Friday, June 24, 2016

Stevens Texplication #29: The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad

“The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad” is the most notable case of textual controversy in Stevens’ oeuvre. Between its first publication in 1921 (in the 9/14/21 edition of The New Republic) and its collection in the revised version of Harmonium in 1931, the author cut the last three lines of the third stanza, presumably because the quality of the rhymes and sentiments were not on par with the rest of the poem. The result not only disrupted the poem’s perfect iambic pentameter envelope (abba) rhyme, it compromised the meaning. It wasn’t until The Palm at the End of the Mind came out in 1976 that the original lines were restored (the shorter version persists in both the Collected Poems and the “authoritative” Library of America Collected Poetry & Prose). Stevens himself was inscrutable as usual about such matters:  Was it too traditional? Did he steal an image from someone? Did “oceans of obsidian” make him want to retch? Still, it is an interesting window into the process of poetic revision. Poets are torn by having to include “bad” lines for the sake of a rhyme or narrative structure when every word should count; it is so much easier to just strike the offending lines so one doesn’t have to re-write every word of what was (presumably) divinely inspired and painstakingly wrought. No one understands poetry anyway, what’s the difference? The fact that no one cared or noticed might have given Stevens some satisfaction with the course he took.

This intrusion of the poet making the poem is actually relevant here, as “The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad” is widely (though superficially) seen as one of Stevens’ first poems self-consciously about poetry. Specifically it's seen to belong to that illustrious tradition where poets express despair over not being poetically inspired. Here’s the poem:

The time of year has grown indifferent.
Mildew of summer and the deepening snow
Are both alike in the routine I know.
I am too dumbly in my being pent.

The wind attendant on the solstices
Blows on the shutters of the metropoles,
Stirring no poet in his sleep, and tolls
The grand ideas of the villages.

The malady of the quotidian ...
Perhaps, if summer ever came to rest
And lengthened, deepened, comforted, caressed
Through days like oceans in obsidian

Horizons full of night's midsummer blaze;
Perhaps, if winter once could penetrate
Through all its purples to the final slate,
Persisting bleakly in an icy haze;

One might in turn become less diffident—
Out of such mildew plucking neater mould
And spouting new orations of the cold.
One might. One might. But time will not relent.

It’s fair to say Stevens is not the most straightforward of poets when it comes to diction, but this one is almost painfully awkward in its word choice. It starts with the title. The man whose pharynx was bad? One of Stevens’ patented odd and striking titles, yes, but could there be a more inelegant way to express that someone has a cold? (The pharynx is essentially the empty passageways of the sinuses, nose and throat, so if the pharynx is bad, it must be congested, so voilà, a head cold).

The first line stops us in our tracks: “The time of year has grown indifferent.” How could that possibly be? By what technique of personification and abstraction gone mad could such a line be produced? The speaker “clarifies” in the next lines by conflating the dead of winter with the height of summer: “Mildew of summer and the deepening snow / Are both alike in the routine I know.” Mildew is not the most poetic of descriptors for summertime, in fact it could equally be applied (being mostly white) to snow and winter. Maybe that’s the point; the extremes of the seasons start to seem the same in their unpleasantness. Then we have “both alike”; why does lawyer Stevens need to use both words? And what is this “in the routine I know” business? How could weather be “in” a routine? And why “routine I know” instead of “my routine”? Then comes another shot to the jaw:  “I am too dumbly in my being pent.” This sounds like a machine translation from Farsi into English. “Dumbly”? Really? “My being pent”? Crystal clear I’m sure you’ll agree. I think the sense is he’s confined inside, and it makes him so out-of-sorts he’s unable to speak or think.* A cold will do that to you, and it will also feel at times like mildew and snow in your body, just as it involves a dismal routine of sickness management we all know all too well.

“The wind attendant on the solstices / Blows on the shutters of the metropoles,” the poem continues. In a flash, Shake-spearian eloquence blows in with a modern air. How much less poetic to say: “The wind that comes with the change of seasons hits the window coverings of the houses in the parent states of the colonies”.  How much less poetic to say: "I sneezed." The emphasis falls on the words “solstices” (usually not plural) and “metropoles” (suggesting cities in general as well as the vertical encumbrances that fill them). Note too the sun never rises/sets on the North/South poles on solstices. "Shutters" suggests the window is shut; it is too windy, cold or bright. Thus, “Stirring no poet in his sleep,” i.e. he is already awake and uninspired by not having a view, or alternatively he is so dead-to-the-world with his cold nothing can rouse him. We also get the sense of “nothing to see here” for poets; ennui as far as the eye can see. Finally, the wind “tolls (sounds/announces) / The grand ideas of the villages.” A deft comic touch; how grand could ideas be in a provincial town? The narrow-minded residents would only think they were grand; hence even more ennui for our stricken poet.

“The malady of the quotidian ...,” the speaker announces, finally defining the condition that causes this supposed failure of the imagination. “The sickness of daily living” might be a gloss on this, but it’s unclear, since routine has only been alluded to not expressed. In fact, it seems more like the break from routine (like that of looking or walking outside) that causes this state. One could equally read “of” in the line to mean the sickness caused by daily life (i.e. the common cold, curse of rarefied poets everywhere). In fact “the common cold” could easily be “the malady of the quotidian”, a fiendishly funny way of poeticizing decidedly unpoetic things.

Then come the lines that Stevens later deleted: “Perhaps, if summer ever came to rest / And lengthened, deepened, comforted, caressed / Through days like oceans in obsidian.” One can readily see how the first of these lines “pays off” the last line in the poem, and how this imaginative re-enactment of summer’s glories is similarly extended to winter in the succeeding stanzas. And how both are again wittily conflated in the last stanza, as if it doesn’t matter whether the eternal sameness the speaker desires is summer or winter as they are one and the same, textbook examples, so to speak, of a general truth: weather. I detect a subtle difference in quality in the lines kept and the lines deleted. For example, “days like oceans in obsidian” provides a strange and appropriate mixing of day and night (when oceans would be shiny and black), but it doesn’t have the power and aptness of “horizons full of night's midsummer blaze”, which also blends opposites but is a far more vivid image of long, late summer sunsets.

In any event, to conquer the poets’ imaginative block Stevens responds in typical fashion with an imaginative solution: stop the flow of seasons and see what happens. Metaphorically (non-poetically), one would very much want to stop the seasonal nasal drip flow, but literally (poetically) the idea is as ridiculous as it is poignant. Maybe if we could stand still to really look at what is going around us, to examine all the nuances of the same phenomena we see every day, there might be meaning revealed that is currently unavailable to us: “Perhaps, if winter once could penetrate / Through all its purples to the final slate, / Persisting bleakly in an icy haze;”

What is the end of this magnificent poetic description of seasonal effects? “One might in turn become less diffident—“. Once again we are placed in the Stevensian nether-world where the vividly poetic imagination expressed by the prior stanzas meets up with a very prosaic reality. Paraphrasing, if the world’s weather patterns permanently changed to allow for real understanding of what the earth is saying to us, consequently I might be less shy and lacking in self-confidence. Except it’s no longer the “I” of the opening stanza, it’s “one”, a pronoun Stevens rarely used (only two other poems in the Collected Poems use “one” as a pronoun). My sense of this bizarre twist is that the speaker is so shy and self-conscious he escapes into an impersonal pronoun. At any rate, you probably wouldn’t want to read any poet who needs such acts of God to break through his shyness, at least a little bit (“less diffident”).

What kind of poetry would such a poet produce? “Out of such mildew plucking neater mould.” Playing on the triple meaning of mold (container/style/mildew) is a clever-enough trick, but “neater mould” seems to comically suggest the mildew (itself a clever play on the poetic trope of “dew”) that is the material of the song/musical side of the poem will only yield a tidier fungus. This displeasing sense is continued for the rhetorical side of the poem in the next line: “And spouting new orations of the cold.” Spouting is an exceedingly negative connotation for orations, implying half-baked, self-aggrandizing, tasteless, noisy, vulgar, offensive and childish, among other qualities. “Orations of the cold” similarly doesn’t call to mind the speeches of Demosthenes or William Jennings Bryan. One could once again read this as “orations of the (common) cold” and the spoutings would make all-too-much sense. As would mildew, perceptually if not scientifically. And maybe there’s something like a sneeze in the repetition in the next line: “One might. One might.”

“But time will not relent”, the poem enigmatically concludes. It is both a rebuttal of his imaginative construct of the seasons not changing (as if we need to be told that) and a statement on the shelf-life of poesy. Time will not look kindly on a poet who creates under these kinds of conditions.

To sum up, Stevens uses his fine poetic gifts here in the service of humorous self-deprecation. Most critics take this as a much more serious poem involving anxiety about inspiration (Bloom), boredom with daily life (Buttel), oppression under the weight of poetic tradition (Cook), “the state of the self estranged from the hopes of selfhood” (Quinney), and other weighty prosodical topics. I think it finds its familiar in Ogden Nash’s Bed Riddance collection, which proved the common cold could make uncommonly good (and funny) poetry. Here’s a brief snippet:

Fahrenheit Gesundheit

Nothing is glummer
Than a cold in the summer.
A summer cold
Is to have and to hold.

A cough in the fall
Is nothing at all,
A winter snuffle
Is lost in the shuffle,
And April sneezes
Put leaves on the treeses,
But a summer cold
Is to have and to hold.

… there is no plumber
For a cold in the summer.
Nostrilly, tonsilly,
It prowls irresponsilly;
In your personal firmament
Its abode is permanent…

Time will not relent.


* Or maybe that’s the nature of traditional poetic forms, one (Stevens?) might argue. The seemingly intentional clumsiness here calls to mind the stretched syntax of earlier poets as they struggled to make the words fit the meter and rhyme scheme. While it’s true Stevens didn’t develop fully as a poet until he was able to disregard traditional rhyming structures, something only possible as the concept of Modernism in the arts emerged in the 1910’s with its attendant dislocations of image, form and subject, he certainly makes elegant use of traditional poetic measures overall in the poem. But there is something pent-up about having to express oneself in such a strict poetic form that it is equivalent to having to be inside looking at the weather instead of experiencing it. Similarly, the eerie "time will not relent" finale reflects a point of view that traditional poetic forms are awkward and archaic in modern practice ("the [photographic] shutters of the metropoles").

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