Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Jar in Tennessee

After reading the first poem I ever read by Wallace Stevens, a strange thing happened. For several months afterward, whenever I heard the word “jar” or “Tennessee,” I would think of this poem. In fact, it still happens on occasion. This is an interesting phenomenon often characteristic of great poetry which is capable of eliciting an instant feeling or recollection by just the hearing of a word or phrase. The poem, entitled, "Anecdote of the Jar", appears simple on a first reading, but has so much to offer on various planes of thought.

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around; no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

(originally appeared in the 1919 issue of Poetry Magazine and later was published in his Collected Poems, copyright 1923, 1951, 1954, by Wallace Stevens.)

The poem has its roots in John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn. On one level, Anecdote is a commentary and comparison of Stevens’ own roots, a kind of critique of the poet’s homeland identification versus what one might have found in England, historically speaking. John Keats, as sort of figurehead for quintessential british Romantic poetry, had his London and the high society art-critic world, the sonnet, strict meter, etc. Contrastingly, the American contemporary poet (at the time Stevens wrote the poem) had Tennessee (a slovenly wilderness), a model for a much different art and cultural milieu. From a strictly historical perspective, this might be considered a slightly hyperbolic statement. However, Stevens is trying to convey a feeling. The poem seems to have purposeful “weakness” in rhythm (note the awkward flow in v3), as well as an unorthodox meter (the poem starts out with flawless iambic tetrameter, then has only two beats in v4 and variations after that). Add to this the striking contrast of a polished poem like Keats’s Urn compared to a poem about a jar in rural Tennessee, of all places. Helen Vendler, in her excellent book on Stevens, Words Chosen out of Desire, (I highly recommend reading this book) puts it this way:

"The American poet cannot, Stevens implies, adopt Keats’s serenely purposive use of matching stanzas drawn from sonnet practice. Stevens was entirely capable, as we know from Sunday Morning, of writing memorable Keatsian lines and stanzas; so we must read the Anecdote of the Jar as a palinode—a vow to stop imitating Keats and seek a native American language that will not take the wild out of the wilderness. The humor of the ridiculous stanzas and the equally ridiculous scenario of the Anecdote does not eliminate an awkward sublimity in the jar; or does it eliminate the rueful pathos of the closing lines."

Note how the poem speaks on so many different levels. You can imagine yourself being the jar. You find yourself on a hill surrounded by the great outdoors. Suddenly, the wilderness rises up, transforms. Something opens up for you, this little glass jar of self is now surrounded by an entire dominion. (As an aside, a friend of Stevens has said that the word “dominion” was intended by the poet as a double entendre for the famous “Dominion Wide Mouth Jar.” )

The indication of the jar being placed in the Tennessee wilderness refers to the complexity of human feeling in the natural world. A wild wilderness rises up. The jar is fixed, gray and bare. And what becomes of it? “It did not give of bird or bush, like nothing else in Tennessee.” The all important “it” must refer to the jar, and the insinuation is, that even in the throes of compelling and perhaps unavoidable natural events (hurricanes, cancer, even car accidents), still we can find a way to rise above and overcome what appears to be alien and unalterable circumstances. To “not give…” but continue to strive and be "a jar upon the ground."

Wallace Stevens (1879-1959) published his first series of poems in 1914 in Poetry Magazine at the age of 35. He published his first book of poems a full nine years later. Hart Crane, the famous contemporary poet of the period, said of Stevens, “There is a man whose work makes most of the rest of us quail." Indeed, Stevens was widely acknowledged in the 1940’s as one of the greatest American living poets of the period. His work became even more popular after his death, in 1955, and he is currently widely appreciated as one of America’s premier "poet of ideas" in the modern era. His poetry deals with themes of imagination, consciousness, the pathos of life, and the dynamic forces and influences of the mind. Stevens, through his poetry, has put together a sensual and imaginative worldview that is ultimately concerned with finding meaning and order in the universe.

Nowhere are these themes more apparent than in the late (chronologically) and fascinating poem, "Local Objects", where the poet reveals the depths of his own loneliness and inadequacies along with a longing for solace and ultimate meaning. Stevens was a man that never settled down, both emotionally and geographically. He had an early falling out with his father who disapproved of his marriage; they never spoke one word to each other after the quarrel. His marriage was unhappy and failed. In his poetry, he often speaks of resignation in referring to his shattered and lonely life. In "Local Objects", we see in the very first line a remarkable use of an abstract and uncommon word, “foyer." This is a word which Stevens masterfully uses to connote a space or locality where things ought to be peacefully and harmonically situated. But for Stevens, they never were. The poem spins an intriguing web of cognitive imagination around this one word.

Local Objects

He knew that he was a spirit without a foyer
And that, in his knowledge, local objects become
More precious than the most precious objects of home:

The local objects of a world without a foyer,
Without a remembered past, a present past,
Or a present future, hoped for in present hope,

Objects not present as a matter of course
On the dark side of the heavens or the bright,
In that sphere with so few objects of its own.

Little existed for him but the few things
For which a fresh name always occurred, as if
He wanted to make them, keep them from perishing,

The few things, the objects of insight, the integrations
Of feeling, the things that came of their own accord,
Because he desired without knowing quite what,

That were the moments of the classic, the beautiful.
These were that serene he had always been approaching
As toward an absolute foyer beyond romance.

Can you feel the sense of loneliness and longing? Can you sense a deep desire to have this foyer filled with beautiful, meaningful objects? The poem is wholly autobiographical and deals with objects as if they were not only things, but moments, snapshots of experience. Vendler describes this unusual transformation in terms of turning a spatial object into a temporal event: “it is for Stevens the axis on which his poetry turns. The world presented itself to him in visual terms; and yet poetry turned the visual object into the temporal integration, into that musical score for experience that we call a poem.”

Even though the poem has a somber tone, it is also clear Stevens takes delight in his poem. He is saying that these local objects are to be desired and understood. Perhaps not fully attainable, especially for him, but desired and appreciated. A foyer must be filled with spirit, with a past, a present and a future, with signs of our having visited and spent time there, even if only in the mind's eye.

So, what kind of objects is Stevens talking about in "Local Objects?" He doesn’t offer specific examples, but one might imagine rivers, trees, farmhouses, an attic, a rope swing, a local pub, a path, a hill. “Moments of the classic, the beautiful.” Stevens is talking about how important these objects become, especially for a man who had no “remembered past,” who was a “spirit without a foyer.” The poem speaks of the desire to find peaceful points of rest and identification. “These were that serene he [i.e. Wallace] had always been approaching as toward an absolute foyer beyond romance.” .

To read more of Wallace Stevens poems, click here
To read more about Wallace Stevens’ life, and what other colleague said about him, click here
To order (Amazon) a wonderful book about Stevens’ poetry, explicating many poems and discussing his ideas, click here:
Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire, by Helen Vendler, 1984, University of Tennessee Press


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