Poetry and the American; Readings of Wallace Stevens
This is poetry on the American produced and recorded by station KPFA in Berkeley California under a grant from the Educational Television and Radio Center in cooperation with the National Association of educational broadcasters. This program is a lecture recital on the poetry of Wallace Stevens. The program as presented by Don Geiger of the University of California in Berkeley. Wallace Stevens was born in Redding Pennsylvania in 1879 and died in Hartford Connecticut in 1955. He lived long and quiet like the most sensational story of Stevens life with which I am familiar is that of his once defending in public a woman whose disagreeable habit it was to appear on Fifth Avenue wearing a coal scuttle instead of a hat. But so far as I know there is no further record of his lending support to such heroic eccentricity. Stevens was both a fine poet and a successful man of business on the legal staff and eventually vice president of one of America's major insurance
companies. You might think that critics would draw from these facts the obvious inference that there is no inevitable contradiction in simultaneous success in both business and artistic enterprise. Instead however critics have ordinarily chosen to treat Stevens life as if it were a neat summary of the system in modern times between the world of art and the world of business. Now it lists this view derives chiefly from Stephen's poetic manner and interests said remove him sharply from the manners and interests of the great American middle class public. The public did what it could to verify this version of the matter by purchasing at the time of its first publication in 1923. Approximately 100 copies of Steven's first book harmonium said by Randall Jarell to contain at least six or eight of the most beautiful poems ever written by an American. What was the manner which is said to have removed
Stevens from his possible readers most broadly put it was the manner of a subtle intelligence said jealously cultivated and dedicated to the values of a steady experience. However it might have been in other times the period between the World Wars doubtless needed more than it honored subtle intelligence. It was a time in which even the most nearly stable governments trembled under the threats or as many persons took them the promises of various political isms. It was Stephen's custom to place in the offering plates of the troubled congregations of the period desperate for political salvation. Handsome but ordinarily unwelcome gifts of masterful ambiguities. That is to say he offered many sided views of human experience. One of his poems is characteristically called Thirteen Ways of Looking at a black bird and Stephen judicially managed at least two or three ways of looking.
Stevens of course was aware of the single minded factionalism of his age and in his poem entitled addition peaches in Russia he comments on it in most general terms the poem suggests that it is inhuman or at least unnatural and therefore finally impossible to commit oneself completely to any abstract system of ideas. The speaker is most evident like a person committed to a given political system suddenly reminded of all the aspects of experience which bubble out from and ultimately drown his abstract convictions. Here is the poem. A dish of peaches in Russia. With my whole body I taste these peaches I touch them and smell them who speak. I absorb them as the engine fire absorbs Sanju.
I see them as a lovers see. As a young lovers see the first buds of spring and as the black Spaniard plays his guitar. Who's he. But it must be that I that animal that Russian that exile for whom the bells of the chapel. Paul your late sounds at heart. The peaches are large and round and red and they have peach fuzz. They are full of juice and the skin is soft. They are full of the colors of my village and of fair weather. Summer. Do he. The room is quiet where they are. The windows are open. The sunlight fills the curtains.
Even the drifting of the curtains slight as it is disturbs me. I did not know that such ferocity haze could tear one soul from another. As these peaches do. If it was hard to accept Stephen's ambivalent ideas it was perhaps still hard to appreciate immediately the world of objects and events which he offers to the imagination as done more shorts put it taken general a Stevens perspective is that of the man of art the museum and concert goer the student of French poetry the intelligent tourist the aesthete in the best sense of the word. Indeed Stephen's pages compose a dense hive of the objects and concerns of the man of art of statues paintings porcelain and barbaric glass. Many artists and musicians or their works are referred to Zhan
Picasso Brock Mozart Bach Chorale and almost 18th century world of elegance is a vote in Stevens images of wigs Paris Saul's duchesses Flambeau masks and Paris styles and images of color abound in the poems. White pigeons and blue pigeons a rose rabbi a pool of paint golden guards and bronze Ranes green roses brown and yellow why Stevens uses his emblems of elegance not to impress us with the range of his own aesthetic experience though certainly that is suggested but his materials in the creation of still further a static experience. And Stevens can create beautiful poetic objects out of the simplest materials. Let us turn for example to his poem The load of sugar cane. Perhaps the visual brilliance of the poem is the first thing to attract is so that our
initial reaction is to compare the poem to a still life. But we rapidly note that the wonderful sense of colors stillness and lack of movement is splendidly counterpointed by movement and noise so that if this poem seems to us a kind of word painting it is nevertheless a moving painting with stereophonic sound. You will also notice that each separate object in the PS actually attains its individual character only in its relation to other objects. This then is the load of sugar cane. The going of the glade boat is like water flowing like water flowing through the grain saw grass under the rainbows under the rainbow that are like bird wings turning the dyes and while the wind still whistle.
As killdeer do when they rise at the red turban of the boatman. I have spent a good deal of time in introducing Stevens as a writer of ambiguities as in a street a man of art but until Stevens was nearly 50 years old scarcely any other critical view of him was available even when Stevens was in his seven days in 1958 a well-known anthologist sought to introduce him to a wider public as it best a highly original impressionist who had created a world of finicking shadows and disembodied emotions. But in recent years with a full range of his work before us if Stephen seems to us still an estate Nevertheless he is one who has dealt with the big kill your persistence in poem after poem from the beginning to the close of his word with what is perhaps the central problem overriding and affecting
all other issues of the modern world but most generally it is the problem of determining the ground for man's beliefs about himself and the world and universe in which he lives. But is Stephen some self explored it. It is the question of the relation of human imagination to reality. As we know the imagination until given a recent boost perhaps by the theoretical physicists has not been highly valued in the modern world. We have praised objective truth as if the imagination had no part to play in its establishment and reasoned science and observation have seemed to us both somehow on the other side and superior to art of imagination contemplation of the universe bequeath by the scientists to the world between the wars seemed an empty one coldly indifferent to human values. Many writers of that period
treated this wasteland of values and I think that none did so more suggestively than Stevens in his poem of the snowman in an imagery so urgent and immediate that the reader seems to have a direct insight into a state of terrible coldness. Stevens portrays the spiritual coldness produced by so sterile a view of reality and in a cunning paradox he suggests that such a view may itself be produced only by a numb and frozen imagination. The snowman. One must have a mind of winter to regard the frost and the boughs of the pine trees crusted with snow and have been all along high to behold the juniper shagged with ice the spruces
rough in the distant glitter of the January sun and not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind in the sound of a few leaves which is the saw around of the last and for all of the same when that is blowing in the same place for the listener who listens in the snow and nothing himself the holds nothing that is not there and done nothing that is. Stevens himself preferred another view of reality and of the relations of imagination to it. In his most triumphant expressions of the value of art or more largely of the imaginative life he suggests that reality and imagination depend upon one another
and in his lines beginning in soldier there is a war. He affirms this mutual interdependence and the importance of language or of art to the most ordinary soldier that is to every man. SOLDIER. There is a war between the mind and sky between thought and day and night. It is for that the poet is always in the sun patches the moan together in his room to his were jelly and cadences. Up down up down it is a war that never ends. Yet it depends on your use. The two are one. They are a plural. All right and left a pair to parallels that meet if only in the meeting of their shadows or that meet in a book in a barrack a letter from malé.
But your war ends and after it you return with six meats and 12 winds or else without to walk in another room miss you and comrade the soldier is poorer without the poet's lines his pet a seller by the sounds that stick inevitably modulating in the blood and war for war. Each has its gallant guy. How simply the fictive hero becomes the real how gladly with proper words the soldier dies if he mass or live on the bread of faith for speech. Stevens is probably most important to us not merely for his praise of the imagination but for the range and Manoo tennis of his appraisal of
its character and limitations with an almost obsessive energy. He explores what we might call the subject and object factors of experience. That is to say of consciousness and that which is outside consciousness but which may nevertheless become part of consciousness and which somehow assumes what we think of as its real shape in terms of how it exists in our consciousness. Is this to say that for Steven's reality is simply what we decide to think it is. Certainly Stephen stresses the power of the imagination in determining what we call reality. But its power is that of revelation rather than of manufacture. He put it plainly in his prose when sharply criticizing surrealism in art he wrote to make a clam play an accordion is to invent not to discover frequently in his poetry he stresses the power of environment over the imagination as in
his little poem the array which goes like this. I am what is around me. Women understand this. One is not a duchess. A hundred yards from a carriage. These then are portraits of black vestibule. A high bed sheltered by curtains. These are merely instances. Instances of what we may ask. Instances certainly of the power of environment in creating the emotional realities of our lives. But instances too of the powers of imagination for without imagination high bed sheltered by curtains is so much wood in
gossamer in the light of imagination and image of elegance perhaps of regal power a black vestibule without imagination is but a dark hole and a house with it an image of romance and passion. I do not presume with an example or two to sum up neatly Stevens views of the relations of imagination to reality. I cannot make such a summary and I daresay that if Stevens himself had been able to we might never have had his poems. We need say only perhaps that it was a relationship to which he returned again and again and in which he spoke again and again for the values and human significance of the imaginative life. Among the poems devoted by Stevens to the place of the imagination in human affairs a goodly number might best be thought of as is own attempt to inform the facts or what the modern world takes to be the facts of existence with imaginative life.
If modern man is sceptical of the beliefs of his ancestors Stevens and his poem The sad strains of a gay waltz would not try by some act of imaginative jujitsu to throw modern man back on the realities of another time. Instead in this poem he says The truth is that there comes a time when we can more no more are over music that is so much motionless sound. There comes a time when the waltz is no longer a mode of desire a mode of revealing desire and is empty of shadows. Too many waltzes have ended and then there's that mountain minded Hoon for whom desire was never that of the Waltz who found all form and order in solitude for whom the shapes were never the figures of men.
Now for him his farms have vanished. There is order in neither see nor sign. The shapes have lost their glistening. There are these sudden mobs of men these sudden clouds of faces and arms and immense oppression freed these voices crying without knowing for what except to be happy without knowing how imposing forms they cannot describe requiring order beyond their speed. Too many waltzes have ended yet the shapes for which the voices cry. These two may be modes of desire modes of revealing desire to many waltzes. The Epic of disbelief blares oftener and soon will soon be constant.
Some harmonious skeptics in a skeptical music will unite these figures of men and their shapes will glisten again with motion. The music will be motion and full of shadows. Stevens himself is no doubt too dismayed by what he sees as a growing disorder of the modern world to offer himself as the harmonious skeptic who will somehow discover in the unruly disbelieving present the new forms of the new dance casting romantic shadows and its motions. But more than most modern poet Stevens at least toys with the possibilities of what harmonious scepticism might find here for example he lightly treats nature as accidental and random purposeless and unplanned. The poem is the pleasures of merely circulating.
The garden flew around with the angels the angel flew round with the clouds and the clouds flew round and the clouds flew round and the clouds flew round with a cloud. Is there any secret in SCal veins cattles skulls in the wood. Do the drummers in black hoods rumble anything out of their drum. This is Anderson's Swedish baby might well have been German or Spanish. Yet that things go round and again go round as rather a classic old song. Again in a high toned ode Christian woman. This
speaker hints at his own dissatisfaction with whatever his Puritan in the American inheritance. It has been suggested that in this poem Stevens contrasts the artistic with a religious view of reality. And perhaps this is true but I think you may notice how much these particular artists if artists they are. Are Like many other persons of the 1920s trying however frantically at times to share in the world's pleasures and joys. This speaker here suggests the amiable possibility that with the birth of every new center much joy is reflected in heaven. The poem a high toned old Christian woman. Poetry is the supreme fiction. Take the moral law and make a knave of it. And from the knave build a haunted Heaven thus the conscience is converted into power. Like a Windy City is hankering for him.
We agree in principle that's clear. But take the opposing law and make a peristyle and from the peristyle project a mask beyond the planets. Thus our body no sun purged by epitaph indulged at last is equally converted into a palm squiggling like saxophones and palm for Paul. We are where we began. Allow therefore that in the planetary scene your disaffected flatulence well stuffed smacking their muzzle a ballets in parade proud of such novelties of the sublime such tin can thank Tonka tongue tongue may merely may whip from themselves a jovial hullabaloo among the spear. This will make widows wins but fictive things weighing
as they will wait most when widows wear. In still other of his poems Stevens takes yet more seriously the possibility of creating a myth of reality based on the naturalism apparently implicit in the scientific view of the universe from which man might nevertheless derive deep human satisfaction and joy in his long and brilliant poem Sunday morning. We find the following stanzas which suggest the monotony of a paradise in which there is no death. The importance of death in making this aware of the earth's beauty and the possibility of regarding the sources of life naturalistically conceived with a truly religious fervor. Here then part six and seven from the eight part Sunday morning.
Is there no change of Death in Paradise. Does ripe fruit never fall. Or do the boughs hang always have a perfect sky unchanging yet so like our perishing earth with rivers like our own that seek for sea is they never find the same receding shores that never touch with inarticulate pain. Why set the pair upon those river banks or spice the shores with odors of aplomb. Alas that they should wear our colors there. The silken weavings of our afternoons and picked the strings of our insipid lute. His death is the mother of beauty mystical within whose burning bosom we devise our earthly mothers
waiting sleepless lay. Supple and turbulent a ring of men shall chant be an orgy on a summer morn their boisterous devotion to the sun not as a god but as a god might be naked among them like a savage sores their chant shall be a chant of paradise out of their blood returning to the sky and the inerrant chant shall enter voice by voice. The windy lake where in their Lord delights the tree like Serafin and echoing the heroes that choir among themselves long afterward they shall know well heavenly fellowship of men that perish and of summer morn and whence they come and whither
they shall go the dew upon their feet shall man a fad. What finally are we to make of this insurance company executive Wallace Stevens who wrote his mighty praises of the imaginative life and the natural wonders under the sun. Doubtless it is too soon to see him finally in his proper chair. But would it not be interesting to discover that a later time will see in this poet once thought to be the prototype of the estate and alienate an artist instead a man who is an outstanding representative of and model for the middle class American whom we are led to believe is increasingly all of us. The American who in his refusal to see ghosts or to pay preachers a living wage in his drive for higher and still higher education and in his hope for a trot round the
globe or into the next state at least expresses his somewhat florid but perhaps you reign that man need not sacrifice any of the riches of this earth material or cultural. This lecture recital on Wallace Stevens was presented by Don Geiger poetry in the American was produced and recorded by KPFA in Berkeley under a grant from the educational television and radio center and distributed by the National Association of educational broadcasters. This is the NEA EBV Radio Network.
- Poetry and the American
- Readings of Wallace Stevens
- Producing Organization
- pacifica radio
- KPFA (Radio station : Berkeley, Calif.)
- Contributing Organization
- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- A lecture-recital by Don Geiger, poet and teacher at the University of California, on the works of Wallace Stevens.
- Series Description
- Twenty half-hour programs designed to further the enjoyment of poetry.
- Broadcast Date
- Media type
Producing Organization: pacifica radio
Producing Organization: KPFA (Radio station : Berkeley, Calif.)
Speaker: Geiger, Don, 1923-
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 59-12-10 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- Chicago: “Poetry and the American; Readings of Wallace Stevens,” 1959-01-01, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 29, 2024, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-7659hh1b.
- MLA: “Poetry and the American; Readings of Wallace Stevens.” 1959-01-01. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. February 29, 2024. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-7659hh1b>.
- APA: Poetry and the American; Readings of Wallace Stevens. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-7659hh1b