Sunday, January 4, 2015

Review of Poems of Wallace Stevens

Another wonderful, mostly opaque, poet. But I thoroughly enjoyed what I could understand. Stevens has a very strong philosophical bent, and his overtly humanistic stance celebrates in such bold and beautiful language the gift that every moment of life is with or without an eternal assurance. He wrote in his book Opus Posthumous, “After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption." Many people with religious sensibilities may wonder how one can appreciate life at all, or have any hope or peace, after the idea of God’s existence is no longer a plausible credence. This is a fair question, because it is really a question of how another person thinks and feels, which we should all be curious about. Poetry is the perfect medium with which to answer, and Stevens is a great poet for it. His poem Sunday Morning is a great start. The subject is a woman who chooses to skip a Sunday morning church service:

…Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun…
…Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
…There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
…that has endured
As April’s green endures… (excerpts from Sunday Morning)

Surely, to some, this might be as unsatisfying an answer as the response given by astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson to an inquirer who asked about his belief regarding an afterlife: “I would request that my body in death be buried not cremated, so that the energy content contained within it gets returned to the earth, so that flora and fauna can dine upon it, just as I have dined upon flora and fauna during my lifetime.” That won’t communicate well to some who don’t have the same emotional responses, backgrounds moods, understandings, and associations that Neil has invested in such a sentiment. So, one gets a poet to translate. A good poet—with their skills of language-bending, image-amplification, and feeling-conduction—communicates emotional content beyond mere factuality in a way that can send frequencies of information and sensation across worlds and epochs to reach a person otherwise isolated from another’s view and feeling, and who may not share similar constitutions or lifestyles.

There is an undercurrent of heavy-sighed romanticism in many of the poems, which to me comes across as far too maudlin and melodramatic; but the way he wrestles with philosophical ideas like the tension between appearance and reality, and description versus impression, piqued my interest the most. He looks a matter in the eyeballs, and calls back to the rest of us convention-lubbers what we might see if we were brave enough to look directly at death, suffering, boredom, danger, beauty, and existence as it is. I truly wish I could understand more of Stevens’ poems than I did. Sometimes a line would emerge like a piece of clear sky from out a hole in a complex and clouded poem, and a message would be delivered. There are secrets there.

My favorite poems, and great ones for newbs to start with, are:

Sunday Morning (“Death is the mother of beauty.”)
Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Blackbird
Evening Without Angels
A Postcard From the Volcano
The Poems of Our Climate
Dutch Graves In Bucks County
Anecdote of the Jar

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