Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium

After Frost’s North of Boston, my Mayterm poetry class moved on to Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium. If the former was a book for which it was easy to identify the underlying structure and its implications (though the significance of those implications are by no means simplistic; one can have organization without giving up nuance), then for the latter it is almost impossible. For a book called Harmonium, there is little in it that appears harmonious, on the general or specific level. The collection is at first glance a cacophonous jumble of metaphysical ramblings and random sensory impressions, but this is primarily because the individual poems are difficult to understand.

Many of the poems, like the first one of the book, “Earthy Anecdote,” provoke interesting imagery and aural sensations, but have no deeper meaning. Some longer ones, like “The Comedian as the Letter C,” elaborate Stevens’ poetics and philosophy, and others, like “Six Significant Landscapes” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” offer sketches of his poetics in action, showing us Harmonium in microcosm. Yet, since Stevens’ poems are not typically long narratives, “The Comedian as the Letter C” is not a good exemplar of his poetry, and since it is an outline of a book of poetry, not the book itself, “Thirteen Ways” is better at showing how to fit his poems together than at being a good example of one of them.

I think “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” a poem of moderate length, comes fairly close to such an exemplar. Like the ephemeral “Earthy Anecdote,” it uses the sound of language and metaphor to convey a simple image, yet here the image fits with Stevens’ metaphysics and poetics and offers a vision of the general, not only the specific. The poem focuses on white as real yet defined by negation. The empty whiteness, akin to the winter of “The Snow Man,” is what man sees when he rationally examines the world and realizes it is unsympathetic to humanity. At the same time as this negative image is built, however, an idea of color is created that takes on a life of its own; the green and purple and yellow and blue merge with the beads and baboons into an idea of something like a rainbow. And “an old sailor,” reminiscent of the comedian Crispin, “Catches tigers / In red weather.” Through the power of the imagination he does not dream of catching them, he does catch them; imagination creates the variegated world anew.

This understanding partially explains the apparently haphazard ordering of Harmonium; it is intentionally disordered (indeed, originally grouped poems were dispersed throughout the book) because Stevens, who as a poet paints with sound, is interested in color/sound for its own sake, and to order the poems would have been to subordinate those colors/sounds to some other idea. Instead, he gives them no continuity at all in order to emphasize their uniqueness. Stevens searches for as many ways as he can to emphasize the importance of the imagination’s rainbow, and as no color in rainbow has precedent over any other, he can give no individual approach pride of place.

That’s my understanding of Stevens’ poetic project. And I can respect it, and the fact that he does a good job achieving it. But I still find it difficult to actually like his poetry. It’s not so much that I find his philosophy mildly disturbing (though I do); my reasons are mostly pre-rational. I can only describe them by saying that he writes with a faded pastel palette, full of watermelon green and mango and off-white. I like  some of his darker work, his winter aesthetic, e.g. “The Snow Man” and “Thirteen Ways,” but I find no beauty in his usual tropical aesthetic.

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One Response to Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium

  1. Jason S says:

    I can respect that you do not care for his aesthetics, but to brazenly state that Stevens ” is interested in color/sound for its own sake” and that “to order the poems would have been to subordinate those colors/sounds to some other idea” is to restate initial critics conception that Stevens was a dandy of poetry and a hedonist. It is widely perceived that Stevens was working on the concept of the imagination as it creates the world versus what one could conceive as reality. However many critics–amongst this rank are J. Hillis Miller, Jaqueline Vaught Brogan, and Harold Bloom–use the entirety of his works to understand concepts expressed in Harmonium. Indeed Richard Allen Blessing postulates in his book, Wallace Stevens-The Whole of Harmonium, that one needs to read the entirety of Stevens work to fully comprehend it. Stevens work is highly complex, and Harmonium is highly complex, but that is because it represents a world that is in question. Stevens does not fully understand the world in which he walks as he presents Harmonium, but rather presents the world and puzzles it out later.

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