Tuesday, April 26, 2011

You arrange, the thing is posed/ What in nature merely grows

Here is a poem by Wallace Stevens, written early in his career as poet (1916, age 37) and published posthumously. It's a simple poem, almost trite, but hints at the much deeper volume of work yet to come.

For what emperor
Was this bowl of Earth designed?
Here are more things
Than on any bowl of the Sungs,
Even the rarest--
Vines that take
The various obscurities of the moon,
Approaching rain
And leaves that would be loose upon the wind,
Pears on pointed trees,
The dresses of women,
I never tire
To think of this.
I suppose I was myself in my mid-thirties when I finally reached a confident and comfortable conviction that this bowl of Earth held quite enough of interest to occupy a lifetime of reflective living without the need for otherworldly chimeras. For fifteen years I had been paring away the religious accretions of my youth, bit by bit discarding that massive accumulation of miracle that was Roman Catholicism, "that vast, moth-eaten musical brocade/ created to pretend we never die" (to quote another poet). Finally, there was nothing otherworldly left to pare. I had reached the summit of the natural -- the moon, the rain, the pears on pointed trees, women's dresses. It was an exhilarating arrival.

And it unleashed for me a new world of creativity. No longer the rote repetitions of dogma. Now would begin the exploration of that scintillating territory between the idea of the thing and the thing itself -- the inexhaustibly mysterious stomping ground of science and art.

If nothing else, Stevens' poetry was consistent. Forty years after Bowl, in the last year of his life, he wrote:

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance.

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

(I discussed Stevens at greater length November 26-29, 2007. See archive. I will leave it to those with more of their own faith commitments invested in the matter to sort out Stevens' purported deathbed conversion to Roman Catholicism. I have read the contradictory accounts. The issue strikes me as entirely uninteresting.)