Tag Archives: Esthétique du Mal

Wallace Stevens: Calm at the End of the Line

I have started reading Stephen Adams’ “Poetic Designs” and he offers this observation on page 22 of how: “Wallace Stevens’ image of flickering lights on the water dying down to shadow is hauntingly captured in this unusual rhythmic pattern”, which Adams had scanned out as this:
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As a calm darkens among water-lights
This peaked my interest enough to go see how this line from the famous “Sunday Morning” poem was connected to the rest of the lines that are attached to it:
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
To be honest, I had a lot of trouble catching Adams’ scanning of the third line until I read it straight as an unbroken sentence with all the punctuation taken out:
She dreams a little and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
Although this answered about Adams scanning, it begged another question: what is up with seemingly unnecessary punctuation and how did this punctuation affect how I read the lines?
If you look at the first line by itself: She dreams a little, and she feels the dark What catches me about it is how the comma in the middle breaks the line into two breath pauses and that you are out of breath when you get to “dark” at the end of the line.
Which is a little strange because it is obvious that this word is attached as an adjective to the word “encroachment” that begins the following line. Looking at the this line alone:
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
The comma at the end of it forces a breath pause, which again is surprising because the “as” which starts the next line puts the verbs (“feels” and “darkens”) it is between in the same time frame. This leads into the problem of solving how to connect these two end paused lines that are grammatically together:
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
The way I bypass this is by simply sliding from “dark” onto “encroachment” and riding my breath to the end of this word where it peters out and I pick it up again on the “of” until the end of the line.
Since “dark” can be a noun as well as an adjective, and the phrasing “the dark” is usually how we often frame this word when using it as a noun, my mind takes a bit pause to gather in the fact that it really is being used as an adjective to a noun in the next line.
All of this makes me scan the last line as a straight iambic pattern, although I might also consider a different pattern at the end over “water-lights.” Now that I’ve got that worked out, there still is the question of why the punctuation in the first place?
Alex Ross in his article “The Invisible Priest” made the observation that Stevens used a lot of monosyllables and that monosyllables are something that “much classic oratory relies on.”
Although oratory might now be a lost art, especially with our political class, it does thrive in the world of televangelists who regularly are on TV and if you’ve ever taken the time to listen to some of them it’s easy to understand that forced breath pauses are very important to them because it lets them build up cadences and tensions that are used to capture and enrapture the audience.
Ross’ article does quote two famous political orations, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, and John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” and if you listen to them you’ll see how they also used forced pauses to carry off their lines.
FDR forces a pause after “belief” and then takes a pretty long pause at the end of the “is” which I thinks reads like this if it was to be put into a poetical form:
Let me assert my firm belief,
that the only thing we have to fear is,
fear itself.
And JFK makes a sharp clean cut after “not”:
And so my fellow Americans, ask not,
what your country can do for you
What I find interesting is not only how both speakers forced unnatural breath pauses into the lines, but that they both made them so deep and completely that might could argue they went beyond the “end stopping” we find in poetry and that they actually more “dead-stopped” the breaks to add weight and give rhetorical flourish to the thought. By “dead-stopping” I mean the totally ungrammatically incorrect stopping of motion of the lines for effect.
Of course, if you want to break the these two orations into lines of poetry like I did above, all you have is the punctuation to note where the speaker pauses and I think it is a pretty clear that once you take a closer look at Wallace Stevens’s poems you understand that he used phrasing and punctuation to flavor the lines very much in the vein of how FDR and JFK put oratorical flourish in their famous quotes.
As stated, I found that when I took out the commas in the Stevens’s lines above that I could sail through the lines with nary a hitch but that when I read in the commas I had trouble navigating something which syntactically shouldn’t be a problem. If you straighten these three lines and put them into one line it is easier to see that there is no problem with the breathing  and you smoothly sail through them in one breath:
She dreams a little and she feels the dark encroachment of that old catastrophe as a calm darkens among water-lights.
Seeing how smooth this is as a one liner is, the only possible reason why the commas went into final production is that Stevens wanted to rupture the internal rhythm and break it into segments as any good orator is capable of doing. And oration needs the edge of language, complete pauses, to build rhetorical cadences on and off of.
Stanza XV of “Esthétique du Mal” is an excellent example of how Stevens went to lengths to achieve pausing at the end of his lines.
The greatest poverty is not to live
In a physical word, to feel that one’s desire
Is too difficult to tell from despair. Perhaps,
After death, the non-physical people, in paradise,
Itself non-physical, may, by chance, observe
The green corn gleaming and experience
The minor of what we feel. The adventurer
In humanity has not conceived of a race
Completely physical in a physical world.
The green corn gleams and the metaphysicals
Lie sprawling in majors of the August heat,
The rotund emotions, paradise unknown.
The opening line is garbled to mess up the perfectly normal statement “The greatest poverty is to not live” and by doing so Stevens forces an end pause that slides into the following line that wouldn’t be there with the use of normal syntax. Since you are already slight of breath because of the sliding needed to get into line two, using “to feel” instead of “and feel” necessitates a comma that facilitates a slight pause at the of this line at “desire” which makes you slide out of line two into line three where you run out of breath as you accent “is.”
The “Perhaps” thrown in at the end of line three needs a comma to stop it from naturally moving on to the preposition below in line four, the unneeded comma after “people” in this line runs you out of breath at the word “paradise,” and the whole dance of commas in line five makes your breath thud out at “observe.” Since this has already strained your breath, the alliteration in the following line runs you completely out by the end of line six.
The period in the middle of the line seven suddenly cuts your breath, and since you have to restart it right after with something that is grammatically perplexing you take a sliding pause at the end of line seven that glides into line eight, where you are out of breath at “humanity”. The shortness of breath this causes a paused slide into line nine where you are stretched out of breath in the first “physical” and the period at this line completely shuts you down.
The nonsensical plural noun of the adjective “metaphysical” in line ten is another grammar faux pas which knocks you so completely out that you simply pick up line eleven at its start which ends at a comma so that line twelve is picked up in a fresh breath as well.
I will say that Stevens “dead stopped” lines five and six and that he “calm-stopped” the rest of them to give them the edges of pauses to work his voicing through the lines, pauses which he is able to force into the enjambed lines because he wrote to lines to have the breathing impaired at the end of them. I find that this is something that he did a lot of and it is rare when he didn’t use this technique.
If you tweak this passage into making the grammar connect in a normal way without blocking it by lines or punctuaton, it shows how much Stevens gained in syntax by throwing all the pauses in:
The greatest poverty is not to live in
A physical word, to feel that one’s desire
Is too difficult to tell from despair. Perhaps
After death, the non-physical people in paradise,
Itself non-physical, may by chance observe
The green corn gleaming and experience
The minor of what we feel. The adventurer in
Humanity has not conceived of a race
Completely physical in a physical world.
The green corn gleams and metaphysicals
Lie sprawling in majors of the August heat,
The rotund emotions, paradise unknown.
This re-write makes the content of the passage a bit more clearer in your mind, but it also takes out the depth of thought that you think you see in the original lines, meaning that the words themselves really don’t carry the syntax of the passage, rather the punctuation camouflages the lack of it in the original. I guess you could read the original passage as being something that the speaker is extemporaneously extrapolating aloud about, which would make it like a soliloquy in stage play, which is still is a type of speech to an audience.
Since I only used snippets of the two political speeches above, let’s try to poeticize out a longer passage from Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech:
And so even though, we face the difficulties
of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.
It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream. That one day–
this nation will rise up —
live out the true meaning of its creed,
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal.”
It’s easy enough to see how MLK is breaking breath pauses into places that wouldn’t normally have them. He does the middle of the line comma caused end of line pause glide into the next line that I discussed above between the first two lines here. The natural grammatical flow in line four is broken a la Stevens and another forced pause breaks the sentence that spans lines four and five into two. King also replaced the expected “and” that you would naturally use to connect the thought expressed between the lines with a pause to add effect. And, of course, since King isn’t counting syllables like Stevens did, the structure is a much looser format.
I’m pretty sure now that Stevens thought of his poetry as something that he wrote as a oratory, but to buffer the idea a bit I will throw out some of Stevens’ lines  and ask you to try to read them with the waver of Martin Luther King’s, or any accomplished speaker’s, voice in their ear:
Who was the musician, fatly soft
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
If in the mind, he vanished, taking there
Of honest quilts, the eye of Crispin, hung
(“Jumbo”, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, “Chocorua to its Neighbor”, “The Comedian as the Letter C”)
John Serio says that Stevens’ poems  have “unexpected shifts in syntax that defy logic” but it is important to understand that the reason why he was defying logic was just as linguistic as it was philosophic because it allowed him to fit his voice into a oratory pattern. I have never studied rhetoric so I am unable to go on at length about what these linguistic strategies were, but from reading though this website I will throw out the terms hyperbaton, sentential adverb, asyndeton, polysyndeton and anacoluthon with much trepidation.
Serio’s point that “if it is the poetry of the subject this is foremost, “the true subject is not constant nor its development orderly”” is actually a double edged sword. For if the poet sees poetry as an extension of oration, then the language of poetry is bound to follow the messy truth about language as a discourse: we are always fracturing it when we speak, even after it is established. Anyone could go and perform the three speeches above and change the pauses that the original speakers used. Who knows, maybe even the speakers themselves would use different pauses if they were to re-give the speech.
Oration has many forms. The ones we most encounter in our modern daily lives now are political speeches, pep-talks, story telling, lectures, jokes, debates, soliloquies in plays etc.. as well as the many forms it has as a religious function. One has to wonder how many types of written oratory discourse there are in the Bible. And within in these many forms it has many different types of occasions to step up to, so it necessarily has many kinds of voices that it speaks with. The one thing that binds the many forms of oration together is they all address other people. Even as abstract as Stevens is, it is acutely obvious that he is actually addressing someone or some inanimate object in a lot of the poems even when he hasn’t thrown a person’s name in which he often does.
Singing is also a form of oration because it address an audience, music of course is a different thing than singing because it has a form it can’t escape, whereas oration is all about escaping the normal flow of language. I think seeing Stevens as someone who wrote poetic orations gives a plausible explanation to all the wide variety cadences he was to achieve because it gave him a wide platform to do so. And to tie in the what I’ve said in the paragraphs directly above, Stevens style lets us add in our own cadences as well.
 In fact, Stevens did himself add in different pauses when reading aloud.
Michael Schmidt in “Lives of the Poets” (pg. 630) claims that Stevens “incomparably repaired” the pentameter after Pound broke it because he was able to “integrate real images into a deep amazement” in this stanza from “The Idea of Order at Key West”:
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
As somebody who wants to write pentameter, I couldn’t wholeheartedly disagree more. There is a lot more rhetoric than poetry in these lines. They open with the asking of a rhetorical question and all the imagery that follows is there as rhetorical posturing to force the question on to the person it is being asked to. An exasperation (which is pretty clear in the video) runs through these lines which finally gets vented in the line that starts the following stanza which has an exclamation point, a rarity for Stevens:
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The whole effect this adds strikes me as being a very epistolary style of writing, A lot has been made about Stevens “no god” belief, but I haven’t seen much on line about  considering that a person probably has to go through a whole lot of religious stuff to come to this position, meaning that he had gone through a long negation process within a tradition that has always used oration as a means of promoting its beliefs. For the person who wrote “my direct interest is in telling the Archbishop of Canterbury to jump off the end of a dock,” the business of being anti-religious is somewhat like a religion.
Of course, not all of Stevens’ poems were about telling the Archbishop off, but  what all of them do have is the “oratory voice” that he wrote with. Sure, poets have and always will be oratory in the sense that they talk to people and expound on things with their words in poems, but the difference is that with other poets you get the sense that there are other people in the world, something that you don’t get with Stevens, even when he calls them aloud by name. Alex Ross noted that “his world is separate and immaculate” and the reason that is is because of the oration, he alone is at the podium, or on stage, or with a pen at his writing desk and we are at a far safe distance in the audience or at the postal address that he would have mailed to. Wouldn’t this be the exact definition of living abstractly?
This is the problem with Stevens poetry, this abstraction only lets him describe the world in abstract terms. He can’t show us anything in the world without having to tell us that he is showing it to us. The line that Stephen Adams used in his book is great example of this:
As a calm darkens among water-lights
This isn’t a description, it is a recounting. He isn’t showing us that there is calm because he can’t let us enter his world, rather he has to tell us that he is seeing the calm. And that gets in the way of the image. To rewrite it:
As calm darkens among the water-lights
Which takes out the oratory heft out of the line and quiets the tone to match the idea being presented by it, and so lets us see and feel the image for ourselves, thus deepening the poet’s image for us.
I do find it quite enjoyable to read Stevens now as if I’m on stage performing him in some way, but the problem I have when doing it is that I never get intellectually engaged enough by his poetry to want to do it for a long time. Whatever knowledge that I glean from him tends to strike me as being typically shallow, probably because I always get the sense that he is just riffing about something. Which is why I don’t find the epistemology arguments about him very compelling. Rather than seeing “The Snowman” as some sort of philosophical poem, I tend to it to see it as a ‘telling off of the Archbishop’ reaction against Emily Dickinson’s “It sifts from Leaden Sieves.” The whole theme, tenor and imagery of it seems to be a homily upon the extended religious metaphor Dickinson made by not naming the snow. So, to my mind this isn’t insight, it is only a reaction.
And this question of his intellect seems one that a lot of people share, I mean, isn’t that what you are really saying when you just read Stevens for the sound?