wallace stevens

6 posts

“All Genuine Poetry in My View Is Antipoetry.”


Like Tony Hoagland, Charles Simic is no one-trick pony. In addition to his prowess in poetry, he knows his way around an essay, too. While reading “Notes on Poetry and Philosophy,” I noted much of interest, both from Simic and from the poets and philosophers he quotes.

For instance, Wallace Stevens once said that the twentieth-century poet is “a metaphysician in the dark.” Simic, not so sure, compares this idea to chasing a black cat in a dark room. Not only is poetry on the loose in there, but theology and Western and Eastern Philosophies as well. So if you’re bumping heads a lot, don’t be surprised. And if there’s no cat to begin with, don’t be surprised by that, either. It may be the trickster Devil and not the cat that’s truly on the loose in the dark.

Surprisingly, Simic does not believe that poets know what they are going to write about in advance, simply sitting down to execute those ideas. He says, “My poems (in the beginning) are like a table on which one places interesting things one has found on one’s walks: a pebble, a rusty nail, a strangely shaped root, the corner of a torn photograph, etc.,… where after months of looking at them and thinking about them daily, certain surprising relationships, which hint at meanings, begin to appear.”

He then shares the pleasing (to poets familiar with rejections) anecdote of the time he wrote a series of poems about ordinary objects such as knives, spoons, and forks. The poems were summarily rejected by a poetry editor who wrote back asking why the young Simic wasted his time on such topics.

Simic was struck by how an “insider” like this editor might consider certain topics worthy and serious enough to write about and certain others not. In his own defense, he quoted Husserl: “Back to things themselves” (reminding me of William Carlos Williams’ famous words: “No ideas but in things”).

Added Simic: “An object is the irreducible itself, a convenient place to begin, it seemed to me. What appealed to me, too, was the discipline, the attention required, and the dialectics that went with it. You look and you don’t see. It’s so familiar that it is invisible, etc. I mean, anybody can tell when you’re faking it. Everybody is an expert when it comes to forks. Plus, all genuine poetry in my view is antipoetry.”

The gist of Simic’s philosophy on poetry comes after he quotes Jack Spicer: “Poets think they’re pitchers when they’re really catchers.”

Simic riffs on this idea: “Everything would be very simple if we could will our metaphors. We cannot.

“This is true of poems, too. We may start believing that we are recreating an experience, that we are making an attempt at mimesis, but then the language takes over,. Suddenly the words have a mind of their own.

“It’s like saying, ‘I wanted to go to church but the poem took me to the dog races.’

“When it first happened I was horrified. It took me years to admit that the poem is smarter than I am. Now I go where it wants to go.”

The basis of all this talk? Simic’s love of philosophy—Heidegger in particular. Old Heidegger said that poetry could not be understood until thinking itself was understood. “Then he says, most interestingly, that the nature of thinking is something other than thinking, something other than willing.

“It’s this ‘other’ that poetry sets traps for.”

That’s philosophy for you. Something is what it is not. In short, according to Simic, “The labor of poetry is finding ways through language to point to what cannot be put into words….

“Being cannot be represented and uttered—as poor realists foolishly believe—but only hinted at. Writing is always a rough translation from wordlessness into words.”

I don’t know about you, but I have to open my poetry file now so my poems can write me.

Should be nice for a change, don’t you think? Like having your car tugged slowly through an automatic car wash, only with words and sentences instead of suds and brushes….

Why Poetry? Better Still: Why Not?

While the sale of poetry books continues to languish and the number of readers who love reading (asterisk: only not poetry books) continues to skyrocket, there’s still a healthy cottage industry in writing not poetry but ABOUT poetry. Specifically its death. Or long-term prognosis. Or philosophical place in the world (hint: look low).

Among that burgeoning genre, we can add Daniel Halpern’s New York Times column, “A Few Questions for Poetry,” wherein he puts poor poetry in the defendant’s box and grills it much like sourdough bread and cheese (mmm, can we add a slice of pickle?).

The column includes poets attempting to answer “Why poetry?” also known as the mystery of life. “Now pinch hitting for poetry, which ironically cannot speak for itself, number 12, Louise Glück!” Cheer from the crowd. All nineteen of it.

Louise finds consolation in this philosophy: No one buys poetry books much, but at least, when they do, they tend to keep them much longer than, say, a Scott Turow best seller. Feeling better, everyone?

Richard Ford, who is not a poet but somehow crashes the gates here, probably because he responded to Halpern’s query, which 32 otherwise occupied poets did not, overthinks things and claims “Why poetry?” is a bad question. To prove it, he comes up with a much better (just ask him) one: “What is the nature of experience, and especially the experience of using language, that calls poetic utterance into existence? What is there about experience that’s unutterable?”

Huh? Think I’ll write a poem rather than figure that one out.

In a rather lazy gesture, Halpern then gives us an Emily Dickinson response (and I’m almost sure this isn’t cut and paste from an e-mail). You know. The famous one about knowing it’s poetry when you feel like the top of your head has been taken off. To which I would ask the Amherst eccentric: How does anyone know what THAT feels like? And wouldn’t it make you feel more like Frankenstein’s monster than a reader in a state of poetic euphoria (and I don’t mean New Jersey)?

The most prosaic response comes from our Hartford insurance salesman by day, poet by night (uniform in the actuarial tables file cabinet), Wallace Stevens: “…to help people live their lives.”

Only I ask you: Have you ever read a Wallace Stevens poem and felt like it helped you to live your life? I mean, now that I’ve read “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” I can get on with my day, knowing exactly what to do if I find the night help or a co-worker has stolen Christmas candy from my desk drawer again?

Which brings us to this question: “Why columns about why poetry?”

Oh, yeah. Because they sell and some people even read them. Unlike poetry.

Riddle Me This


Good news: Poetry continues to work its way back into everyday media. Or every weekend media, anyway, as evidenced by the New York Times Magazine, a Sunday insert that includes a poem selected by Rita Dove each week.

Yesterday, the magazine included an Elizabeth Spires poem. I’m going to hold back on the title to see if you can guess what it’s about. Game? Good. Here we go:


A shirt I was born in.
I wear it. Or it wears me.
White, of course.

A loose fit.
Growing as I grow
but slowly going dull.

It must be washed
once, twice, three times,
then hung to dry.

There, can you see it?
Hanging high
on the hill.

Waving its arms
in the wind. Beckoning.
Sun shining through.


I don’t know about you, but as I read it yesterday, I thought it sounded like a poem for children. One of those puzzle poems. One of those here-are-the-clues, now-see-if-you-can-guess-what-I-am deals. Sold at Personifications R Us. Aisle 6. Bottom shelf (where wee ones can see riddles rolling among the dust bunnies). Where teachers buy poems without titles and put students on the hunt.

If you haven’t guessed already, it’s about your immortal (thinking the best here) soul and carries the title “Picture of a Soul.”

Nice, but nicer still is the quote Dove alludes to in the short introduction. It’s a Wallace Stevens bit I’d never heard before: “the poet is the priest of the invisible.”

I wonder if someone has stolen that for a book title yet. Or is it too cheeky? Priest of the Invisible: Poems. I’ll check with Dewey, then Decimal, and get back to  you.

Until then, Happy Indigenous Peoples Day!

One Man’s Loss Is Another Man’s Win


Every once in a while, you stumble across a book that proves an unexpected charmer. David Markson’s Reader’s Block, the book I am presently reading, is one of those rare treats.

Ostensibly, it’s about an old reader who has sat down to write a novel. Trouble is, he suffers not so much from writer’s block as reader’s block. He is so well-read and knows so many facts from the arts that he would put Alex Trebek to shame. His head is literally swimming with knowledgeable obstructions.

The book, then, is not laid out in paragraph form so much as stream-of-consciousness form, where the stream is a roiling with trivia about poets, artists, composers, painters, philosophers, etc.

To give you a taste, I’ll share a few notable ones about poets and other famous sorts below. Some I knew already, but most I did not. I wonder how many I’ll remember when I’m done? Probably more than I think. I’m pretty good when it comes to the “Useless Facts for $500, Alex,” category.

  • There is no mention of Ockham’s Razor in anything Ockham ever wrote.
  • Not one of Thomas Hardy’s first three novels sold more than twenty copies.
  • Wallace Stevens told Robert Frost his poems were too often about things. Frost told Stevens his were about bric-a-brac.
  • Tolstoy and Gandhi corresponded.
  • Berryman’s name was originally John Smith. He adopted his stepfather’s name when his mother remarried.
  • Walt Whitman more than once wrote anonymous favorable reviews of his own work.
  • Thomas Hobbes was born prematurely when his mother became hysterical at the approach of the Spanish Armada.
  • The tyranny of the ignoramuses is insurmountable and assured for all time. Said Einstein.
  • Balzac called Ann Radcliffe a better novelist than Stendhal.
  • Pouring out liquor is like burning books. Said Faulkner.
  • Robert Frost had exactly five poems accepted in the first seventeen years in which he was submitting.
  • Baudelaire spent two hours a day getting dressed.
  • Being a successful reader of poetry on stage, said Akhmatova, is not necessarily the same as being a writer of successful poetry.
  • Twenty American publishers rejected Elie Wiesel’s Night.
  • Johnny Keats piss-a-bed poetry, Byron called it.
  • Aesop was executed for embezzlement.
  • Philip Larkin: I wouldn’t mind seeing China if I could come back the same day.
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay died at the first light of morning after having sat up all night reading a new translation of the Aeneid.
  • Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal. Said Eliot.
  • Housman published a volume entitled Last Poems in 1922. And lived until 1936.
  • Captured by Moorish pirates at sea, Cervantes spent five years as a slave before being ransomed.
  • Stalin was one of Maxim Gorky’s pall bearers.
  • An enormous dungheap, Voltaire dismissed the sum of Shakespeare as.

You get the idea. One man’s block is another man’s page-turner. And I’m only on p. 88 as I write this!

Have a Ruby Tuesday, all….

Wallace Stevens: When Weird Is Grounded in Normal

wallace stevens

“The greatest poverty,” Wallace Stevens once wrote, “is not to live in a physical world.” This observation came decades before the SmartPhone, the Internet, and the iPad, meaning, if Stevens were to return today, he’d find the entire planet a “third-world nation”–impoverished, indeed!

Ironically, Stevens used the physical world for fantastic leaps by using metaphor to couple reality with the imagination. Delmore Schwartz called him “an aesthete in the best sense of the word.” Marianne Moore crowned him “America’s chief conjurer.”

Stevens finishes his poem “In the Carolinas,” for instance, with this surprising proclamation on the physical world: “The pine-tree sweetens my body / The white iris beautifies me.” The effect of such unnatural naturalness might explain his poetry.

Note, for instance, how far afield Stevens goes from the physical world while still hewing close to his own realities in another famous poem:

Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded centuries.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.

Everything’s normal here, right? And not. We have familiar colors, white night-gowns, and lace socks. But we have reality skewed, too. The house is haunted, the old sailor is drunk, and people might just dream of such realities as “baboons and periwinkles” (what a pair!) if they’re not careful. Best of all, and most memorable, you can catch tigers in “red” weather. For readers, it’s all familiarly strange–a quintessential Stevens poem.

Only Wallace Stevens could look at the abject ordinariness of a blackbird from thirteen angles. In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” one of his most famous poems, readers might well surrender all hope of interpretation and take succor on his delicious turns of phrases alone: “twenty snowy mountains,” “of three minds,” “small part of a pantomime,” “A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one,” “the beauty of innuendoes,” “barbaric glass,” “thin men of Haddam,” “noble accents,” “the edge / Of one of many circles,” “bawds of euphony,” “the shadow of his equipage,” “The river is moving,” and “It was evening all afternoon.”

If you don’t understand the poem, you well know the feeling of it being evening all afternoon because you understand evenings and you understand afternoons. You just haven’t understood how one could be the other at the same time. Until now.

Unusual word pairings are Wallace Stevens’ reality, and his readers are at once at home and off balance because of it. That’s why the greatest riches are found while living in his unique physical world. Read him and leave poverty to the SmartPhone addicts.

Jarring Wilderness for Future Use


Last night my wife was making homemade chocolate–the kind you crown a scoop of vanilla ice cream with. Her chocolate factory was initially profligate, bubbling in a large saucepan, but she tamed it by pouring it into Mason jars.

Chocolate that rich begs for a smaller home like these little Mason jars, ribboned and destined for relatives and friends with a sweet tooth or two. Downsize rich chocolate, I always say, and no one’s objected yet.

With this saying still echoing in my head this morning, I read Wallace Stevens’ ode to a jar, one left out in the Tennessee wilderness. Give it a read-see, why don’t you?:

“Anecdote of the Jar”

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.

A minor piece, as Stevens poems go (he being the darling of academic readers especially). Still, there’s that unexpected, pleasing-to-the-ear rhyming Wallace often injects in his works. And the notion of wilderness coming up to sniff a glass port of manmade (“a port in air”).

That something “gray and bare” could take dominion everywhere, despite giving neither bird nor bush, is disconcerting, which makes me wonder, as with much of Stevens, what he’s about here. Is the jar’s victory in its ugliness–ugly by dint of its surroundings? Juxtaposition is a powerful thing, after all, which is why I never stand next to handsome men, strong men, or successful men. Too jarring, if you catch my drift, and difficult on standers-by.

One might also ask what Wallace was doing in Tennessee. My favorite part of his being a poet was his daily job as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut. Isn’t that jarring, too? Only which is the jar and which the wilderness–Stevens or a staid, 9-to-5 insurance office with his nameplate?

It’s the question of the day for you. If you need a jar opener, check the junk drawer….