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Friday, February 27, 2004

Ideas of Order

In college, my Stevens obsession rode hard upon my Eliot. I haven't revisited Stevens much since then, so it was a nostalgic treat to have the chance to reread some of his poems recently with Leigh and talk about them. The time of Frost has passed with the snow and the time of Bishop will come near Easter; for now, her Frost, Stevens, and Bishop class dwells with the Bard of Hartford. We talked especially about "Ideas of Order at Key West," and of course, as is always the case when I revisit poems eons later, I see all these ideas jumping around that I don't remember having met before.

The pentameter opening stanza has lingered with me forever, for some reason:
She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

I like the sound of the phrase "the genius of the sea" and the rhythm created by the plump caesura's sitting amidst "Inhuman, of the veritable ocean." I guess almost all the lines from this poem that stick like little fishhooks in my brain-folds are awash with the sea. Others:

It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea . . .

. . . the sunken coral water-walled,

The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.

The ultimate stanza, like the first, persists in my mind's ear like an earwig:

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker's rage to order words of sea
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Stevens's musicality leaps up, asking for attention. Isn't it wild how many words have "r"s in them? First the "ray" words-- rage, Ramon, fragrant--then the "er" "ar" "our" "or" words--order, maker, words, portals, starred, origins, demarcations, etc. Not to mention all the "s" sounds. I'm fascinated by his suddenly introducing the oxymoron-flavored notion "rage for order" at the end. Whatever human emotions have been on display in the poem heretofore, rage hasn't been one of them. Indeed, the singing woman, in her ordering capacity, her capacity as "maker" and "artificer," seems, if anything, to constrain rather (or at least contain) the violence of the sea in putting it into words. By introducing rage into this final stanza, I suppose Stevens is refiguring the storm-force of the sea into the aestheticizing, poeticizing urge.

Leigh makes a great point. She noticed that even though Stevens insists on the irresistible organizing power of the singer's song over the natural world around it (a Tennessee jar at the beach, litorally), insists that it is she he hears and not the sea, he offers no specific characterization whatsoever of the woman or her song. The poem is all about them, yet withholds describing them in favor of bravura evocations of visual and auditory experiences the seascape affords at sunset. The poet's oft-reiterated claim notwithstanding, the reader's experience of the poem is one of coming to know this singer and to understand the relation of her art to nature through nature first--that is, through Stevens's poetic transfiguration of nature.

The poem ends with the coming of night: the poet, contemplating the lanterns of the fishing boats mixing with the stars, organizes into patterns the play of lights against the backdrop of night--a very different experience from that of the rough and tumble of wind and waves in the first section of the poem. All senses come into play in the calm night, striving to resolve subtle distinctions in perception ("fragrant portals, dimly-starred" "ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds") to make meaningful words "of ourselves and our origins." But the night's vagueness is sublime.
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