Ideas about The Thing, the Poem-Thing

You can look forward, in a couple of months, to hearing me participate with luminaries Charles Bernstein, Al Filreis, and Larry Joseph on a Poem Talk courtesy of Penn Sound. We discussed the poem “Not the Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself,” by Wallace Stevens. I reproduce it here for your consideration:

Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird’s cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow…
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep’s faded papier-mache…
The sun was coming from the outside.

That scrawny cry–It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

At first, I was disappointed that we would be talking about this poem of all of Stevens’ poems, as this one seemed to me so sparse and relatively uninteresting, linguistically, compared to so many of his others. Looking at the poem more closely, I found there was a lot I wanted to say about it, and I was only able to touch on some of the main points during the actual poem talk.

It’s a confusing poem, probably deliberately so, and I felt after reading it and discussing it that it doesn’t transcend its own contradiction: the cry “seem[s] like a sound in [his] mind” but he maintains, in that weird conditional tense (and with a potentially ambiguous pronoun reference) “It would have been outside”. (i.e. if it had indeed been outside!) He echoes that insistence: “The sun was coming from outside.” Three times in the poem he says the sound was coming “from outside.” But I don’t believe him. How can I believe this from a poet whose “actual candle blazed with artifice” and who said, “The false and the true are one.”? Who describes “the poet as /Eternal chef d’orchestre” And in his poem “Theory”: “I am what is around me…./ Women understand this. [!!!] All of these lines give the lie to the notions of outsideness, of things-in-themselves or “things as they are” (that is, not as they are in the mind, or not as one makes them).

I don’t think Stevens was interested in “things as they are,” except as something to be put up with – “the malady of the quotidian” – and transformed into mannered, theatrical/therapeutic material.

This poem thus is some kind of backhanded response to Williams’ “No Ideas but in Things,” which has turned out, finally, to be a very limited and limiting dictum for poetry, slavishly followed by many to the great detriment of the art. I did remark during the Poem Talk that the last line of this poem is utterly disappointing, taking abstraction to the point of dullness, and if I were his creative writing teacher I would have underlined this and asked him to rewrite it!

I did notice, though, that the last line was echoed in another of his poems, one written much earlier and demonstrating an entirely different poetics, one perhaps more closely aligned to his own innate sense of how to proceed in writing: “The Comedian as the Letter C.” He writes: “The affectionate emigrant found/ A new reality in parrot squawks.” Once again a cry or squawk, a mere little sound, initiates a whole new reality, just like that.

“The Comedian as the Letter C” is, like O’Hara’s “Second Avenue,” Kenneth Koch’s “Ko, or Season on Earth,” or like any of the psychedelic albums issued in 1969/70 by the major British rock bands, voluptuously irrational, out of control, over the top, intricately fashioned, utterly mannered, and totally rococo. These are my favorite sorts of poems, like drug trips. In our poem-talk today, Al remarked that “The Comedian as the Letter C” is a “failed poem” precisely because of its lushness. To me, it is anything but failed, because it inhabits and demonstrates its poetics with absolutely no holds barred. The little poem under discussion seems like it’s trying to come out from under a dominant poetics that would have stifled its energy and wit: “a battered panache” (which I refer to in in the talk as my favorite collocation, certainly the most Stevens-y, in the poem).

I thought also that it was key that it was a sound whose insideness or outsideness is so ambiguous; for one thing, a sound is the least “thing-y” of things, ephemeral and temporal. Sound enters the ear and comes “inside” us physically, even if the source of the sound is outside. Sound prefigures and generates the universe, at least according to some belief systems, like the Sufis’ (does anyone remember how Aslan sang Narnia into being in C.S. Lewis’ books?)… and what of the music of the spheres (“choral rings”?) ? What of the recurring figures in Stevens’ oeuvre who transform sounds, singing beyond the genius of the sea, changing “things as they are” on blue guitars, “sounds blown by a blower into shapes”?

And what of the synaesthetic connection he posits between the cry/the chorister and the sun? They are “part of the colossal sun”, with whom (which?), in another poem, he equates himself, if in the third person:

“His self and the sun were one/And his poems, although makings of his self,/ Were no less makings of the sun.”

The chorister’s C precedes the choir because he is the keynote to which the other singers will tune their voices, and also the “sea”, beyond whose genius he will sing, scrawnily, it’s true, but as a representative of “the colossal sun” which is a stand-in for the big “virile” “man-poet” who willfully fashioned his poems from the inside as manipulatively as he directed his young fiancée to wear a pink ribbon in her hair or a particular pair of slippers – to sustain his particular illusory dioramas: “Messieurs,/ It is an artificial world.” And where a paper moon hangs over a cardboard sea, who cares about rainwater-glazed chickens, broken green bottles, and the like? I don’t think Stevens was so concerned with the sordid if poignant details of “objective” “reality”, although he perhaps felt that he should be, hence his protest, which I don’t believe: “The sun was coming from outside.” Because… what if he’s the sun??? Confusing! We who love to be confused!

At any rate, I could not help but re-write the poem, and I re-post it here (it’s been on the blog before):

Not Ideas About the Bling But the Bling Itself

At the earliest antinomian disaster,
On Mars, a prawn-y guy from outside
Seemed like he had blown his mind.

He knew that he blown it,
A dry curd, under a fluorescent light,
In the early harsh of mellow.

The sun wore purple underwear,
No longer a buttered ganache above dandruff…
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast vacuum cleaner
Of creepy jaded poetics conferences…
The sun was wearing purple underwear inside out.

That brawny gay–It was
A chorine whose c preceded the bleach.
It was part of the giant lox,

Surrounded by its collar rings,
Still barbarous. It was like
A new knowledge of reality shows.


I should add that I hadn’t really thought about Stevens for a couple of decades, and I was very glad to have the chance to look at his work again. I even mentioned to the fellows today (for yes, I was well aware I was the token dame among the learned men) that I found Stevens to be, in a sense, a kind of “sister-poet.” He irks me at times; he couldn’t quite free his ass and his mind couldn’t entirely follow. The racism and sexism in his poems and biography make me squirm, but perhaps he couldn’t help that, and besides, I’ve got my 21st century glasses on. But there’s something there, some kind of commonality I can’t quite put my finger on, maybe having to do with love of the artificed-theatrical, the desire to create other worlds to inhabit, and the acknowledgment of the primacy of mood, or even (smile) “mood-music”?

I’ll end with a quote from Yahoo Answers, one of my favorite sources for poetic material:

Resolved Question: Is a puppet representative of a thing, or is it the thing itself?

Best answer (chosen by voters 100% 1 vote): It is a toy.

Other answers (1): zzz

7 thoughts on “Ideas about The Thing, the Poem-Thing

  1. Hi Nada,Great post–I’ll want to check out the whole discussion. I tend to assume that anything I think about Stevens has already been thought–he strikes me as a poet with few enough keys (albeit pearl) that you can hope to play them all. But your post helped confirm my impression that the terrific “sister poet” you describe gets overwhelmed over time by the pseudo-philosophical windbag whose philosophy fits into a Ziploc, endlessly bending over to pull up his socks while he sings so you’ll take him, you know, SERIOUSLY. god save the letter C.

  2. I think the windbagginess is essentially Victorian. What puts me to sleep in a Stevens poem, more than the philosophy, is that regular meter. Turns out that as a youth he read a lot of Tennyson, and it shows.As to his being a sister poet, you know, I sort of geeked out preparing for the poem talk, and hunted around online to see what I could find on Stevens & feminism. I know it seems weird to even enter those two search terms in the same search box, but one piece of great interest that I found was this piece by Anne Mikkelsen: confirms my sense of Stevens embracing a kind of phabulous phecundity that can be conceived of as, if not pheminine, at least epheminate – much in contrast to his stated goals of being a virile manpoet writer. And this is the plume-y dandified side of Stevens that I, of course, relate to, and I’m guessing you might, too.Mikkelsen focuses on Stevens’ sense of his own embodiment: “Fat fat fat!” and looks at his poetics, also, embraces muchness and plenitude at a time when everything was dichten = condensare, i.e. a poetics of starvation. Let me know if you are interested in reading the article if you can’t access the database. Inneresting!

  3. Here’s a quote from Mikkelsen’s great essay: “Unlike his Modernist brethren Eliot and Pound, so virulent in their disgust with a world awash in goods and people, chaotic and odorous, Stevens consistently prefers a universe of plenty and abundance, or at least adequate sustenance. While at times he doubts the efficacy of the “fat” world of “midsummer,” he constantly returns to it as the site in which the “possible” has its roots. “

  4. Don’t remember having read the poemby Stevens you discuss here, but thank you. I read many of his poemsyears ago, and because my memorykept a positive feeling for“The Comedian as the Letter C”I (about a month ago) found it online and read it again. Probably because I associated itmore with the sea when I first read it, it seemed somehow less;but it definitely is “rococo”/as you say.Physically and financially,Stevens and I are near opposites,facts which make me wonder how muchone’s sense of oneself impactswhat one writes.

  5. Nada, I’ve never been able to be excited by Steven’s work–I’ve always read it out of a sense of duty and been slightly irked in the ways that you describe. But this post makes me want to think about him again.

  6. Lorraine, I really recommend reading Joan Richardson’s immense 2-volume biography of Stevens. It’s actually very entertaining, although you may despise him or feel totally sorry for him by the end of it. His pathos and neuroses come through so strongly in these, as well as his bizarre, fussy, sensitive aesthetic personality.

  7. Nada-your rewrite is fucking brilliant. re AF’s comment that “the Comedian” “fails” – maybe that’s exactly why you/I/one would like it more? Personally I am less and less interested in poems that ‘succeed’ – at least by conventional poetic values – and more interested in writing that fails – fails beautifully, bizarrely, uncannily, that cause discomforture, that take risk, reveal the mess & flaws & color outside the lines, etc… maybe?DB

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