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Sunday, 13 March 2011

An Idea of Order (Wallace Stevens)


Cargo containers strewn about by tsunami in Sendai, northern Japan, Saturday 12 March 2011: photo by AP/Itsuo Inouye

If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves...

Cars which were swept together by tsunami and then caught fire, after earthquake in Hitaichi City, Ibaraki Prefecture, 12 March 2011: photo by Reuters/Yomiuri

Wallace Stevens: The Idea of Order at Key West (excerpt), from Ideas of Order, 1936


Anonymous said...

Reviewing this and the Stevens poem has made for a rewarding, if unsettling, Sunday. The upper image of the cargo containers, especially, is something I will never forget. It brought to mind something no more than half-remembered about God, the universe and game of pick-up sticks. I don't remember the language exactly, but I'm sure you catch my drift. They always say that it's a matter of scale. They're not always right about that, but scale as shown in these photographs is scarring.

Julia said...

Yes completely scaring... "desasosiego" is the word that came to my mind (something like unease and anxiety). How to put order in all this mess? Where to begin? That's exactly how my nightmares are.
Really terrible.
And yet your post exhales beauty...

Ed Baker said...

use this Google set it up:

TC said...


A contact system for finding a living conscious human being anywhere in the universe, that would be good...

speaking of which,

Curtis, Julia,

That matter of scale and perspective -- human order reduced to a game of pick-up sticks, viewed from space -- is much on the mind.

Our nightmares within the limited perspective of the nutshell which bounds our world(s) indicate perhaps a rather narrow focus.

Then again, whose eyes have we got but our own?

Robinson Jeffers: The Great Explosion

Barry Taylor said...

I've been haunted by that container image too, even as the daily footage has become steadily more terrible and awe-inspiring. Scaring and scarring indeed.

"The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other." Edmund Burke, Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757)

TC said...


Astonishment and horror indeed, as we attempt to play out the routines of our daily lives; with the growing sense of the merely personal being suddenly, curiously dwarfed by history --

"...and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other."

Barry Taylor said...

Tom – still working this out (which makes it sound like some time soon I expect to crack it, but you know what I mean) – there’s something here for me about how the original catastrophe – an experience of the natural sublime – has exposed, suddenly, catastrophically, the sublime nature of our relationship to the second nature of the global techno-industrial-commercial system. That we experience that ‘nature’ too as a Thing of inconceivable complexity and scale, dwarfing and terrorising the ‘merely personal’ and freezing our ability to think (to think that system ‘otherwise’).

Which might help explain the strange pleasure I’ve felt in viewing the container image: that for a moment it brackets off the appalling human costs and shows the still superior power of the first nature over the things and mechanisms of the second. That the inconceivable inter-knitted 'sublime' strength of that second nature can be imagined as broken, even if momentarily – ‘a matter of scale and perspective’.


all containers
every thing
all loads
all bearers
every axletree
and wheel

all charts
all flags
all ventures
and returns

all passages
west and east
all ports
in storms
all epics
all tall

all play-bricks
tossed back
into the box

TC said...


That expands and extends the post, thanks.

On the "merely personal" level, that photo and the word "container" have odd associations for me.

For a while, very long ago, my father was a traveling salesman for the Container Corporation of America.

A wretched job, as it turned out... I accompanied him on a few road trips into the hinterlands of Iowa, John Deere tractor country.

Of course these were humble paper products he was vending, not vast cargo shipping containers (speaking of scale).

TC said...

Barry, thinking about the relation of the tiny details to "the big picture":

Samuel Beckett: Watt / Andreas Gursky (Tiny Details of the Big Picture)

Industrial Archeology: Loss (Edward Burtynsky)

Edward Burtynsky: Irreconcilable Emotions: Aerial Views of the Gulf Spill

Edward Burtynsky: Oil: Extraction and Refinement

Edward Burtynsky: Oil: Transportation and Motor Culture

Edward Burtynsky: The End of Oil

Barry Taylor said...

Thank you Tom - I'm ashamed to say I didn't know either Gursky or Kurtynsky's work, but this is a great introduction. Feels like the Kurtynsky oilfield/pipeline one plugs pretty directly into what I was fumbling to say - those straight silver sections cutting through the green.

And great to be taken back to Watt as well - in this context I couldn't help reading it as an allegory of the infinite pointless permutations of consumer 'choice'. Maybe getting a little carried away here ...

I appreciate you mentioning your father and his job in paper. My dad's last job was as a training officer in the paper industry, until the Thatcher government decided that a statutory requirement to train employees and bring in new personnel through apprenticeship schemes was an intolerable bureaucratic burden on our entrepreneurs, and axed all the national Training Boards. Last week David Cameron declared heroically to the Confederation of British Industry that he would battle 'the enemies of enterprise'. Today dad was to be heard revolving in his grave as the latest dire figures on UK youth unemployment wafted heavenwards. Same show, new cast, it seems.

Elmo St. Rose said...

as a person who worked as an
insurance executive... in a addition to being a poet, Stevens
was certainly capable of capitalistic actuarial assessments
ie bean counter for Key
West I've always found that a
sense of order beyond the natural
is left behind, escaping the poet
was, from his day job,now many
Japanese lifted from almost insensate productivity to destituition by the shaking earth.
It will be hard for poetry to live
up to this shock but we have our
"books and our poetry to protect us" Simon and Garfunkel once said,
but don't forget generosity to
assuage the human suffering that
is ongoing and on its way

TC said...

The mind is boggled and the heart shaken by thoughts and images from afar.

The one person I know who might actually be of practical use to anyone in that situation right now is you, Dr. Elmo.