© 2021, by M. Keith Booker
Like his close contemporary William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens had a long and successful career outside of poetry. In fact, Stevens, who served for many years as an insurance company executive, worked in an even more prosaic field than did Williams. As with Williams, however, the responsibilities of his day job did not prevent Stevens from producing a large quantity of important and highly respected poetry. Stevens’ poetry has an abstract, meditative, philosophical quality; it is also complex and enigmatic, often defeating all attempts at reaching a final, definitive interpretation. Stevens wrote most of his best poetry after the age of thirty-five and much of it after the age of fifty, which might account for the relatively calm, mature tone that seems to prevail in his poems. A number of Stevens’ poems are quite long, as in Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (1942), which is actually an interconnected series of thirty poems, plus a preface and an epilogie. It is sometimes regarded as his masterpiece (though many poems actually vie for that title). Some of Stevens’ best-known poems, though, are quite short and reasonably accessible.
Stevens’ poetry deals with a wide variety of topics, including the topic of poetry itself. One of his earlier and best-known poems, “Anecdote of the Jar” deals with the contrast between order and wildness, or between culture and nature. In it, Stevens contrasts a simple, but symmetrical, manmade object (the jar of the title) with the nature that surrounds it, suggesting that it gives order and shape to that nature just by being there—though, of course, this order might simply be a matter of human perception and interpretation more than any physical change in the environment. Meanwhile, as is often the case with Stevens, one can easily read the jar as a stand-in for poetry itself and for the way it (like other human intellectual pursuits, such as philosophy) gives a shape and meaning to the world around us. If one chooses to read the poem in a less philosophical light, one might note that jars are a common form of packaging through which content that has been harvested from nature and then processed in factories can be sold to consumers. Reading the jar this way makes the poem a comment on the conquest of nature by consumer capitalism, though it leaves open the question of whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. And, finally, multiple critics have suggested that this poem can be read as a rejoinder to John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” a Romantic poem that glorifies the object of the title and the past it represents. “This is the twentieth century,” Stevens seems to be saying. “This is a modern age of manufactured jars, not hand-crafted urns.” Again, though, Stevens leaves it to the reader to judge whether this is a loss or a gain.
“Anecdote of the Jar” (1919)
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
Another well-known (and equally enigmatic) Stevens poem is “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” The title seems light-hearted and playful, but the poem is, in its most literal dimension, about the somber occasion of a death. The poem consists of two eight-line stanzas that address the death of someone (who is revealed in the second stanza to have been an old woman). Yet the language is far from somber; it is, in fact, excessively colorful, almost playful. Stevens himself once said that the poem was about the “gawdiness of poetry.” Whether one indeed reads this as a parody of poetic language in general, or perhaps as a defense mechanism through which the speaker attempts to deal with their grief, is again up to the reader. In either case, though, the poem can be read as being about our discomfort in dealing with death and about the ways in which we cope through a variety of rituals and other mechanisms. “The Emperor of Ice Cream” of the title is also an enigmatic figure, but the image of ice cream does suggest something oddly pleasant in the light of the moment, perhaps indicating that we should take what pleasure we can from life, because it will invariably end. The image of an “emperor” of ice cream perhaps suggests the triumph of pleasure. At the same time, it perhaps suggests an overly inflated, pretentious image. The death of anyone, the poem perhaps says, should be a humbling experience for all of the rest of us. We are not grand and glorious emperors, we are just mortal creatures, here for a short time, just as ice cream itself only lasts a short time, melting quickly. The poem, though, does not treat the death of the old woman (or of anyone) as a tragedy. It is just a natural part of life; it should be treated with respect (thus the suggestion of covering the old woman’s head), but it need not be treated as more than it is or in ways that act to disguise the true nature of the experience (thus the suggestion that it is okay if the woman’s feet stick out from beneath the sheet with which she is being covered). Ultimately, the poem seems to be about facing reality (“let be be finale of seem”) and not trying to cover it with fancy poetry or exaggerated platitudes.
“The Emperor of Ice Cream” (1923)
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
One of Stevens’ most famous poems directly thematizes the notion of multiple interpretations that so often seem to apply to his poetry. In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” Stevens presents thirteen different reactions to the sight of an everyday blackbird, one of the most common (and least poetic) types of bird. Each reaction is a very brief stanza entailing one instance of sighting a blackbird (or blackbirds) and the thought that this sighting triggered in the speaker. Some of the stanzas are very visual, describing the sighting in an almost painterly way. Some are philosophical, as the sight of the blackbird triggers thoughts about the fundamental nature of life and the fundamental life of nature. Some seem fairly straightforward, such as stanza III, which envisions a blackbird swirling in the air as part of the larger dance of nature. Some, though, seem quite enigmatic, as in stanza VII. Haddam is a small town near Hartford, Connecticut, where Stevens lived. Exactly who the “thin men” are is unclear, though we imagine that they are artists/poets whose thinness is not a matter of their slight builds but of the slight and empty nature of their art—perhaps in somewhat the same mode as the “bawds of euphony” in stanza X. They “imagine golden birds” (i.e., produce gaudy and insubstantial art), while more important, but down-to-earth, things like blackbirds are ignored in their art. As a whole, the poem certainly thematizes the importance of perception, but it is a poem best perceived directly in itself. No amount of paraphrase or exposition can truly capture the experience of reading the poem—which is, of course, very much the point.
“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (1917)
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.