Thursday, December 1, 2011

Wallace Stevens


An old man sits
In the shadow of a pine tree
In China.
He sees larkspur,
Blue and white,
At the edge of the shadow,
Move in the wind.
His beard moves in the wind.
The pine tree moves in the wind.
Thus water flows
Over weeds.

The night is of the color
Of a woman's arm:
Night, the female,
Fragrant and supple,
Conceals herself.
A pool shines,
Like a bracelet
Shaken in a dance.

I measure myself
Against a tall tree.
I find that I am much taller,
For I reach right up to the sun,
With my eye;
And I reach to the shore of the sea
With my ear.
Nevertheless, I dislike
The way ants crawl
In and out of my shadow.

When my dream was near the moon,
The white folds of its gown
Filled with yellow light.
The soles of its feet
Grew red.
Its hair filled
With certain blue crystallizations
From stars,
Not far off.

Not all the knives of the lamp-posts,
Nor the chisels of the long streets,
Nor the mallets of the domes
And high towers,
Can carve
What one star can carve,
Shining through the grape-leaves.

Rationalists, wearing square hats,
Think, in square rooms,
Looking at the floor,
Looking at the ceiling.
They confine themselves
To right-angled triangles.
If they tried rhomboids,
Cones, waving lines, ellipses --
As, for example, the ellipse of the half-moon --
Rationalists would wear sombreros.

Not only does the star carving through the grape-leaves remind me of Scarry's palm tree epiphany, but also Stevens' creation of his own phenomenological experience (the strangeness of the wind and water in the first part, being taller than the tree because he can reach the sun or the shore with eye and ear, etc.) as the content of the poem often seems to distract readers and critics from what is really at stake aesthetically. How is what Stevens put to paper controlling our perception? When we talk about the beauty of this poem, for instance, are we talking about his absurd system of rationale in the last part or the way he compares the movement of water over weeds to the movement of a pine tree in the wind and why? Are we really concerned with Stevens' system of cognition and theory? Or are we talking about our experience of reading those lines, separate from what one may assume to be Stevens philosophical, aesthetic position? Or is it some difficult combination of the two?

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