A Naptime-Length Note on Wallace Stevens (1)

Reading happens in naptimes and in the hour and a half between when Finn falls asleep and when we do. It’s brief, appetitive, mood-driven. Cait’s managed to finished four novels since he was born, but I hardly have the patience: who knows what I’ll like or need in tomorrow’s minutes?

The last few days I’ve come back to a poet I’ve loved and raged against alternately, for the whole decade I’ve read poetry at all: Wallace Stevens. Do his poems ever seem gaudy to you? Sententious in their claims about what poetry is and is for? Do they sometimes also seem free and wild and beautiful?

Ending Stevens’s Collected is a set of twenty-five poems called The Rock, end-of-life poems mostly free, thank God, of the disquisitive “Notes Toward…” manner of the long middle works, plainer and sadder and more personal. “His mastery,” he writes of someone much like himself, “[l]eft only the fragments found in the grass.” Or the metaphor-nester interrupting his poem with a sudden fear that “the object with which he was compared / Was beyond his recognizing.”

For the ten years I’ve read my paperback Collected (starting by dogearing “The Emperor of Ice Cream” and the poems Randall Jarrell told me to like, then tearing receipts up to mark the passages or phrases I wanted by heart—“Forms, flames, and the flakes of flames” or “Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat! I am the personal!” or “You dweller in the dark cabin…”), I’ve read The Rock a half-dozen times. But, as I guess with any poet I really love now, I can spend years beforehand doing a sort of reading that’s really a getting-ready-to-read. I poke around a set of poems: hoping for a familiar cadence and perspective, marking my return way mentally: on a decadelong first date. Then, suddenly, there’s the work.

You know the feeling. What makes it come? Maybe it’s when the small advances, the poet’s revelation or bewilderment that constitute the poem (was that scrawny cry at dawn only in my mind? or was it out the window, calling the sun up?), become my own: when the poem’s feeling is one I recognize recognizing. It took Stevens seventy years of life to write The Rock and I feel grateful and dumb and lucky that after twenty-nine years I have these poems to recognize myself in:

You were not born yet when the trees were crystal

Nor are you now, in this wakefulness inside a sleep.

Or how about:

His self and the sun were one

And his poems, although makings of his self,

Were no less makings of the sun.

Maybe it was a middle-class liberal-arts smugness, but I always used to think that Stevens was the best thing to ever come of out the insurance industry. How could someone with a closet of a gray flannel suits have dressed himself “in an orange gown, / Drifting through space”? I think now that I was being juvenile then; any heart is capable of that drift and efflorescence, maybe incapable of stamping it out in itself, maybe responsible to it.

And, re-reading next to a sleeping baby, I was reminded by Stevens how nice it is that poetry (even extremely analytical poetry) so often reminds itself that it’s made of words, not rhetoric or logic. I can wonder why, in “The Poem as Icon,” Steven’s symbolic logic dictates that  “it is not enough to cover the rock with leaves,” but, in The Rock’s orderly stanzas, Stevens still bursts out with lines like “the ripe shrub writhed,” or “blue broke on him from the sun, / A bullioned blue, a blue abulge.” The concrete material of his poetry isn’t argument, but sound. And who can help themselves before words, delicious, rare, inadequate, death-encircled, tiny words!

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