Oct. 3, 2010: CONTRARY THEMES (II) (Wallace Stevens)

And how did you all celebrate Wallace Stevens’ birthday on Saturday? I usually spend it adjusting insurance claims, but yesterday I watched college football instead (rooting, of course, for Harvard, his alma mater). We just had a surprise treat of some Wallace Stevens thanks to Ellen’s reply, but I can’t resist reading a little more given the anniversary. By the way he was born in 1879 in Reading not Massachusetts, but Pennsylvania. I’ve always found it funny how he was a lawyer and insurance executive for his entire life, and yet an award-winning poet all along (well, he published his first collection at 43, so maybe not ALL along). Not just any poet, but one of the wackiest of the very wacky 20th century. And I never knew about how he reconciled those things until I cribbed this from the Writer’s Almanac website:

He claimed that “poetry and surety claims aren’t as unlikely a combination as they may seem. There’s nothing perfunctory about them for each case is different.” Each day, he walked the two miles between his office and home, where he lived with his wife and daughter. During these walks to and from work, he composed poetry. He would only let people walk with him if they didn’t talk.

It’s funny–his poems are pretty cerebral, and of course they never really make sense, at least on a first read, and yet when I go back to the ones I really love–The Rabbit as King of the Ghosts, the Snow Man, The Man with the Blue Guitar, 13 Ways…–I’m always reminded of how moving they are. There’s something grand in his poems, but it’s something sought, something reached for. I guess I find that irreducibly human. I had never really read or noticed this one before, but the observation applies equally.

I have nothing to say about the following except to remind us that an Alexandrine is a six-footed iambic line. Be well, do good work, and keep in touch. -ed.

Contrary Theses (II)

One chemical afternoon in mid-autumn,

When the grand mechanics of earth and sky were near;

Even the leaves of the locust were yellow then,

He walked with his year-old boy on his shoulder.

The sun shone and the dog barked and the baby slept.

The leaves, even of the locust, the green locust.

He wanted and looked for a final refuge,

From the bombastic intimations of winter

And the martyrs a la mode. He walked toward

An abstract, of which the sun, the dog, the boy

Were contours. Cold was chilling the wide-moving swans.

The leaves were falling like notes from a piano.

The abstract was suddenly there and gone again.

The negroes were playing football in the park.

The abstract that he saw, like the locust-leaves, plainly:

The premiss from which all things were conclusions,

The noble, Alexandrine verve. The flies

And the bees still sought the chrysanthemums’ odor.

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