Arpeggios of Autumn: Happy Birthday, Counselor Stevens

Today marks the  137th birthday of Wallace Stevens.   I cannot claim that I understand his work, but I am swooped into his colorful aesthetic world of gorgeous peacocks and bananas and colorful language and sound-effects.   He’s a poet of jollity and melancholy.  He’s a poet of range and arrangement.  He’s a poet of euphony and cachinnations.  He’s a poet of sensuous and sensual arousings and carousings.

I cannot explicate the pleasures of Stevens for you if you do not get them at once.   Imagine you are in an exciting art museum full of canvases splashed with color amidst some that are solemn and thoughtfully grey and cerebral.  That is Stevens.  You may not understand it  all, but it’s exciting especially if you allow yourself to enjoy the experience.   And in the museum there is a zoo of colorful animals living an active life of grooming and bellowing and making mating displays.  rousseaupainting

Here’s a taste of Stevens:  “Tinsel in February,” “Mrs. Alfred Uruguay,” “Tom-tom, c’est moi,”  “apostrophes are forbidden on the funicular,” “Old pantaloons, duenna of the spring!,”,”In the Clear Season of Grapes,” “Soupe Aux Perles:  Health-o, when ginger and fromage bewitch”, “Dezembrum,” A sunny day’d complete Poussiniana,” “Jot these milky matters down,” “The plum survives its poems,” “The moonlight / Fubbed the girandoles,” “Floral Decorations for Bananas,” “Gloomy grammarians in golden gowns.”

Yes, it is not great to take things out of context but these brief snippets of Stevens will, I hope, convince you that entering his glittery and giddy world can be a pleasure.

“As Kingfishers Catch Fire”

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is–
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Father Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hopkins, like other poets, is a master of making a “joyful noise” from a tormented spirit (see Tennyson, In Memoriam, for example). Surrounded by various kinds of rejections and dejections, he was able to deal out “that being indoors” with splendid poetry that hardly seems stylistically Victorian.

Hopkins used dialect, archaic words, coined words, portmanteau words in his poems and they can astonish by their strangeness and their rightness. His heavy use of alliteration, repetition, rhyme, assonance and other poetry devices please me enormously.

One need not be religious to appreciate God and Christ and religious imagery in literature. The cultural and aesthetic ideals of religion are at their best when showcased in great art, in my opinion. It’s easy to love the artistic and humane achievement of poems such as this: “The achieve of, the mastery of” the language is exciting and compelling. I’d like to shout out an holla of gratitude to Robert Bridges, who arranged for the posthumous publication of most of Hopkins’s poetry. Very little had been published in his lifetime. This is what “Language poetry” should be, as opposed to the opaque and almost unreadable, to me, poetry of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E= poets. What Hopkins does with the English language is breathtaking. And, like a nostalgic Thomas Hardy, “wishing it might be so” (of the religious superstitions of his youth) Hopkins almost makes me with it might be so that the “just man justices” and “keeps all his goings graces.”kingfishers