VerseDay: Poetry as acts of the mind….

Most American students have been confronted with this famous poem by William Carlos Williams at some point in their academic careers:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The simplicity of this poem belies its complexity. As most students have learned to their disbelief, disgruntlement, and dismay, this poem is about much more than wheelbarrows, chickens, and rain water. It’s a poem (perhaps) about “reality” – and what “reality” is. It’s a poem about (to paraphrase Whitman, I hear America cringing) – ideas…..

Americans aren’t much on ideas in their poetry. Our most beloved poets – Longfellow, Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, McKuen – are long on emotion and short on intellectualism. This blog has mentioned American anti-intellectualism frequently, and nowhere is that distaste for being forced to think more prominently displayed than in our taste in poetry. JFK, long considered the most intellectual president of the 20th century (After all, he “wrote” serious books, didn’t he? Well, didn’t he?) was a Frost man.

So how can poets who write about mere ephemera like “ideas” get any love?

The truth is, they can’t. Take this example from Wallace Stevens, my favorite poet of “ideas”:

The 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.

Stevens liked to call his work “the poetry of idea and order.” That should give you a clue as to what this poem is about. Like that red wheel barrow poem you were tormented with back in school, this one isn’t simply about jars on hills in Tennessee. Here are a few attempts to explain what Stevens might be about.

Stevens tried as best he could to explain himself to his critics and admirers. In a poem called, aptly enough, “Of Modern Poetry,” he offers us his best explanation of what he hoped to achieve in his work:

Of Modern Poetry

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one. The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.

You’ll notice that I’ve not “explained” or “interpreted” Stevens’ poems for you. That’s not for me to do – I’m not going to play the sage on the stage, the fount of knowledge, the professor. Not today. You should have your own ideas, your own “acts of the mind,” as Stevens believes poetry to be. Today I defer to Wallace Stevens – who reminds us:

The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

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9 replies »

  1. You know what I’m going to say, but I’ll say it anyway.

    There’s no arguing about the anti-intellectual strain of just about everything in our culture, but I’ve always sought out (and attempted to write) poetry that transcended the intellectual. Not NON-intellectual, but MORE THAN intellectual.

    As we know, there was a problem with some of the idea and order stuff. “Anecdote of the Jar” is about forging reality – very constructivist in that, actually – and some argue that it smacks of the fascist. Williams was, if I remember correctly, friends with Pound, another intellectual poet, and corresponded with him while he was locked up.

    I’m a fan of Stevens, of course, and wish we were more given to thinking about poetry. Hell, to thinking, period. But some of our prominent intellectual poets were perhaps prone to an authoritarianism that gives pause….

  2. Roses are red;
    violets give glee.
    An ideated poem
    means little to me.

    Roses are red;
    violets aren’t enough.
    Poems of ideas
    make reading tough.

    (I hated high-school English …)

  3. You go a little hard on Frost and Dickinson, methinks. Neither belongs lumped in with Rod McKuen on any account. Frost, especially, is an confessed intellectualist, as witness “Mending Wall,” in which the narrator bemoans his neighbor and work-partner’s unwillingness to think beyond cliche: “He will not go behind his father’s saying / And he likes having thought of it so well / He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.'”

    As for Emily D, one doesn’t become a “debauchee of dew” or thank Death for kindly delivering a timely reminder of mortality without arriving at those positions by way of some pretty strenuous mental exertion.

    Williams shouldn’t be damned merely by his association with Pound, either. I, for one, don’t let politics dictate who my friends are. What all of these poets, and Stevens too, agree upon is that we should pay loving attention to the little things. No one can know why the red wheel barrow, tool or toy, is left out to be glazed with rain water; the point is to wonder, to simply but deeply pay attention. This is not authoritarianism in the least, though it did lead Williams, as a rueful critic of the American scene, to complain that our culture ultimately leaves us with “No one / to witness / and adjust, no one to drive the car.”

    Stevens, at any rate knew that ideas of order are artifices–that thinking isn’t everything. He singled this poem out as special, a capstone for his oeuvre:

    “Of Mere Being”

    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.

  4. Roses are red,
    Violets are blue,
    The more poetry I read
    the less I understand

    maybe I should change my fertilizer. 🙂

  5. I’m so glad to see that the “Roses are red…” school of poesy is still alive & kickin’ … haven’t heard a new one in years in actual conversation.

    I’ve always found that for myself, the most enjoyable poetry bathed my brain in the meta-meaningful expansion/distortion of the resonance of its language: I grasp at the meaning of a word in a new way; I delve in between the words for clues (“how does a poem mean?”–Ciardi); I particularly delight in the tumble of jujitsu among the words, the interplay of juxtaposition and phrasing, the spoken sounds, rhymes and assonances. Thus, I submit my all-time favorite “Roses are red …” —

    When roses are red
    And ready for plucking
    I’ll take you to the garden
    And give you a rose

  6. Hi there’s no period at the end of The Red Wheelbarrow and it is one of a 27 poem arrangement/ sequence (and prose) in WCW’s 1923 book Spring and All–which is full of ideas. WCW is not well served by anthology fragments.