With a visitor in town for the week (my excellent mother), the blogging pace will probably be a bit slower than it has of late—with that in mind, I thought I’d make sure there was a decent poem to mull over for the weekend. 1935, my current Pulitzer year, is full of the work of great American poets. One in particular with whom I’ve always wrestled—sometimes adoring his work, sometimes struggling to understand it, sometimes finding it gimmicky and uninteresting—is Wallace Stevens. This is the year of one of his most important works, Ideas of Order, which among other things put forward a poem called “The Idea of Order at Key West”. As far as I am informed, that poem basically encapsulated Stevens’ whole poetic ideal and aim, but I have to admit I’m still struggling with it, and didn’t think I had anything worthwhile to say about it. So I’ve selected a different poem from the collection that seems to echo the bits about “Order” that I understand, and over which I’ve been pondering this morning. So, from 1935, “A Postcard from the Volcano” by Wallace Stevens:
Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill;
And that in autumn, when the grapes
Made sharp air sharper by their smell
These had a being, breathing frost;
And least will guess that with our bones
We left much more, left what still is
The look of things, left what we felt
At what we saw. The spring clouds blow
Above the shuttered mansion house,
Beyond our gate and the windy sky
Cries out a literate despair.
We knew for long the mansion’s look
And what we said of it became
A part of what it is . . . Children,
Still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know,
Will say of the mansion that it seems
As if he that lived there left behind
A spirit storming in blank walls,
A dirty house in a gutted world,
A tatter of shadows peaked to white,
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.
I think I was initially drawn to the poem because it captures a classically sentimental poetic situation—the dead speaking to the living through verse—in a way that doesn’t feel sentimental to me. Stevens shows flashes of the imagery I think characterizes his best work: the bones were “quick as foxes on the hill”, the grapes make “sharp air sharper by their smell”. And the poem makes a simple argument in favor of Stevens’ ideas of order. As I understand it, he was interested in how words shape the way we see reality—in the case of this poem, the speaker clearly thinks that those who come after will be oblivious to the fact that the dead left us “the look of things”. What he/she said about the old mansion “became a part of what it is”.
I wonder how far we want to take that idea—do we speak reality into being? Are we, you and I, in some senses walled in by the words of people who came before us, seeing only what we were told is there to be seen? Tying this into my larger quest of understanding America, how completely is our idea of America “ordered” by what people have said about it? I wonder if we really live in “the land of the free”, or the “land of opportunity”, or whether it’s just much easier to believe that because it’s printed on our stationery. On a smaller scale, I wonder how much my ideas of myself are limited and shaped by what has been said to me and about me. And are those beliefs real? Are the things said about the mansion “actually” a part of it now, or only in human minds—basically, I wonder if Stevens means we really change the world, or if we just filter the way we see it.
Lastly, I wonder why it ends as it does. What do you think those phrases mean, about the storming spirit, the “dirty house in a gutted world”, etc.? When I first read them, I thought it seemed very negative and almost sad, but now I’m not sure. Are these the things that the speaker “added” to the mansion”? Or are they misunderstandings added to the mansion by the children? Ultimately, I feel a little uncertain of the poem, not being quite sure whether the speaker is pleased about the ending or not. The images are vivid but not coherent for me—and while I might have blamed Stevens for writing them badly, I don’t think that’s it. I think there’s something I’m not picking up on that will change my reading of the poem once I get it. I hope you’ll speak up in the comments field if the poem strikes you in any particular way….there’s stuff here I’m not seeing, and I think it would be nice to have some other insights.