Most American students have been confronted with this famous poem by William Carlos Williams at some point in their academic careers:
so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.
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 JarI 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 PoetryThe 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.