From The Mind
A Sort of Poetic Manifesto
by Tom Merrill
A sort of poetic manifesto is what I think of “The Man On The Dump,” a poem by Wallace Stevens, as being.
Here is the poem’s second stanza:
The freshness of night has been fresh a long time.
The freshness of morning, the blowing of day, one says
That it puffs as Cornelius Nepos reads, it puffs
More than, less than or it puffs like this or that.
The green smacks in the eye, the dew in the green
Smacks like fresh water in a can, like the sea
On a cocoanut—how many men have copied dew
For buttons, how many women have covered themselves
With dew, dew dresses, stones and chains of dew, heads
Of the floweriest flowers dewed with the dewiest dew.
One grows to hate these things except on the dump.
On the face of it, Stevens might appear to be merely venting his frustration at the staleness in so much poetry, the same old floweriest flowers and dewiest dew. When I read those lines I can’t help laughing.
In the next stanza, all the flowers are summarily consigned to the trash heap:
Now, in the time of spring (azaleas, trilliums,
Myrtle, viburnums, daffodils, blue phlox),
Between that disgust and this, between the things
That are on the dump (azaleas and so on)
And those that will be (azaleas and so on),
One feels the purifying change. One rejects
The time of new beginnings—of the purifying change—in fact arrived quite early in Stevens’s poetic career. The only poems by him I’ve seen that might be regarded as somewhat standard issue appear in the Centennial Edition of The Harvard Advocate and were written while he was a student. Throughout his adult poetic life, he stuck with the decision he made rather early on to go his own way in poetry, and there is very little indeed in his 500+ page Collected Poems that is reminiscent of anything in poetry either before him or since.
Like any good writer, Stevens had a real knack for language. But it is not only his extraordinary command of language that raises him so high in my personal estimation. He may have had more than his fair share of wit, and a vocabulary hard to rival, but it is the undercurrents in his poetry, of hopelessness, of despair, that bind me to him. He was haunted by an acute awareness of his helplessness before the crushing juggernaut of life. No sensitive reader can read him without feeling his palpable horror of existence. It isn’t just stale language and themes that he discards in the lines above. No, it is more than that: he discards a way of seeing. Because he knew the world as a fearsome place, he found anything that depicted it as in any way enchanting incomprehensible. What troubled him most about all those floweriest flowers was that so few seemed to know the score.
Millay observed that beauty is not enough. Stevens no doubt agreed and so do I. In the concluding stanza of “The Man in The Dump” we find these lines:
Is it peace,
Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon, one finds
On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve:
Here, he seems to wonder aloud what could possibly be the appeal in the dewiest dews. These lines incline me to doubt that when looking out his window and observing nature’s beauties, Stevens ever murmured aptest eve. It somehow seems more likely that he looked upon himself and cursed his fate. And maybe everyone’s.
Stevens harbored a deep dread of our common predicament and was not taken in by nature’s deceptive seductions. Poetry may have remained for him exclusively an art, but there is ample evidence in his poetic corpus that he did not see nature’s programmer as a benign force, or nature as remotely favorable to our well-being. It is hard to imagine him ever having thought or said “Life is beautiful” except in sheerest mockery. Where he falls short in his poetry is in only lamenting our circumstances and never outright condemning them. He perhaps came closest to giving the human condition two thumbs down when he called Mother Earth “a bearded queen, wicked in her dead light.” But I could cite numerous other instances in his poetry that candidly characterize the situation we face and the lot we are stuck with.
For me, the poetry that is most compelling skewers sacred assumptions. It condemns things that are commonly celebrated. The poets I find worth reading will not be murmuring aptest eve as they look out on the world. No, their thoughts on the scene will be more in tune with Schopenhauer’s: “It would be better if there were nothing.” There exists—sadly for me at least—very little of this kind of poetry, to judge by my explorations of the art. Which may be why I read poetry these days pretty much only when requested.
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