Tuesday, April 06, 2010

At the end of winter

The last poem in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens is called "Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself." It is a kind of culmination of the poet's career -- a lifelong exploration of the nature of reality, seeking an answer to that thorniest of philosophical questions "How do we know?" Few poets have struggled longer and more earnestly than Stevens to understand the relationship between ideas and the real, between thoughts and objects.

Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself? Is it possible? Isn't reality always mediated through mind? Doesn't every intimation of the real enter through the murky doors of perception? Can we ever escape the limitations of our given store of metaphors?

And yet, and yet, and yet. As Stevens wrote elsewhere: "From this the poem springs: that we live in a place that is not our own and, much more, not ourselves." We have two alternatives, neither entirely satisfactory: to speak inadequate words, or to be silent. Stevens could not be silent -- he was, after all a poet -- but his entire work tends toward silence, arriving at last at the "scrawny cry" of the last poem, which he hoped --- we hope -- comes from outside, from the thing itself, heard, not invented, as fragile and as hopeful as a bird's cry heard somewhere afar off among the newly leafing trees.
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.