Elegant Purity and Essential Imperfection

28 Nov

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations… one desires
So much more than that.”

One of the great poems of the 20th century, “Poems of Our Climate” [1] makes several trenchant comments on the contradictory aspect of humanity, — at least in cultures of aesthetics like the West. Among its most striking features is its painterliness. This recurrent aspect of his work may be taken as a sign of Stevens’ ‘imagism’ but this term begs the point of his deeper concerns with the nature of perception and the ability of the senses, mediated by language to depict and grasp “the thing itself,” the essence and being of an object, activity, character or experience.

The ‘painting’ one is tempted to call the poem, begins with a series of impressions, direct sense impressions as if Stevens paints an impressionist work to fix and transmit the essence of the thing and its quality without activity or verbal direction.

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations — …”

“Reflecting” can be read as a participle as much as a verb. This aside, the opening stanza drenches us with sensations, touches of color, light and sense: the cold. Indeed the insistence on cold and “snow” and “snowy” gives an uncomfortable edge to the purity of rosy air and sets up Stevens’ echo of Keats subdued pain in describing the “cold pastoral” that “doth tease us out of thought.” [2] The pervasive coldness within the purity is stressed in the “cold, a cold porcelain” of the “brilliant bowl,” the reiterations and effect of snow, — much more powerful in its New England coldness that Pound’s effete “petals on a wet black bough” [3]. The coldness given vivid regional specificity by the phrase, “the end of winter when afternoons return,” a quality of returning light familiar to those who live at the eastern edge of the Eastern Time Zone.

But the brilliant, white, snowy coldness, in addition to establishing a hypnotic, capturing sensation prepare and act as the setting for the poem’s first statement of modal dis-junction and discontent: “one desire so much more than that.” The brilliantly clear blush of purity is inadequate as is its simplification of the day into its objective correlative:

“…a bowl of white, / cold, a cold porcelain, low and round, / with nothing more than the carnations there.”

Stevens here is far beyond the simple meditation on the organizing power of the artifice and aesthetics as asserted in “Anecdote of the Jar” [4]. The point is more the opposite of that early statement. As so often in the last decades of his work, Stevens pushes the power of his metaphoric straining for pure perception to declare the inadequacy of aesthetics to our desires and need to know in the fullest sense: to have and to hold in mind and flesh. Here, the coldness and inadequacy of purity, “the white radiance of eternity” [5] is about to be thrust aside as a too perfectly composed thin gruel for “the evilly compounded, vital I.” Stevens is about to shatter the classically poised “cold porcelain… bowl of white and its emanation of blushing light for the break out that Shelley speaks of in exalted, strained and hurting lines:

“Clasp with thy panting soul the pendulous Earth; / As from a centre, dart thy spirit’s light / Beyond all worlds until its spacious might / Satiate the void circumference.” That late Enlightenment, classicist-imbued pure Romantic elegance will be burst through by Stevens, a modernist man in direct beautifully modulated iambics.

Modulated is a pertinent word for the fluidity with which Stevens moves to the center of his discontent with posed perfection (“it is posed, and it is posed, but in it nature merely grows”) as life’s natural ‘composition’ with its “bull fire” blows away one’s images that “leave no shadow of themselves” [6]. The painterly touches, “the definite article” without verbs yields to melodic fluidity as the tug between artistic ‘perfection’ and artifice generally and the passionate, hungering “I” is elaborated in its restless, shifting dialectic:

“Say even that this complete simplicity / Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed / The evilly compounded, vital I / And made it fresh in a world of white,  / A world of clear water, brilliant edged, / Still one would want more, one would need more, / More than a world of white and snowy scents.” [emphasis added]. The interchange of “stripped” — “concealed” deepens the conflict, the antithesis within the dialectic of artifice against desire and will that throbs through the profusion of verbs, the more powerful not only for their meanings but in contrast to the noun-heavy ‘thingness’ of the first stanza: “made” – “want” – “need,” the stress on the primacy of desire, and its Calvinist bond to “the evilly compounded eye” is weighty and thrusts us back beyond enlightenment to the 17th century. This remarkably succinct but artful range is part of the greatness and power of Stevens.

In elegant and traditional development, the third and concluding stanza elaborates the throb that began thrusting itself into the pure image from the first direct subject-predicate (“one desires so much more than that”) in stanza one. The entire last stanza asserts the dialectic of desire and discontent with the perfectly formed object. “The never-resting mind…would want to escape [and then] come back to what had been so long composed.” The sentiment of ambivalence and complex, paradoxical need for aesthetic perfection is like that of Frost in the closing lines of “Birches” [7]. It is notable that this similarity, in a poet with whom Stevens quarreled and whose manner, and subtlety, is very different from that of Stevens, also embeds, in “Birches” a substantial and more emphatic, particularized erotic contest and passion in his dialectic between partial transcendence (for Frost this is the locus of eroticism) and earthiness. In “Poems of Our Climate” Stevens is more general, less directly sensual in affirming the mind’s desire for the pleasures of paradise and equally insistent on the return “to what had been so long composed” for “the never-resting mind” to find “in [the] bitterness” of this perennial misfit, “delight” because “the imperfect is so hot in us, / Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.” The implied resonance of “lies” underscores the trickery in artifice, in its rejection and the passionate, conflicted return to it for restless but profound consummation. The perfectly poised, pure and “snowy” white “cold porcelain” meditation has turned “hot” in the imperfection of the contemplating mind. The engagement between the mind’s created and perceived object stimulates the desire for imperfection that cherishes and burns, fire in ice, in its desired antithesis. One thinks of Nietzsche’s comments on the “demand for beauty” of the Greeks being grounded in profound feelings of “loss, pain and terror.” [8]

“Poems of Our Climate” is a masterpiece of desire, of the shifting dialectic of perception and perceived, of artifice and passion and of the visual-painterly and melodic-developmental, metaphoric aspects of language and poiesis. The greatest poet of the 20th century passed away in 1954 which, with many other possible observations, hints at the morbidity in pending collapse of the West and its image project and idealization, of making a cult of representation that displaces identity. In this poem, Stevens asserts the primacy of passion, though its need for order, the need to “come back” is eternal while in many works, like the posthumous “The Plain Sense of Things” the balance and eternity of imagination as the bedrock of perception and reality is stressed in one of the great metaphors of our tradition: “the silence of the great pond and its waste of the lilies…” That discussion is for another time.

1. Published in “Parts of the World” (1942); my edition is The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, edited by Holly Stevens (NY Vintage 1982), 193-4
2. John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819; published 1820)

3. Ezra Pound, “In a Station of the Metro” (1913)

4. Wallace Stevens, “Harmonium” (1923)

5. Percy Shelley, “Adonais: an Elegy on the Death of John Keats” (1821), 462-3; (Shelley’s Selected Poetry & Prose, Reiman & Fraistat, 2nd edition, 2002)

6. Stevens, “Add This to Rhetoric” also from “Parts of a World,” Collected Poems, op. cit. 198-9

7. Robert Frost, “Birches” (1916), lines 44-60

8. Friedrich Nietzsche, Author’s preface to the 2nd (1886) edition of The Birth of Tragedy


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