Friday, March 2, 2012

Stevens Textplication 12: To the Roaring Wind

“To the Roaring Wind,” from 1917, is one of Stevens’ shortest poems, clocking in at a mere 13 words, with a remarkable eight of its 22 syllables sibilants:

What syllable are you seeking,
Vocalissimus,
In the distances of sleep?
Speak it.


Stevens placed it as a coda to end his first collection, Harmonium, giving the finish of the book a lights-out, lullaby quality. Still, the poem jars and leaves the volume feeling unsettled, like the sound of the surf that refuses to stop for us. Part of that is its cryptic obscurity: Who is he talking to? What is the point of this exercise? Why would a syllable be so important? It also reverses normal poetic practice of invoking the muse of poetry at the beginning of the book to ask obliquely at least for more poetry at the end. Where is a reader to go with this unresolved and inexplicable desire?

One way to navigate the enigma is to note the sonic congruence between the wind of the title and the human voice implied by the Latin word vocalissimus, which means "vocalist, singer, utterer of sound." The wind, symbolic of nature, inspires the voice, symbolic of the human, in a poetic utterance. What complicates it here is that the human only seeks a syllable, which normally would deny meaning in favor of sound alone, so that the human voice at its most poetic is only trying to reproduce the sound the wind makes. Furthermore, the search involves “the distances of sleep,” that is, either nature or the human (or both) is asleep, suggesting the irrational and perhaps impossible nature of this quest (and recalling the efforts of the Surrealists to capture a stranger and deeper truth from immersion in the unconscious world of dreams).

Despite these obstacles, the imperative “speak it” at the end implies the will is strong enough to wrest something human out of the inhuman, some essential expression that can be seen as poetry. In this way the poem is consonant with Stevens’ poetic project as a whole: the vast gulf between inhuman reality and human perception, and the obsessive desire to use imagination to bridge the gap all on one side, which creates strange and wonderful flowers that can serve to replace the ever-hidden truth.

Dream, voice, reality - that’s all nice and neat but I can’t shake the feeling that this poem is really about something far more earthbound and mundane. I imagine the poet – unable to sleep as so many poets are wont – gazing, not wholly annoyed, at his snoring wife, marveling at the relentless purposefulness of it all, how everything is right in the world but deprived of any meaning – how this opens up a gap in the mind for what we call the poetic.

1 comment:

Jack said...

A high-quality read once again!