Friday, September 14, 2012

Stevens Textplication #24: Banal Sojourn

The second most common question poets receive (after “how can I get published?”) is “what does your poem mean?” Stevens, like any self-respecting artist, answered such queries with a lawyerly velvet of misdirection and obscurity, but there was one notable exception, a correspondent named Hi Simons. Simons, a medical book publisher in Chicago, started writing Stevens in 1938 to get answers on his cryptic poems, and Stevens surprisingly complied, offering patient and literal explanations over a period of years for many of his poems. Some examples include: “I shall explain The Snow Man as an example of the necessity of identifying oneself with reality in order to understand it and enjoy it,” and [on “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle”] “The trouble with the idea of heaven is that it is merely an idea of the earth.”* Most professional Stevens critics today ignore these serious and lucid explanations, because they view Hi Simons as a rank amateur who had no business asking Stevens such questions, so therefore Stevens must have been mocking him by responding as he did. However, the genuine amateur quality (amateur means "lover" in Latin) that critics so despise about Simons is probably what attracted Stevens, since, after all, only lovers can know the joy and sadness that is at the root of great art.

“Banal Sojourn” from 1919 was one of many poems Stevens provided Simons insights into (bearing in mind something else Stevens wrote Simons: “I made up my mind not to explain things, because most people have so little appreciation of poetry that once a poem has been explained it has been destroyed”). “Banal Sojourn,” Stevens wrote, “is a poem of exhaustion in August. The mildew of any late season, of any experience that has grown monotonous as, for instance, the experience of life.” It is hard to imagine a more concise or complete explanation for the poem:

Two wooden tubs of blue hydrangeas stand at the foot of the stone steps.
The sky is a blue gum streaked with rose. The trees are black.
The grackles crack their throats of bone in the smooth air.
Moisture and heat have swollen the garden into a slum of bloom.
Pardie! Summer is like a fat beast, sleepy in mildew,
Our old bane, green and bloated, serene, who cries,
“That bliss of stars, that princox of evening heaven!” reminding of seasons,
When radiance came running down, slim through the bareness.
And so it is one damns that green shade at the bottom of the land.
For who can care at the wigs despoiling the Satan ear?
And who does not seek the sky unfuzzed, soaring to the princox?
One has a malady, here, a malady. One feels a malady.

Picking up with Stevens' explanation, the first four lines offer on the one hand almost overwhelmingly lush and beautiful poetic images (sky as blue gum, grackles cracking throats of bone, a swollen slum of bloom), but the literal sense is severe and anti-romantic: the hydrangeas are defined by the wooden tubs they are held in, the trees are the color of darkness, the sound the birds make is a painful and perhaps violent action, an overgrown garden is equated with a slum. The overbearing richness of late Summer is thus beautifully expressed, as one looks beyond the intensity of life for the mechanisms (the “moisture and heat”) running the dense machine.

The middle four lines (after the interjection “Pardie,” roughly equivalent to “Mercy”) personify summer as a “fat beast,” overcome by mildew (“our old bane [enemy]”), corrupted into decadence like Sydney Greenstreet by the heat, having no energy itself but crying out for others “That bliss of stars, that princox of evening heaven!” Princox is another rare word Stevens uses in odd but appropriate ways, the literal meaning being an arrogant, strong-willed but effeminate young man (think of Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet). The contrast between the sapped old beast of summer and the eternally young play of the stars across the sky is to my mind an accurate account of the time right before autumn arrives, when it looks like this endless regeneration of life will go on forever. It reminds the narrator of life's beginning as winter turned to spring and then summer, “slim through the bareness” the light green shoots were as they reached to a suddenly golden sun.

The last four lines move the speaker from observation and memory to a personal reaction, an emotion triggered by the scene. “One damns that green shade at the bottom of the land” one wants “the sky unfuzzed” (by ragweed, dandelions, humidity, etc.), one has (three times) “a malady.” Almost effortlessly, the reader finds herself wanting a certain sickness unto death from all this heaviness, so that birth can come, a true princox of innocence. It’s a subtle contrast to elegiac poems of autumn and winter, where death is seen as a loss and an end. Here, death is welcomed as a new opportunity to escape the boredom and oppression of the fullest ripening of life.

As is usual with Stevens, reality and imagination lurk in the shadows. The palpable loss of innocence forces one to view what would have been seen in romantic, fantastical terms (the garden, the sky, the stars) under the harsh glare of reality, and this is seen as a kind of death.

Before we close, I’d like to discuss the puzzling (to many commentators) line: “For who can care at the wigs despoiling the Satan ear?” Eleanor Cook (in A Reader’s Guide to Wallace Stevens) reads this (I think correctly) as a reference to earwigs, as big a bane as mildew to a gardener. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, “The earwig, a small centipede, is thought to be a disguise for the devil in Irish folklore.” Taking this a step further, this line could be making a reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Satan, as the season turns into Autumn, comes into paradise at night to whisper in Eve’s ear as she sleeps:
Squat like a Toad, close at the eare of Eve; [ 800 ]
Assaying by his Devilish art to reach
The Organs of her Fancie, and with them forge
Illusions as he list, Phantasms and Dreams,
Or if, inspiring venom, he might taint
Th' animal spirits that from pure blood arise [ 805 ]
Like gentle breaths from Rivers pure, thence raise
At least distemperd, discontented thoughts,
Vaine hopes, vaine aimes, inordinate desires
Blown up with high conceits ingendring pride.
This act, quickly discovered by Gabriel, sows the seeds for man’s expulsion from Eden. This fits right in with the theme of lost innocence, “the mildew…of any experience that has grown monotonous.”

* All letter references from L504, Collected Letters of Wallace Stevens


the walking man said...

So what you're saying is we are only pretentious asses towards them who are pretentious asses.

I will admit there are many times the iconography of a poets thought escapes me, when that happens I tend to simply lose myself in the rhythm and let the images unfold.

It is a very subjective experience reading the work of another and i for one don't want to have to explain my thought, I would much rather have the reader tell me their thought. Offer me insight, maybe unintended, but valid none the less.

I gravitate towards the simple and complex like Stephen Crane's In The Desert.

In the Desert
By Stephen Crane

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;

“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

Where was his desert, who was his beast, did it have to do with his illness killing him or his found fame? On and on the questions come but do I really need an answer other than the one I choose to see?

Anonymous said...

I am repeating myself, but, once again, great series. Always thoughtful and useful.

Rusty Kjarvik said...

really solid elucidation on the Stevens text, I'm especially drawn to the Irish folklore and its cross-reference with Milton, fantastic connections made here, it seems to me that the poetic ear is unrivalled in its ability to attract both earwigs and pearls, what a delight to have such minds as yourself to identify the difference, and so much appreciation for your comments on my site as always, very well enjoyed

compatriots (of none less patriotic).

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