Friday, August 10, 2012

Stevens Textplication #22: Nuances on a Theme by Williams

“Nuances of a Theme by Williams” from 1918 is an odd poem in an odd canon: a collaboration of sorts between two giants of 20th century American Modernism, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. The Paterson pediatrician and Hartford surety-bond attorney were friends (at least as much as two inwardly turned writers can be), having found a common interest in the emerging European art of Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Duchamp, etc. at the 1913 Armory Show, and subsequently in the salon of Walter Kreymborg, who published Others: A Magazine of New Verse, the most experimental of the many little magazines that were the advance guard of literary modernism during the war years.

Williams and Stevens continued a warm correspondence for nearly 40 years, including a strange introduction by Stevens to Williams’ Collected Poems, done as a favor to help Williams get it published. Letters are never a fair representation of a friendship, and the surviving ones between these two are no exception, with little to show except occasional curt statements like Stevens informing Williams that he could not visit his house while he was in Hartford because Mrs. Stevens didn’t wish to entertain. Thus one can only guess at what they actually did together (Stevens the drinker, Williams the philanderer); the letter reproduced above (unbelievably typed by a female secretary) might provide some sense (hat tip to the ever-reliable John Latta for the image).

I imagine such “all-too-human” diversions took the place of what would probably be inharmonious discussions, as the two poets were equally strong-willed in their visions of what poetry should be, and the collision of ideals could have been a train wreck for the two prickly poets, Williams the connoisseur of things as they are, collector of beauty in motion, the master of the stop and go of American speech, the one who almost single-handedly turned our poetic meter from even to odd lines, the witness to the poor and dispossessed, etc. vs. Stevens the blank verse traditionalist, the poet of imagination and the sublime, the seeker after the invisible, the misperceived, the impossible.* Readers tend to overstate such differences, of course, because it’s easy to overlook the human commonality of two hyper-sensitive poets of the same time and place seeking in their own way a common pursuit of truth and beauty.**

It’s easy in fact to see a strong commonality of approach in “Nuances,” which would be expected between two friends. It opens with a complete Williams poem, “El Hombre” from Al Que Quiere (1917), as the first four italicized lines, and expands their metaphor of the evening star in Stevensian fashion. Here’s the poem:

It's a strange courage
You give me, ancient star:

Shine alone in the sunrise
toward which you lend no part!

Shine alone, shine nakedly, shine like bronze
that reflects neither my face nor any inner part
of my being, shine like fire, that mirrors nothing.

Lend no part to any humanity that suffuses
you in its own light.
Be not chimera of morning,
Half-man, half-star.
Be not an intelligence,
Like a widow's bird
Or an old horse.

Williams' italicized "introduction" is an uneasy mixture; the first lines of the two couplets have the syncopated rhythms Williams became famous for, and the second lines are rhyming (or near-rhyming) iambic. The effect is almost like a spontaneous utterance ("it's a strange courage...") followed by a formal Greek chorus ("you give me ancient star"...), as if the self and world are already fragmented at the outset of the perception. The picture is vivid: an isolated evening star staying fixed while the colors of the sunset go through their sequence. Why this gives "strange courage" is the apparent independence and imperturbability of the small thing against the large moving machine of earth. One thinks of the poet, or any tiny thing, as a pole star, unruffled by the fashions and thoughts changing all around, and to the poignant beauty humans find in the light dimming into darkness. The star light may be dim, but it is constant and reassuring for having its integrity intact.

Stevens takes this sense and runs with it. His stanza I continues with a plea to the star itself to "shine alone, shine nakedly, shine like bronze," thereby adding detail, or nuance, directly to Williams' perception, and to further elaborate on the existing image, clarifies that this star "reflects neither face nor any inner part of my being." The star is not only separate from the earth, but explicitly from human affairs, specifically those of the speaker of the poem. With this, the romantic identification of Williams' speaker with the star is broken, for there must be no relation between the two of them. "Shine like fire, that mirrors nothing" becomes an alternative beauty, one that is satisfying not in its familiarity to human longing but in its remoteness. It is the alien beauty that cannot speak of this world.

Stanza II shifts from the long pentameter and hexameters one is accustomed to with Stevens to shorter Williamsesque lines. The images also become more like those Williams customarily used ("a widow's bird," "an old horse"). The sense of the stanza is a plea for the star to resist all the temptations of humanity in order to stay whole. It could only, so the argument goes, be "half-man, half-star," a "chimera" (illusion). The speaker gives an example that matches Williams in concrete clarity: the star would at best pick up only parts of the mind of man, as a bird substituted for a husband picks up some words of the widow, or a horse picks up along the way some sense of what it feels like to be human.

The sum total of Stevens' lines amplify Williams' honoring of the separate star to clarify that it shouldn't even pay attention to the human onlooker (stanza I) or humanity at all (stanza II) in order to maintain its autonomy. It seems at first like a small and strange elaboration on a fully-formed poem by someone else, until one remembers the distinctions between Stevens and Williams in outlook. Williams recognizes in the star an emblem of the lost, something broken off from human compassion and love. That it still shines despite being utterly alone is a cause for courage, along the almost explicitly political lines of the power of the individual. Williams poems often turn between the pathos of an observed scene (often in poor environments) and the larger political questions of honesty and integrity.

Stevens who we all know will have none of that, asks more basic questions, like how do you know what you are seeing is not yourself, or at least an idealization you've created? The resistance he advises is not by the star but to the star, for once it is called to our attention we inevitably look, admire, and slowly it becomes a part of ourselves ("humanity suffuses you in its own light"). He does not want the star to be our "pet", which is what he jocularly implies Williams has done with it.

The solitude and distance of the star is far greater than even Williams imagines, as Stevens' clarifies in his poignant longing not to feel what he is feeling as he appropriates whatever reality the star possesses. This shows how effective the poem is as a collaboration - one of the more effective poetic collaborations of the modern era.

* For an interesting discussion (including my own views) on Williams (including vis a vis Stevens) see Jordan Davis’ reviews here, here and here.
** Stevens’ relationships with other writers were not quite so cordial. He was punched by Ernest Hemingway and engaged in a long-term seething match with Robert Frost, who accused him of writing “bric-a-brac poems.”


Jack said...

This is amazing. The education here staggers me.

the walking man said...

Frost it seems didn't get along with anyone who did not conform to his particular fecund thought towards poetic style.

The that has always escaped me. I know people who do it well but I have a hard time sussing out meter as it's written.

That said I do like and prefer more WCW's feeling toward the cosmos than Wallace' "you are what you are" response.

Though I tend to fall more middling between the two. The sky and it's objects are more than stone and gas and less than object to be adored or sanctified. I look at them as more travelers sharing space with me albeit they will share it with far more than I will ever be capable of for they live a much wider space.

I do have one question, though off topic, but germane to a portion of your review. What is it about poets especially, that forces some strange bent towards isolation and self destruction in whatever form?

I know my own insanity but, drinking philandering and the always present suicide among us is not a part of it.

William A. Sigler said...

Mark, I always like the way you make these things real, and I appreciate, as you say, that Stevens isn't really your cup of joe.

Your question is a fundamental one, one that applies to all writers to some degree. I think it has to do with capturing the world in words to be saved instead of letting experience come and go. There is a mental perfectionism involved in getting it right, the constant revisions and re-viewings are a constant stress that cannot just be let go because, let's face it, we all have to go back to the page the next day to see how wrong it is (for that day) when it should have had the decency to disappear like speech and music do. This results in the mind and its judgments dominating the heart and the spirit, and "self-medication" is the only way back, the only way to let go of the control over reality the writer's craft instills. Of course, writers have to be somewhat damaged int he first place to even attempt what most people regard as madness.

the walking man said...

ha ha ha dude, I have long been damaged that is true. I like the isolation, revel in it, steep my self in it. But I'll be honest with you once a piece is written it's written unless I happen to come across it again in the archives or specifically want it in a book then it gets an edit. But until then *shrug* I let them go an wallow and waddle in the much until there's a need to see them cleaned up some.

I wrote about 500 words on fb this EARLY morning about mind (noun) and whether I have one or not, I justified mind (verb) easily enough but the jury is still out regarding me and mind (noun).

Tom King said...

Early WCW obsessed with Keats. His poem follows Bright Star:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —
No — yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death.