Thursday, October 12, 2006

Week 08, Sandburg and Stevens

Carl Sandburg and Wallace Stevens. Sandburg’s selections (1229-33). Stevens’ selections (1234-51).

Page-by-Page Notes on Carl Sandburg’s Selections (1229-33).

Chicago” (1231). This poem starts tersely with a summary of how the city is useful to the rest of the country. Then it becomes Whitman-like free verse, capturing the poet’s thoughts, which are neither utopian nor naïve—there’s a note of working-class defiance running through the poem. We are confronted with one story—what people say about Chicago—and with an counter-story: what Chicago says about itself. Is there brutality and hunger in Chicago? Sure. But the speaker proudly enlists commercial jingles to proclaim the virtues of the Windy City: it is “handler to the nation,” etc. Labor is central to America, and Chicago is a supplier of means for others. What does it produce? Its own sense of strength and independence. Other thoughts . . . Modernism is mostly cityscape art when it is representational—an art that tries to embrace the new conditions in which it must go forwards. That’s quite a challenge to accept since modernity (and particularly industrialism) has its own “rage for order.” It is always remaking everything (as Marx writes in The Communist Manifesto, under the bourgeoisie “all that is solid melts into air,” and so forth), even though artists don’t want us to be trapped in the processes of technology and citification, of “modernity.” Adopting modernity in formal and experimental terms is both a risk and an opportunity. In any event, by the poem’s conclusion the “used people” have come alive and are proud of their useful activity. Sandburg sometimes writes a poetry of labor, of flexing muscle. The influence of Whitman is clear, but of course in Sandburg we have the Modernist setting to deal with as well. Questions: In what sense is this poem’s treatment of Chicago similar to Whitman’s treatment of his subjects, if you have read some work by that poet? How does the speaker reply to those who don’t think much of Chicago— what defense does the big city offer?

Halsted Street Car” (1231). This poem conveys pure emptiness and alienation in faces made blank by hard work. Sandburg suggests to cartoonists (often preoccupied with politicians and fashionable people) that there is plenty of work to be found trying to capture the insults to humanity that daily life visits on city-dwellers. Charles Dickens, that great describer of mid-Victorian Britain, was, after all, a literary caricaturist who conveyed more of “reality” than many more sober novelists and newspaper writers.

“Child of the Romans” (1232). The shovelman works to make it possible for others to enjoy (if not necessarily notice) the finer things in life, the beautiful things.

“Cool Tombs” (1233). Usually, Sandburg writes about bustling scenes. This poem is about a reflection on his usual subject. Silence is the great leveler—a theme as old as Pindar’s Odes. What links the people mentioned in this poem? Probably the theme of sacrifice—Lincoln, Grant, Pocahontas.

“Grass” (1234). The battle names mentioned in this poem memorialize the mass suffering of soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, and WWI, preserving a sense of human purpose. But we forget the real events soon enough, and the bones and flesh of the soldiers turns to fertilizer. The fine words and monuments dedicated to the soldiers are little more than pious abstractions that tend towards right-thinking forgetfulness. But of course one could say that the grass heals us, too. Forgetting may be the way civilization moves forward, even the way it survives. Nietzsche says many times in his works that forgetting is necessary for life, and some of the WWI poets (Sassoon and Owen particularly) make much the same point, with much irony. Questions: What is the “work” of the grass at the battle sites the speaker mentions (Austerlitz, Waterloo, Gettysburg, Ypres, and Verdun)? Why is the work-process referenced in this poem necessary?

Page-by-Page Notes on Wallace Stevens’ Selections (1234-51).

“The Snow Man” (1238-39). Poets usually write about spring, summer, and fall, not about winter. Well, Stevens and Frost like winter, as does Coleridge. Here is a kind of reverse-romanticism: to write about winter, you have to become “every dead thing” (Donne), not glad and cheerful. You must know how to behold “nothing.” Is there a language appropriate to that, one that wouldn’t animate what is dead but would respect its deadness, and not, thereby, strip it of its meditative value? Does the poem convey this kind of beholding? Seeing something and writing about something aren’t the same thing. Question: How does this poem counter the “romantic” way of relating to and representing nature as an expressive vehicle? What must happen, according to the speaker, for someone to write about winter accurately?

“Anecdote of the Jar” (1241). The simple jar, a trivial if useful human product, swallows up the landscape and dominates it, un-wilds it. “Dominion” is a term from Genesis, King James translation—we were given dominion over the earth and its creatures, and our perceptions and perspectives have a similarly dominant effect. So again we find the nature/humanity theme. But another possibility is that Stevens enjoys investigating how we focus on things, on the way perception begins with one narrow thing and then one percept or one thought, to borrow a phrase from William Blake, “fills immensity.” This way of focusing seems to be a human imperative, and Stevens isn’t always certain about its results. He’s interested in a basic philosophical question: what can we know, and how can we know it? Questions: Why does the simple jar that the speaker has placed on a hill dominate everything around it? How do you interpret the thought that the jar does not “give of bird or bush”?

“Peter Quince” (1242-43). In what sense is the beauty “in the flesh” immortal, and not the abstract or Kantian kind of beauty as form? Susannah’s beautiful body escaped the elders, and still reminds us of its purity.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (1243-45). Blackbirds are everywhere, between everything and everything else, active and yet watching and waiting. It is necessary that they should be there, but we pay them no mind. Stevens may be asking with this poem what gets bracketed out when we think, when we write, or when we perceive in our everyday fashion. The blackbird isn’t exactly romantic “transcendence,” but it’s outside the field of ordinary human perceptions and affairs. It is everywhere and nowhere. Another way to interpret the poem is to suggest that the speaker wants to know how everything—bird, beholder, landscape—hangs together, how it all makes sense. But the poem offers no final answer. Questions: The blackbird is hardly a creature we associate with romantic transcendence of the ordinary—so what is special about the blackbirds in this poem? With what does the speaker intimately connect them, and why? Why are there thirteen ways (and counting, we may suppose) of looking at a blackbird?

“The Idea of Order at Key West” (1245-47). Fishing boat lights order the seascape. We judge and set our boundaries with reference to human artifacts. Would nature swallow us up otherwise? Or would there be no meaning? But the voice sings or makes a world, creates it—a world quite aside from nature. This voice creates a linguistic universe. Is the order of language commensurate with the material order (or with thought)? The sea-song isn’t what the speaker and Ramon Fernandez hear, it seems. Rather, I would say that the poem privileges the human maker, the Joycean female “artificer.” But does that world get passed along to the audience? Or are the speaker and Ramon even an audience for her? The phrase “rage for order”—is meaning proper to one person, something more or less private? Or is it beyond that scope, a phenomenon that begins with one person and the becomes its own world? (Really what I should do is compare this approach to the one that would say language is an order that is from the outset beyond the individual.) Questions: The speaker says that he and his companion “Ramon Fernandez” hear the poem’s “she” and “not the sea” (14). What relation, if any, does the speaker posit between the female singer and the ocean scene around her? Who is the “maker” referenced in line 53, and what is the “rage for order” that the speaker says governs that maker?

We might use this poem as a hedge against both the claims of neoclassicism and romanticism: Stevens tries to describe the order of the sea, but doesn’t claim that there is a “correspondent breeze” or any understandable connection, emotional or otherwise, between him and the sea. He is not privileged to convey the sea’s “order” to us or even to himself. Neither is he able to understand how the sea works in rational terms.

Stanzas 1-2. The lady’s voice and the sea don’t seem to be commensurate; her song didn’t come from the sea, and the sea’s cry doesn’t pattern her thoughts or words.

Stanza 3. We confront the question of spirit: does the lady’s song come from her spirit?

Stanza 4. This stanza tells us that the song is more than just the singer’s voice and the seascape together; her voice gives a different order to the sea. Does that mean the poem addresses the way we search for hints of something transcendental, something beyond the material (here, the sea), beyond even the human voice? Does some spiritual order embrace the lady, the sea, and speaker? If so, is that order something we can grasp as intelligible? The singer’s song may reveal a process that is the source of the “blessed rage for order” to which the speaker attests—we were told in the second stanza that (as the case must be) the song was “uttered word by word.” That is perhaps how the order takes shape –one word at a time, language creates its own order that orders everything around it.

Stanza 5. The singer’s voice (we don’t know the words she sings) draws the sea’s self into her own—she has something like the creative power of a goddess. Yet what is created is only “for her.” Her only world appears to be the one she sings by the margin of the sea. Doesn’t that imply that her beholders/hearers really can’t enter the world she creates?

Stanza 6. Why does a new order, a new symmetry, emerge with the cessation of the singing and the daylight? Fishing lights, put where they are by humans, “fix” the sea and the night, remaking them as objects of perception. Critics have long puzzled over the stanza’s mention of Ramon Fernandez, and one interpretation I’ve read is that Fernandez, a leftist who had veered to that position from the opposite perspective, was always nothing if not certain about his views. In the poem’s perspective, that kind of certainty seems out of place.

Stanza 7. The poem that has spent its time apparently praising “creative song” now suggests, perhaps, that “the words she sang” are “of our origins.” Has the lady uttered nothing less than herself, word by word? Still, for all our power to order things, do we know what “ghostlier demarcations” make us?

“Study of Two Pears” (1248). This poem offers an ethics of seeing. Color, texture, and so forth, are of course subjective experiences. But this rootedness in subjectivity doesn’t respond to our will. The speaker doesn’t will to see the pears a certain way. Instead, it is as if he must see them in a certain way, as if they command his attention. Seeing has its rigors, makes its demands on us; objects of perception will assert their sway.

Edition: Baym, Nina et al. (eds.) The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vols. C, D, E. 6th ed. New York: Norton, 2002. ISBN 0393977943.

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