Friday, September 16, 2016

Stevens Textplication #31: Gubbinal

“Gubbinal,” from 1921, has always been one of my favorite of Stevens’ short poems, but until I sat down to write this I’d always assumed the title was an actual word. It turns out it’s not. In the spirit of the refrain, “have it your way,” expertly appropriated by Burger King as one of the 20th century’s most effective marketing slogans, let’s look at what we can make this coined word into.

The title may derive from the British dialectical term "gubbin" or "gubbins", which, no surprise, has three distinct meanings. It is a derogatory term denoting simpleton or country bumpkin. This makes some sense in that the poem at some level is complaining about the understanding of its readers. The term could also refer to gadgetry, so the poem would be "like a gadget." This makes sense too, in that the reader feels subjected to a Mobius strip of repetition that doesn't seem to mean anything concrete. "Gubbins" can also refer to fish parings or refuse, more broadly scraps or bits and pieces. Adding -al to this sense of gubbin seems to this poet a fine way to incorporate lines and fragments lying around unused into an invented poetic form, in this case something resembling the mournful French villanelle, where the 2nd and 3rd line of the first stanza are alternately repeated at the end of subsequent stanzas. Or, all arcane etymological research aside, "gubbinal" could "simply" be a nonsense word—Stevens was no stranger to making sounds into words.

The title could very easily mean any or none of these things, as we shall see. It's a testament to the poetic way information is offered and withheld in it that we truly have to use our own leaps of imagination to interpret it. This is a quality that intrigues with many of Stevens' poems, but this one in particular seems to be about that. Here's the poem:

That strange flower, the sun,
Is just what you say.
Have it your way.

The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.

That tuft of jungle feathers,
That animal eye,
Is just what you say.

That savage of fire,
That seed,
Have it your way.

The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.

What gives the poem its particular cloying quality is how the narrator offers bold, unusual and challenging metaphors for the sun (“that strange flower,” “that tuft of jungle feathers,” “that animal eye”, “that savage of fire,” “that seed”), and immediately foists them off for interpretation onto the reader, concluding they are just what “you” say they are. In between he repeats a seemingly unconnected thought, “The world is ugly, and the people are sad.” So this unnamed “you” who must contend with exotic poetic metaphor must also face a blanket abstraction that the world and its people (all that we know) are in dismal shape. Add in the pervasive repetition and the reader gets the feeling of being hypnotized by ambiguity.

But don’t worry. You can “have it your way,” like a giant, sickening Whopper. As if to seal its hermetic obscurity, the poem does not resolve into the larger statement about belief, reality and/or the imagination that are hinted at. Such implications are truly left to the reader to ponder.

On the one hand, the rich metaphors show the interpretive possibilities for the commonest objects (in this case the sun, perhaps the most common object of all). On the other, the metaphors are only as insightful as the eyes of the beholder. If one can't imagine the sun as an "animal eye", for example, one is indeed not only outside the meaning of the poem, but lacking in the mythic intelligence that can use known things as correspondences to inquire about what is unknown, the ultimate nature of reality.

A simpleton, or gubbin, would not see how the eyes of a tiger could be peering from the sun. Or perhaps only a gubbin would, as the prevailing religion of scientific materialism has foreclosed the possibility for respectable thinkers to seriously entertain such fantasies. Without engaging with the person on the other end of his words, the poet seems to be throwing up his hands (or is it quill?) at the possibility of a common understanding. "The world is ugly, and the people are sad" is all one can say, like "how was your weekend?" or "times are hard." It might as well relate to the poet—a mass of humanity that has no comprehension of his beautiful poem—as to the reader—they are missing out on the opportunity to rise above the limitations of earthly life to perceive a meta-reality through the powers of the imagination.

Yet the poet is grafting his perception directly onto theirs. This is where the second sense of the word "gubbin", as a poetic gadget or contrivance, might come into play. "Have it your way" is the inverse of "you can never see it from my perspective." And "[it] is just what you say" is of course the opposite of "I'm telling you the way it is." The poet accedes to the reader as master of reality, free to make of the poem anything they want, but the reader still must accept the poet's reality of the sun as all manner of chimerical figures. It is a dance, in other words, where the refrain is a general opinion that, because it is unargued perhaps, is the only agreed-upon thing: "the world is ugly, and the people are sad." And, of course, the poet is the one playing the harmonium (the title, not coincidentally, of Stevens' first volume of poetry).

To truly become a poet, however, one must leave that stage of approval and agreement and seek a solitary path. And this is where the third sense of "gubbin" comes in. Scraps of lines where he has described the sun in all kinds of uncanny ways will, if enough will and faith is put into them, harmonize with scraps of overheard conversation (like "have it your ..." and "the world is ..."), things from the mundane human realm that have floated up into the poetic aethers. The poet collects them all to make some kind of music of them. There is no need for ultimate meaning. The poem speaks for itself. It is whatever you want it to be. And the you is no longer outside of the poet, but within.

As we mull through these trajectories of meanings, a sense of freedom is slowly unveiled. The freedom of the poet from the outside is no longer something to be pitied but celebrated. What the poet has—however elliptical, uncooperative or nonsensical—is of such a high degree of perception and expression that others need to—and will—seek it out.

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