I’m sure many readers here are enjoying spring or its imminent promise. In Minnesota, not so much. It was 4⁰ F. when I awoke this morning, and everyone is already flinching for another snow-storm due this weekend. So let’s have one more winter piece, this time by Wallace Stevens from his landmark collection Harmonium, “The Snow Man.”
Not the first sign of spring.
Over at the Interesting Literature blog, Oliver Tearle reminded me that Stevens was influenced by John Keats as a younger man, and in his reading of “The Snow Man” he has Stevens’ poem as a statement of his break from that youthful connection. Keats, and the romantics of his sort, were great fans of the pathetic fallacy and have no shame in ascribing to any landscape or natural object feelings and personality that the poet can address.
Even if we think that talking Keatsian nightingales bearing messages is an absurdly old-fashioned trope, we’ve never left the idea that weather or a landscape is supposed to mean something. Book, movie, poem, song video—if we’re given a bleak winter picture we’re usually led to understand that death, suffering, despair, scarcity, loss, or the like is what’s being conveyed.
In “The Snow Man” Stevens describes a winter scene. Snow-trimmed trees in an icy wind which is carrying refracting snow crystals. Stevens’ conclusion from this is ironically—well there’s no other way to put it—cold. We’re not supposed to draw any meaning from it, other than meaning-free is-ness.
It just so happens, that Keats wrote his own short lyric poem about winter “In the Drear Nighted December.” And yes, there’s immediately an emotion attributed to a bare-branched tree wind-whipped by sleet and then to a frozen brook in Keats’ poem.
What’s that emotion? Happy.
Woah—why happy? Because Keats has these landscape features also in a state of simple is-ness. They reckon no loss from summer, know no delay ‘till spring.
Keats Buddhist koan is “to feel and not to feel it.” Stevens, “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” These two poems approach in seeming opposition, but merge in agreement.
A Modernist sculpture of American poet Wallace Stevens
One other thing in “The Snow Man” to note: where’s the titular snow man? Perhaps including one in Stevens’ scene would add a connotation of jolly play, or the impermanence of artistic making—but if that’s so, why call the poem “The Snow Man?” Could it be a mind trick, the equivalent of instructing “Imagine a winter scene, but I don’t want you to see a snow man in your imagination. Make very sure you don’t even think a little bit about a jaunty snow man or an elaborately constructed one now melting…?” Tearle’s solution is that the snow man is the speaker of the poem, the “nothing that is” there, the cold observer that we don’t see because we’re looking from his cindered eyes.
Fifty years ago I picked up a copy of The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens in a college bookstore. It was a paperback edition, and looking at the price, I can see why I might have selected it. The cover says $1.45 if you can believe that. Cheaper than a record album, and chock full of more strange words and mysterious lyrics than any batch of LPs that might sit in a dorm room in 1969.
I’d probably run into a few Stevens poems before then, but my actual teenaged poetry bookshelf had no other entire volumes from Stevens early 20th century Modernist cohort yet. After reading it, I immediately set out to write poems that looked and sounded like Stevens for the next few months.
That edition started off by reprinting Stevens’ first collection, Harmonium, from 1923. And now after a pause of decades, works from that year are now in the public domain and available for presentation.*
So now 2019 is here, and 1923 is freed for reuse. By sad coincidence, I learned last night that David Shove who organized a long-running and well-loved monthly poetry reading series had died on New Years Eve. And so that evening I started reading Harmonium, until I finished it this morning, thinking of David Shove and his dry humored manner as he would introduce poet after poet to an audience, and how I’ll miss that. The obituary said that the monthly reading that would have happened tonight may still go on, but to my shame, I couldn’t face a crowd of people tonight.
I learned last night that David Shove who organized a long-running and well-loved monthly poetry reading series had died on New Years Eve.
Unlike crowds, with art you can allow your feelings to shake and settle into a form. It’s a smaller group, just yourself and sound. So I plugged in my Telecaster and started working on a droning riff to accompany the last poem in Stevens’ Harmonium, “To the Roaring Wind.” Supporting the guitar I played—well, why not—harmonium, double-tracked cleanly and through a fuzz-box. I then improvised the vocal tracks using Stevens’ words as best as my voice would allow today while thinking of David and those readings.
If souls hover around, David Shove and those that sound with him, this is for them. The rest of you with mice and screen-fingers can hear “The Roaring Wind” using the player below.
*A somewhat complicated story, but in the U.S. a law was enacted in 1998 that changed the term of copyright long after the works were created. For a few commercial properties this extended their revenue potential, but for a large portion of poetry and other non-commercial work it only helped make them largely unavailable for re-vitalization.
Our last poet, Margaret Widdemer seems to have done most of her adventuring in fantasy, but today’s poet, Elinor Wylie—well, she caused quite a scandal in the pre-WWI years. Widdemer may have dreamed of cavaliers and wearing leather in a traveling Romany wagon; but for Wylie, there’s biography! Elinor Wylie grew up in Washington D. C. the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt’s Solicitor General and infatuated with the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, which, as we’ll see, could be a bit of a leading indicator. Elinor Wylie started right off by eloping with another would-be poet, Phillip Hichborn, shortly after high school. They had a child, but the match was not good, and the brief accounts I’ve read report the husband as “unstable” and “abusive.” Next, her story gets weirder. An older millionaire lawyer Horace Wylie, also married, began to, as Wikipedia puts it, stalk her. Again, I lack details, but he apparently followed her about, taking care to show up often wherever she was. I’m not familiar with dating etiquette for married people in the pre-WWI era, but this sort of thing began to attract notice.
Bad marriage. Stalker. What to do, Elinor? She ditched her husband and fled to England with the stalker. Now we have full-fledged scandal. They hid out in jolly old for a while under assumed names. President Taft reportedly made efforts to bring her back. Eventually Horace Wiley got a divorce, Elinor’s first husband Phillip committed suicide, and WWI broke out in Europe. The run-away couple returned to the US, got married, and settled in New England where according to one biographer “Shopkeepers boycotted her, and she could buy no food. People began to turn away from her in the street. [The Wylies] were ignored in the worst way possible.”
Back in the US, the marriage to Horace Wylie soured too. She was to have one more marriage, this time to Stephen Vincent Benet’s brother William Rose Benet. They eventually separated, but Benet continued to promote her literary efforts, until in 1928 at the age of 43, the writer, still writing under the name of Elinor Wylie, died instantly of a stroke at Benet’s home while looking over pre-publication galleys of her last poetry collection with him.
Elinor Wylie, clean bones crying in the flesh
All that folly of love in one short life! Did she manage to produce any poetry worth noting? From a look at her first collection, written largely while she was still married to Horace, I found her poetry more immediately attractive when read in the present day than Widdemer’s work. It’s very concise, and often considerably musical. You can see the influence of Shelley in the intense feelings and in some of the elaborate word choices. During her lifetime, the musicality of her verse (like Teasdale, like Millay) was noticed and admired, but like all three of these skilled singers on the page, High Modernism eventually discounted that element of poetry and looked for grander, more elaborately worked-out themes. And, to be frank, it also seemed to be looking for men. Mid-Century Modernism was a boys club.
Unlike Shelley, when time and death wore out the notoriety, the poet was more or less forgotten.
“Full Moon” shows Wylie’s concise intensity well, and it shows a flair for visceral imagery too. In search of music or from love of obscure words, Wylie crafts lines that sound great even if one must keep a dictionary window open to grasp their gist. The poem as vocabulary test, a bit Wallace Stevens-like. Lines such as “My bands of silk and miniver momentarily grew heavier” and “Harlequin in lozenges” start the first two stanzas. Miniver? I think only of a Greer Garson movie. It’s a fur coat lining. Harlequin, a stock pantomime clown/fool character sure, but what’s with the lozenges, is the harlequin mute because of a sore throat? Nope, lozenges also means diamond shaped, the traditional harlequin costume has a diamond pattern.
Harmoniums without Wallace Stevens: Nico and Elinor Wylie
What’s it all mean? It’s not hard for me to see Wylie’s biography in this, the experience of being seen as the bad woman, shunned and condemned. I made a mistake in performing this, singing “carnal mask” instead of the more perfect rhyme Wylie wrote: “carnal mesh.” I noted it right off and tried to sing the verse again, correctly, but I ended up liking the mistake and left it in. Musically, a Nico solo record from the mid-20th Century vibe came out, as I could hear Nico singing something like “harlequin in lozenges” and getting away with it a half-century after Wylie. To hear my performance of Elinor Wylie’s “New Moon” use the player below.
I was reminded of this poem, and Wallace Stevens in general, while writing about the 20 most anthologized modern American poems recently. It’s odd that I needed to be reminded of Stevens. His poems were always present in the anthologies of my school years, back in the last century, along with Frost (who I disliked when I was young), William Carlos Williams (who I didn’t understand), and Eliot (who I liked for his verbal music without much understanding). There must have been something about Stevens that attracted me, as when I recall the poems I wrote in my youth, they more often looked and sounded like Stevens than those others. There’s a wit of a very contrarian kind that’s all over Stevens’ work, so I’m sure that was a big part of it, but I think it was also Stevens’ verbal music that pulled me in, and unlike Eliot’s, I (subconsciously) imitated Stevens.
I later read that Stevens walked to his famously conventional job as an insurance executive every day, and composed his poems in his head as he walked. This makes sense, as I did the same thing, with the two-footed meter of walking informing the rhythm from the soles of the feet up, rather than from the head down. Another thing about writing while walking: the music of that rhythm carries you into a more hypnotic and subconscious space were lines that sound good and fit to the beat are carried and held into memory more than carefully considered phrases that one would compose at the keyboard or with thoughtful pen in hand—and that same flow can knit together the unlike before thought can reject it.
If you take Stevens’ particular perverse wit, and meld it with composition of poems while walking, you have the recipe for a Wallace Stevens poem like this one.
The title of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” has that impish quality. It seems to be light-hearted. Who’s his consort, the Dairy Queen? Is his uncle the King of Burgers? Did he know Prince? Queen Be? Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Gelato. And the poem starts off as if we are in a variation of the nursery rhyme “Old King Cole, he was a merry old soul” by calling for the strongest man to crank the ice cream maker.
A digression: do 21st Century people even know what an ice-cream maker is? It’s a bucket, no larger than one used to mop the floor, filled with ice that surrounds a smaller metal canister with a hand-crank-driven paddle screwed into the top. Salt is poured onto the ice, melting it so that it can get the canister colder than zero centigrade, as the crank is turned to churn the mixture of sugar and cream. As the process continues, the contents of the canister thickens and the force needed to turn the paddle increases. Even with a strong man cranking, the resulting ice cream will be softer than the concrete brick of modern ice cream, as that is a creature of refrigeration unknown in Stevens’ youth; but the cool, rich, sweet taste would also be all the rarer then too.
“Call the roller of big cigars, the muscular one” churning that 2 gallon one would take a mighty man
So back to the poem. We have the strong cigar-maker man churning, amidst young, common, unmarried women and boys bringing flowers. The resulting ice cream demonstrates Stevens comically expanded vocabulary, it’s “concupiscent,” lustfully good! Freud may have famously insisted that “a cigar is sometimes just a cigar,” but a multitude of Blues metaphors contemporary to Stevens would agree, this is a lusty scene.
And the title reappears. Pleasure, broadly drawn, is the ruler of all!
So far Stevens has only been perverse in the weird “Old King Cole” language of the revelry, capped off with a word that most of us can’t even pronounce, much less spell or define.
Bang! Into the next stanza. I had always thought “dresser of deal” was flowery poetic diction for “we need to deal with” the situation in this next scene, but it’s more of Stevens’ vocabulary quiz. “Deal” is an archaic term for cheap pine wood. The exquisite detail of the missing drawer pulls, so much like the shabby second-hand dressers of the bedrooms of my pre-IKEA youth, yields to the fullness of the scene: it’s a room with a dead body.
Digression again: my son bursts into the room where I am writing this. He has just heard a robocall barking “If you or your loved one is over 65, they have a 1 in 3 chance of falling. Don’t let that fall be their last. Press 1 to…” He’s laughing, and continues “…hear about our warning-thingy scam…”
I follow on with my additions “…and press 2 if you want him to die anyway since he’s not allowing you any screen time today….and 3 if you are hard-of-hearing and WOULD LIKE US TO REPEAT THIS MESSAGE LOUDER.”
Back to the solemn dead body, cold and dumb, being covered with a sheet from the dresser of deal that is poignantly too short to cover the feet. Stevens leaves the light on, we need to see this clearly. And the title returns, now a refrain, and in this new context, the ruler of all offers only fleeting pleasures that one strives for, passes through, and melts away. The poem ends.
Stevens arrives at the insurance company offices. He strolls in past the receptionist, arrives at his office. Warren G. Harding is President. He asks his secretary to take this dictation. Obedient to her accustomed role, she folds back the steno pad, pencil in hand. Did she care for his poetry that she transcribed? That would be immaterial, she has only to listen.
Strolling Wallace Stevens in the 1920s. Cane in one hand, thesaurus in the other?
Two scenes. Two passing stations on a walk perhaps, or a flight of memories as lines emerge along steps. Only one more perversity to note, a puzzling line that looks like a typo: “Let be be finale of seem.” Let the steps the author is taking when he wrote this be our guide. One stride: “Let be”, then a double-time step: “be finale,” another step: “of seem.” I had never figured this line out, but someone on the Internet named Daniel E. Burke pointed me to this letter Stevens wrote in 1939. If Stevens had caught a crack in the sidewalk causing a hitch in his step, the line might have been more clearly composed as “Let being be the finale of seem,” but the Hartford sidewalks were too-well maintained, and Stevens never cared to be understood anyway, only listened to.
I had meant to write more about the music I composed for this one, but I’ve run way too long again. I wanted prominent drums to represent the flow of time, a cello to represent the melancholy death thread and a jaunty acoustic guitar part representing the swiving partiers of the first part. Assessing the performance I first thought I should redo or remix it to keep the cello and the guitar to their respective stanzas, but then I rethought that too. Shouldn’t they both be present in each scene to give the flavor of Stevens’ perverse combination? To hear my performance of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” use the player below.