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Friday, 8 June 2012

Wallace Stevens: Startled by a flight of birds


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http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a2/Farming_near_Klingerstown%2C_Pennsylvania.jpg/1024px-Farming_near_Klingerstown%2C_Pennsylvania.jpg

Farming near Klingerstown, Pennsylvania: photo by Scott Bauer, 2005 (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture)

  

To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences. It is not as if they had gone over the horizon to disappear for a time; nor as if they had been overcome by other gods of greater power and profounder knowledge. It is simply that they came to nothing. Since we have always shared all things with them and have always had a part of their strength and, certainly, all of their knowledge, we shared likewise this experience of annihilation. It was their annihilation, not ours, and yet it left us feeling that in a measure we, too, had been annihilated. It left us feeling dispossessed and alone in a solitude, like children without parents, in a home that seemed deserted, in which the amical rooms and halls had taken on a look of hardness and emptiness. What was most extraordinary is that they left no mementoes behind, no thrones, no mystic rings, no texts either of the soil or of the soul. It was as if they had never inhabited the earth. There was no crying out for their return. They were not forgotten because they had been a part of the glory of the earth. At the same time, no man ever muttered a petition in his heart for the restoration of those unreal shapes. There was always in every man the increasingly human self, which instead of remaining the observer, the non-participant, the delinquent, became constantly more and more all there was or so it seemed; and whether it was so or merely seemed so still left it for him to resolve life and the world in his own terms.


  

File:Bride-Brook-Salt-Marsh-s.jpg

Marsh Bride Brook and Coastal Salt Marsh, East Lyme, Connecticut: photo by Alex756, 2003



It is as if we had stepped into a ruin and were startled by a flight of birds that rose as we entered. The familiar experience is made unfamiliar and from that time on, whenever we think of that particular scene, we remember how we held our breath and how the hungry doves of another world rose out of nothingness and whistled away. We stand looking at a remembered habitation. All old dwelling places are subject to these transmogrifications and the experience of all of us includes a succession of old dwelling places, abodes of the imagination, ancestral or memories of places that never existed.



 

Storm clouds over Bodie ghost town, California: photo by Dave Toussaint, 5 August 2008


Wallace Stevens: from Two or Three Ideas, a lecture on Baudelaire's La Vie Anterieure, given at Mt. Holyoke College, 28 April 1951

16 comments:

Conrad DiDiodato said...

I'm amazed at the poetry & prose difference in this remarkable man-- almost two people!

Wooden Boy said...

I tried to get the bailiffs in on old Yahweh but he was having none of it. That's the last time I go with Descartes et Fils.
Such prose isn't possible any more, I fear.

Jonathan Chant said...

Very inspiring. Especially like the ghost town picture coming immediately after the final words...

Lally said...

As always Tom, apt and moving selection of word and image. Provocative in the best sense.

Ed Baker said...

that opening (& then to the end of) of the
second x-cerpt:

"It is as if ... ."

brought tears to my eyes
-all three of them..

& then to read his USE of

"It was as if..." again and a
gain in first passage WOWOW !!

I particularly PAR-TICK-YOU-LARILY
appreciate that last compound-complex
(complex-compound?) sentence/thought of
second piece.

time for this My-Me to jump back
into a cpl of Master Poets ...

one now new to me and then back into
Stevens...

wasn't he an insurance salesman ?

(the other one was a clerk (or something) at
MOMA...

Hazen said...

This will last. Six decades on, reading this, we can still live the experience that Stevens lived that day he stepped into the ruins and the doves rose up and vanished: an essential honesty of mind and heart, the feeling of awe before wild nature; and the melancholy recognition that humankind feels okay to be all-there-is. That last image is haunting and dream-like.

departuredelayed said...

Ah, brilliant! I'd never read this, and am now frantically searching for a full copy. Elsewhere I'm planning a reading group on "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," and am thinking right now that this would be very good to incorporate.

Wooden Boy said...

"...all there was or so it seemed..." The seeming is important, I think.

And while we may work towards a resolution of life, it's not clear that this is a possibility.

Part of my trouble is I'm not so sure what my own terms are.

To be somewhere between being and seeming...

TC said...

It's not such a great surprise, when one thinks of it, that the gods should have taken themselves off as we entered. One has experienced that sort of thing before, and it would be dishonest really, to deny the meaning of it to oneself.

And this is perhaps more responsibility than we ought to have been left with:

"There was always in every man the increasingly human self, which instead of remaining the observer, the non-participant, the delinquent, became constantly more and more all there was or so it seemed; and whether it was so or merely seemed so still left it for him to resolve life and the world in his own terms."

So there we have it. We can't chase off something that was already gone.

As a raw and vile youth (1967) one took part in a collaborative poem with a fellow callow contender for the laurels. In this poem God dares enter the picture, but is affrighted, as vampires are meant to be by whatever it is, crucifixes, silver stakes & c.

The poem in question reacts to the divine intervention with predictable rudeness:

"Smuh!

God get out of here

And he runs off chirping and chucking into his handbag."

Now one can only call that bit inhospitable.

The poem in question goes on to add:

"What is happening here

is that the brain tissue is momentarily

a noodle."

That bit proves to have been prescient beyond its years.

Perhaps even Stevens did not phrase the central pathos here as well as Hazen has done:

"...the melancholy recognition that humankind feels okay to be all-there-is."

And yes, oh yes, "That last image is haunting and dream-like."

Also affecting to dwell upon this:

"...while we may work towards a resolution of life, it's not clear that this is a possibility."

And it's clearer every day now that this is not clear, and that it is growing unclearer with the hour.

Still one struggles on, as though there were not another option. The memory aflutter with phantom gods.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Darn, I thought something was going to happen.
Out in Bodie
the road still existed
out to the mine shaft
blowing about in the sun.

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Thank you for reminding us that Stevens is one of our necessary angels.

STEPHEN RATCLIFFE said...

Tom,

One hears Stevens' voice intoning these syllables --

"What was most extraordinary is that they left no mementoes behind, no thrones, no mystic rings, no texts either of the soil or of the soul."

"It is as if we had stepped into a ruin and were startled by a flight of birds that rose as we entered."

6.9

light still coming into sky above black
plane of ridge, moon across from branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

the thought of being shaped,
change in any way but

the other, asked who it was,
continued there in it

wingspan of tern lifting from sandspit,
moon in cloudless blue sky above point

Hazen said...

Steven Ratcliffe points to the contingency of the matter, the ‘as if.’ There’s an absence of certain things— like mementoes—things not there, yet called into being by Stevens from his ‘abodes of the imagination’ and his ‘memories of places that never existed.’ We begin to wonder. We are looking into Stevens world, but from our own; or maybe it’s the other way round. This is one of the most appealing things about this piece.

Ed Baker said...

yeah ... & again:

"it is as if ..."

when the artist / poet discovers that
ego is merely an invention & then
in the dropping of (that) blockage
takes off upon his own trail ...
minus the Credentialists' Baggage

as if
there was / is no tomorrow !

now reading poems of Frank O'Hara
& am suddenly struck that he too
is Magic.

as Yeats put 'it' :

"don't be a magician
be
magic"

now to keg-up the new batch of beer we've brewed ... it shld be ready
to drink next Saturday. Y'all drop
on over for a frosty mug... yuh hear ?

TC said...

The gods may be gone, but we are still here to populate our ghost towns. In imagination at least; still thinking that if we hang around the vacated sites long enough, something might even happen. Absence makes the heart grow full with longing for that darn something.

Susan Kay Anderson: Out in Bodie

William A. Sigler said...

Simply beautiful. It puts me in mind of two poems (translations mine)

My Earlier Life (Baudelaire)

I've been home a long time among the vast porticos,
Which the mariner sun has tinged with a million fires,
Whose grandest pillars, upright, majestic and cold
Render them the same, this evening, as caves with basalt spires.

The swells' overwhelming accords of rich music,
Heaving images of heaven to the skies,
Mingle in a way solemn and mystic
With the colors of the horizon reflected by my eyes.

It was here I was true to the voluptuous calm,
The milieu of azure, the waves, the splendors,
And the nude slaves, all impregnated with odors,

Who refreshed my brow with waving palms
My only care to bring to meaning from anguish
The sad secret in which I languish.

Memory (Excerpt) - Holderlin

But it is rich,
Full of dark light,
This fragrant cup
Of sleep; it's sweet
Under the shadow of slumber.
It's not good to think
The mortal is soulless.
But it’s good to converse
In the voice of the heart
And hear much as love emerges
And acts, occurrences happen.

But where are my friends? Bellarmin
With his companion? Some are afraid
To go to the source;
Where the wealth begins,
In the sea. They,
Like painters, pull together
The beauty of the Earth and disdain
War not winged, and
Live for years alone, below
The leafless mast, where night does not shine through
The city's festivities,
Nor its strings and indigenous dances.

But now the Indians are
The people left,
There on the airy spit,
And mountains of grapes fall
To the Dordogne, which along
With the mighty Garonne
Empties to the sea
That comes from the stream. Abounding,
It gives memories to the waters,
And to the lovers' eyes entwined,
But what remains, the poet finds.