizabeth Bishop. I love her poetry. She is not analytical or tightly reasoning but she has a way of identifying profound questions about the human condition and presenting them vividly, almost defining the question through the descriptive stories she tells.

    How about In the Waiting Room for example? The conundrum of individual consciousness and consciousness of that consciousness, presented through the discovery by her seven year old self:
    “ How—I didn’t know any
    word for it—how ”unlikely” …
    How had I come to be here,
    like them, and overhear
    a cry of pain that could have
    got loud and worse but hadn’t?”

    Or her poem Filling Station that shows with exquisite sensitivity the pathos and heroism of a soul that creates a tiny space of order and beauty in the midst of grinding poverty? Or The Armadillo, raising it’s mailed fist in impotence against the outrage of fire descending from the sky after the indifferent creation of a few moments of beauty through a floating fire balloon? Or The Moose – a young life in transition (physically in space as well as personally through moving from one family to another) and the threshold, the crossing of the line, captured in the abrupt and surreal entry of a moose in the night? And there are others … First Death in Nova Scotia … etc.

    Her poems are instantly accessible but not superficial. They are emotionally as well as intellectually rich – or so I feel and think. They put down a welcome mat, invite you inside, but then allow you to roam far and wide following up.

    Maybe you would say they lack something? They don’t have a finely elaborated metaphysics. There’s less for a university department to fund research into. But could it be that they offer greatness of a different sort? I would like the answer to be yes.

    My wife is making coffee. It’s time for our morning break – which we combine with reading a poem or two. Retirement you know.

  3. Hello again Jim. You invited me, through my own blog, to offer you some thoughts on this. You might have guessed that I’ve been rereading it and pondering. It’s not quite as long as it seems because (you won’t have realised) your fingers accidentally posted the script twice over. And since this piece is itself the reposting of several pieces you posted some years ago, there’s a pleasing sense of reincarnation to be gained!

    I’m going to seize the moment. Life here is a bit hectic right now and I’m not likely to give you anything at all if I plan an try to execute an organised, complete response. So here goes.

    Autobiography. I first discovered Wallace Stevens at the age of eighteen when I bought a collection of modern English and American verse. I found him baffling and was drawn instead to e.e.cummings, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost (whole I already liked), WCW and others. Years later I began to feel at home with his Key West poem. Later still with Sunday Morning – and that remains for me a much loved poem to which I return every now and then. It sounds beautiful when read slowly and it expresses ideas that resonate with me. You might say, I understand it (or think I do).

    Are these poems difficult? Yes, because they don’t reach out to the reader and try to communicate clearly; they work by allusion and illustration. If the reader already is thinking about their preoccupations, has emotions of the same kind, then the poems open up: the door is open, come inside, explore the rooms … go up the stairs to roof and see the view. So Stevens is waiting for the reader. But the reader has to have those thoughts and feelings first.

    There are some poets who seem to run away when they see you coming, pull up the drawbridge and slam down the portcullis. They have their devotees, but I’m not one of them.

    I must stop – daily life calls. There’s something else in my mind though and I might manage it later or tomorrow.

    All the best – John

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