403. (Wallace Stevens)

Surfaces are the occasion of Stevens’ poetry; so obvious a statement for a poet among whose best early poems is “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” that it seems to lead nowhere. But more can be said. Stevens’ poems are ‘placed’ by surfaces and surfaces in the poems themselves become places; his is not a world of shadows and light, or a world of abstractions and concretions, but a world of surfaces composed of both, and he occupies the world, in his poems, at specific coordinates; he knows where he is, exactly, and getting there is the imaginative achievement of the poems, which in turn are about how and when the achievement is possible, and when it happens, how the world is transformed.

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.

The first sentence cannot be brought into immediate focus: it is either heroic or nonchalant, the start of a comic yarn or the declaration of a victory, but it is comedic in either case because “jar” jars with its innocuous triviality and because the arbitrary specificity of “Tennessee” gives geographical but not imaginative orientation; it is a word with metrical potential, and with anticipation of a polysyllabic comic rhyme, but without literary heritage. The eight syllables of the first line are confirmed in their balladic strain by the inversion and meter of the second, and the poem yields to comedic whimsy further still, Auden seeming closer kin to Stevens in more than formal mastery. “Slovenly” might be heard pulling out of the balladic voice, too decorous, too contemptuous (but it does sustain the Auden tone, surprisingly), but the heightened register of heroism is not foreign to ballads; Stevens will order the land. And he will order it by the jar, all surface, hollowed out, which, because it is where it is, placed where it is, orients and places the wilderness, and, in the subsequent stanza, masters and tames it (“rose up to it” and “sprawled around, no longer wild.”) But nothing has changed by the presence of the jar except for the story the jar makes possible; it’s being there makes it seem that the wilderness centers upon it. There is no power in the jar, nor can there be, the jar being empty, “gray and bare.” It’s not just any ballad that matters to this poem, but “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” especially; and we should hear its echo in “The jar was round upon the ground | And tall and of a port in air,” not least because “port” has the nautical sense. As Empson saw, Coleridge’s poem is about mastery over the natural world, made possible when the mariner learns to love even the most horrible creatures of the deep. Empson compares “The Rime” to another poem, Christopher Smart’s “A Song to David,” also relevant for this poem, sharing with it strong syllabic lines. That is a hymn or psalm honoring David’s power to master the natural world, and if we hear it in Stevens’ poem we must hear it as a mock-psalm, his heroism a mock-heroism that nonetheless does enjoy strength over nature (since mock-heroism is not a sarcastic rebuttal of heroism, but retains its possibility in comedic form). “Dominion” is the dominion of divinely-sanctioned conquest, absurd, but also right, since it does, by its jarring presence in the landscape, by its reflecting all, by its being utterly unlike and emblematically capable of containing all, possess, in the poet’s mind, a sort of dominion, dominion itself being a legal, if not supreme, fiction. The final stanza does genuinely heighten the register and gravity. “Took dominion” is sturdy Germanic monosyllabic English against Latinate Christendom; and the later “It did not give of bird or bush” is defiant, growling, and Teutonic, especially in the grunt of “give of.” That is a perplexing locution and I would like to know more about how Stevens came by it; what remains of it for us is “give of oneself” or “give of one’s time” and if this possibility were active for Stevens, as I think it would have been, then it suggests that it with-holds what belongs to it, even though we would be hard-pressed to think how birds or bush could belong to the jar. “Give off” would be less surprising, suggesting that birds and bushes did not emanate from it, as they do from everything else in Tennessee (as if everything smelled of, or smacked of, them). Either the jar could not “give of bird or bush” or else it refused to; but in either case, that reluctance must be felt as a measure of its being only transparent surface, glass, containing nothing, capable, as surface, of pouring nothing out, but nonetheless possessing substance and power to define a place. It rises above and masters in its difference, in having nothing to give, and in its holding nothing but the surfaces that could hold what is around as much as what is within (what is outside of the jar becomes what is inside); by the poem’s end the jar becomes a hero, and though Stevens, the speaker, has placed the jar, the jar has placed the wilderness of the state.

The placement of surfaces, and by surfaces, can be effected more obliquely too. Take the following section of “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle”:

A red bird flies across the golden floor.

It is a red bird that seeks out his choir

Among the choirs of wind and wet and wing.

A torrent will fall from him when he finds.

Shall I uncrumple this much-crumpled thing?

I am a man of fortune greeting heirs;

For it has come that thus I greet the spring.

These choirs of welcome choir for me farewell.

No spring can follow past meridian.

Yet you persist with anecdotal bliss

To make believe a starry connaissance.

Praising these lines, Yvor Winters writes: The first four lines are incomprehensible, except as description, and the claim of the fifth line is unjustified; the remainder of the stanza, however, displays a combination of bitterness, irony, and imperturbable elegance not unworthy of Ben Jonson.

But the line that Winters takes to be “unjustified”—“Shall I uncrumple this much-crumpled thing”—is a sort of crux or turn in the structure. It does not require the anchor of justification so much as it provides it: at this moment, Stevens detaches from the vision, as vatic as it is descriptive (“a torrent will fall from him when he finds”), of the first four lines, and steps back to the poem itself. The “much-crumpled” thing might be the wing of the bird, but it also becomes, by virtue of the strong connotation of paper that attaches to “crumple,” the page on which Stevens writes, as well as the image he presents on the page, and the surface of the page, the hesitation of whether to uncrumple it further, draws him up out of the poem, and reorients him to the final six lines, where the surface has become his own outward presentation of self. Winters invokes Ben Jonson, but the post-Baudelaire French tradition would have done as well (Winters suggests that Stevens takes it as an extension of Romantic Irony, but I think it truer to say that he understands it as akin to Jonson’s art of social appearances), and the invocation of Jonson does not only suggest poise, but the “poetry of the surface” that Eliot discerns in Jonson’s art. The presence of the crumped surface serves to draw the poem into the focus of the last six lines, which Winters justly praises.

In the “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” the fingers on the keys, the surface of the skin and the surfaces of the skin, releases the erotic longing that settles first on the “your blue-shadowed silk” before flowering into the fantasy of Susanna bathing watched by the elders. In the second section of the poem, the poet’s own erotic imagination lives upon what he imagines of the sensations of her skin:

Upon the bank, she stood

In the cool

Of spent emotions.

She felt, among the leaves,

The dew

Of old devotions.

She walked upon the grass,

Still quavering.

The winds were like her maids,

On timid feet,

Fetching her woven scarves,

Yet wavering.

A breath upon her hand

Muted the night.

She turned—

A cymbal crashed,

And roaring horns.

But the delicacy of the poetry is not just that of a delicate touch, but the balancing of the abstract and sensual (“the dew | of old devotions”), and it is not just that things touch, but that they graze, glance, run fleetingly; the life of desire is played upon the encounters of surfaces, like Peter Quince’s fingers on the keys, and like, we should think, Stevens’ mind upon language, which is pressed, arranged, but mostly, more than structured, designed, formed, “uncrumpled,” each word being a “much crumpled thing” that he spreads out, not to compound its meanings, but to air them, as when he writes “still quavering,” where to quaver is to tremble but a quaver is also an eighth of a note, and the two meanings do not collide or jostle with any violence but seem perfectly at ease, without any vying or violence. Similarly, “yet wavering” could be the wavering maids, indecisive in their action, or the wavering scarves, with “yet” meaning not “still” instead of “but.” If there’s an uncrumpling here, it is in the line-break, which makes of the caesura a genuine cut of the line, with four syllables granted an expansiveness greater than a scansion of meter would indicate, simultaneously relaxing and heightening the sexual tension. But it’s the last part of the poem that is best and most characteristic of Stevens:

Beauty is momentary in the mind—

The fitful tracing of a portal;

But in the flesh it is immortal.

The body dies; the body’s beauty lives.

So evenings die, in their green going,

A wave, interminably flowing.

So gardens die, their meek breath scenting

The cowl of winter, done repenting.

So maidens die, to the auroral

Celebration of a maiden’s choral.

Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings

Of those white elders; but, escaping,

Left only Death’s ironic scraping.

Now, in its immortality, it plays

On the clear viol of her memory,

And makes a constant sacrament of praise.

This lives by an appreciation of surfaces. The first section of the poem presented us with a clavier, a harpsichord, combining a string instrument and a piano, but here we have the string music itself, and the climactic image  “Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings” figures her beauty as a music that touches the surface, and makes vibrate, the string of the elders who watch her, until, escaping, since her beauty is not for them, and since they are not right in their appreciation of it, it leaves only Death’s ironic scraping on those same strings. Their strings are their minds, their souls, their senses, their existences; but it plays instead on “the clear viol of her memory,” where “viol” is perhaps a pun on “vial,” so that we have both the clear sound of her viol, string instrument, that is the memory of her, played on by her beauty, so that the memory of her is a “constant sacrament of praise” but also her own memory played upon by her beauty, so that her memory is a “constant sacrament of praise”; the echo of “clear vial of her memory” gives instead the music playing upon another instrument, perhaps a glass harmonium, the sort reputedly invented by Benjamin Franklin, with a name that has bearing on the collection title. In either case, it is the surface of things that is the fulcrum of the poem’s imagery, with the poem stepping back to provide a “fitful tracing” of music, generated from one surface, playing on another. There is something here emblematic of Stevens’ approach to surfaces, where they do not cover what is within, but instead generate something outwardly, like the jar on the hill, like music; they come to define the place of the poem, its order, its sounds. The secondary echo of “vial” in “viol” would not matter except that the glass casing of a vial that, by movement along its surface, emits sound outwards, rather than enclosing (its being clear means it cannot be cluttered by containing) is so crucial a figure for Stevens’ verse, an echo of “Anecdote of the Jar.”

I’ve mentioned “A Sea Surface Full of Clouds,” but having written on it elsewhere, will skip over it here, however pertinent to my topic, and will look instead at a much smaller poem from Harmonium, the title of which clamors for attention:

 Of the Surface of Things




In my room, the world is beyond my understanding;

But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four hills and a cloud.




From my balcony, I survey the yellow air,

Reading where I have written,

“The spring is like a belle undressing.”




The gold tree is blue.

The singer has pulled his cloak over his head.

The moon is in the folds of the cloak.

In the first stanza, we are to see how superficial the account of the world is; not only that it is incomplete, but that it offers an account of what seems to be instead a flat picture of the world. In the second stanza, the yellow air becomes a weathered scroll, on which the poet has written. Then, in the third stanza, the surface of the tree is scuttled, the color transformed, or else the first line can be heard as an argumentative insistence. The belle undressing becomes, in the second line, the singer pulling a cloak over his head—clothes are of interest because they are superficial, draped on the face of things, with the formal properties of fabric, dependent on bodies but other than bodies; and then in the folds of the cloak, the moon, meaning most literally that the moonlight is to found there, but then also suggesting that the night has fallen, that the singer is the cosmos, and the cloak the garb of the evening itself, which contains in its folds the moon. “In the folds,” at any rate gives depth to the surface of folds without imputing depth to the fabric itself; it creates a manifold of a surface, harkening back once more to the idea of a much-crumpled thing that the poet can uncrumple, see into, smooth out, or at least rearrange. The title of this poem might have been “On the Surface of Things,” with a preposition insisting upon the relation of being upon that makes a surface what it is; instead, “of” suggests something pertaining to, possessed by, and consisting of all at once, each with special significance for Stevens. For to say that something pertains to “the surface of things,” or is a property of “the surface of things” is to admit that the surface of things has more than one property, and has complexity even if it lacks depth; similarly, to say that the surface of things possesses something else is to grant it not only a property, but a relation dependent on its being what it is (its proper self, its identity), which now extends beyond the thing of which it is the surface, reaching out into the world; and finally, most intriguingly, for something to consist of the surface of things suggests that the surface of things is itself a substance, or element, of reality, not only arising from, or determined by, existing wholes, but capable of forming new ones.

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” takes the takes as a constant point of reference, meaning nothing beyond what it is, but in its particularity refusing to lend the poems a depth that exceeds the surface of appearances: the poem is about how the appearance of things can be folded in thirteen ways, and in each of those ways of folding, reveal new aspects of what exists. “Appearance of things” is less accurate than “the reception of things,” since it is not by sight alone that the blackbird is present:


I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendos,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.


It is not the whistle per se, but that which it carries and that which lingers after it; both the inflection and the innuendo are the gestures that accompany the sound. They are not its meaning, but are carried upon it, or in its wake; they are less than the sound itself; the curtains to the window, but curtains that hold the attention.

The poem’s wit and comic spirit depends on the blackbird’s being impenetrable, the limit of what can be said, because they offer nothing to penetrate:

I was of three minds,   

Like a tree   

In which there are three blackbirds.  

The title is helpful for grasping what is going on here: this is one way of looking, not at a mind, or the world, but at a blackbird as a part of the world, as having a mind, as being part of a whole. That much accords with Stevens’ well-recognized, and self-announced, preoccupation (parts and wholes); but the blackbird is a part that has a mind without any of the interiority of mind, and so it suggests a relation of part and whole that sets the poet’s mind, the tree, and the three blackbirds on the same plane, defined by a blackbird—for it is one thing to suggest, as this poem does not, but as a poem by DH Lawrence or Ted Hughes might, that each blackbird has a mind, and it is another to suggest that a mind is composed of blackbirds, which is what this poem does.

In another section, Stevens lets himself admit to perplexity on the relationship between the self-consciousness, the infinite I AM of self-consciousness knowing itself to know, and the blackbird:

 I know noble accents   

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;   

But I know, too,   

That the blackbird is involved   

In what I know.   

“Involved” is conspiratorial, but also suggesting involution, not so much placing the blackbird as unable to place “knowing” without it; it is an irreducible element of self-consciousness, neither assimilated nor separated. This too is a way of looking at a blackbird, as part of a totality of the knowable and known, but nonetheless only itself, glossy and dark. There is nothing superficial here, and the chief contrast of the verse is between intangible music and the concrete particularity of the bird; but within that contrast there is also something akin to the difference of surfaces, music being a surface of sounds without body and the blackbird a body approximated to a surface, even in its name.

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” as an entire poem, comes very near to exoticism. Without being not an imitation of poetic forms associated with Persian and Japanese poems, they are obvious as points of reference; it would not have been written without the late-nineteenth century French fad for all things Japanese, and they stand in relation to that moment as does the music of Debussy. (In an earlier blog, I suggested that Cezanne and Stevens are analogues to one another, but for what such comparisons are worth, Debussy is as helpful a reference point). What Stevens owes to that tradition is an adherence to the possibility of glimpses, of stasis, and of the ornamental poise of the natural world. In that earlier post, I suggested that Stevens, like Cezanne, achieves a poetic form that takes language as both the subject matter of the poetry and the means for representing the subject matter, as Cezanne elevates the painterly qualities of the objects he paints, without abolishing their identities; the surface of the painting is as much the object of attention than what the painting reveals. Debussy’s music does something arguably similar, with the great string quartet composed of distinct parts for each player that, I’ve been told, would lack coherence or structure as a piece of music, on its own. The total effect pulls the listener to hear both the unified whole, but also to hear in each part something more akin to play of sound, as Cezanne’s paintings insist on the recognition of paint in forms that are not objects, as well as the objects they cohere to represent. In both cases, the art draws us to the surface of its making, the application of paint to the canvas in the case of one, and the dissolved sounds of strings that compose something with the unity of depth in the case of the other. With the blackbird, Stevens does something similar: to read it as an icon of the poet’s imagination, or to attribute significance to it in relation to a schema of Steven’s “thought,” cannot be justified by the poem. Language cannot be rendered abstract as Cezanne’s brushstrokes or as formless as Debussy’s parts, each word being what it is, but language can be made to feel as arbitrary as an object of play, as barely occasioned as perception itself, like an ornament of the mind—and Stevens wants to do all of this, at the same time as suggesting that doing so is a way for the mind to place itself, and come into harmony with the world. Stevens wants to bring us into contact with the surface of words as well as the surface of things, since it is the latter with which we must be reconciled most of the time; depths rarely impose themselves upon us; it is an epicurean attitude. The final section of the poem is perfect as a final section because of the stasis it achieves in the movement of time:

It was evening all afternoon.   

It was snowing   

And it was going to snow.   

The blackbird sat   

In the cedar-limbs.

“And” is momentous, weary, but not too much of either; the snow happened, happens, and will happens, becoming, as it covers the world, the blank of existence. And in that blank, the blackbird sits, as, presumably, the poet sits, motionless, situated just there, in a particular place, the cedar-limbs, not the cedar’s limbs; the image is of branches lacing and interlacing, forming a depth without any exterior; it could be said to sit “on the cedar-limb,” and it does sit on a cedar limb, but the surfaces of limbs together afford a refuge and volume, even as they are as open as a surface to be seen.

Stevens, in all of his poems, is determined to revive ornament as a structure in and of itself, a structure of surfaces, upon surfaces, made, in Stevens, to stand upon its own, for itself; his fastidiousness, decorum, sense for propriety is a performance, but only in the sense that all those things are naturally performed; they are themselves ornaments of behavior, and it is entirely right that his poetry should assume the responsibility of ornamentation in speaker as well as subject, while also rejecting the charge of superficiality, inauthenticity, or, in a negative sense, artifice; it is Stevens’ consummate sense of meter, rhythm, cadence, and diction that allows him to invent a poetry of surfaces perfectly suited to a world of surfaces, a metaphysics of surfaces, unlike any that came before, and unlike any that has come since.  


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