As we continue our April celebration of National Poetry Month, here’s a poem by Wallace Stevens. Like Keats, Stevens was another poet I liked as a teenager, and like Keats I read him for his language without having a substantial grasp on what exactly he was getting at yet.
“Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” is however fairly straightforward, even if it also exhibits several tactics of early 20th century Modernist verse. For example, it’s crazy for color adjectives. The poem has 66 words, and 10 of them are colors. I don’t know how many other readers* of this poetic era notice this like I do, but that sort of thing was widespread. The Imagists who helped initiate English language Modernism often favored visual images, and color is one way to add vividness without resorting to worn-out metaphors. And painters in England and France had already been using a brighter and more colorful palette for some time, probably influencing the poets.
It’s a subtle point I noticed today after working with this poem, but when Stevens launches into his litany of colors that he imagines would make a more exciting gown, he moves like a color wheel. He starts with green and ends with a robe of yellow and blue—pigments that if mixed, would make green again. Is this an inside painter’s joke?
Re-justifying my teenage love of Stevens, I found this poem, though free verse, does have its word-music. Besides that circling riff on gown-colors, there’s the near rhyme of the litany’s end-word “rings” with the concluding “strange” at the end of the list, and the lovely chime of “old sailor” with “here and there.”
It wouldn’t be a Stevens poem without an odd word or two. “Ceintures,” a French based fashion word which I may have mangled a bit in performance** is a beaded belt. “Periwinkles” does at least double-duty besides being an unusual word choice. In the context of the “old sailor” it may be referring to a small sea-snail, but it’s also a violet-hued flower that has given its name to a color.
Couture, rings, ceintures, strange. Wallace Stevens waits to slip into something more comfortable. The long gray trousers could conceal lace socks.
The point of Stevens’ poem is the better necessity of imagination and of fancy, set against a fixed early bedtime and bland nightwear. I do think that original color litany is something of a forced march, as if the poems speaker may be trying to break out of that mundane scene in a rote manner, as if reciting colors would bring imaginative dreams as counting sheep might bring slumber. Then we meet up with the drunken sailor who can’t be bothered changing into nightwear: sleeping, dreaming with his boots on of that any-sorts snails and great apes, and chasing, and even more, catching tigers, unafraid.
I wrote this on guitar but decided to play this as a piano trio with drums and bass. The piano is mostly a Fender Rhodes, an early successful electric piano that used amplified tuned-tines rather than strings. It was common back in my youth for these instruments to be run through guitar amplifiers, picking up some grit from an overloaded circuit, and often reverb and tremolo from the amp too. If you listen carefully in the minor chord part of the piece, the pianist is doubling the piano part with another electric piano, which brings in a bit of an amplified string sound to the more bell-like Rhodes. That was my idea to make the major chord and minor chord sections contrast just a bit more.
You can hear my performance of Wallace Stevens’ “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” with the player gadget below. The text of the poem is here if you’d like to read along.
*It was something that the Spectra hoaxers of 1916 picked up on when they sought to parody poetic Modernists, speckling their verse with lots of color adjectives. The name of their hoax movement could even be read as referencing that color fixation.
**I often have trouble with pronunciation of French words, something that I sometimes wonder is similar to those with stuttering or other speech impediments. Well, assuming you don’t know the word, it may be enough for its effect in the poem to just sound exotic!