Nov 12, 2009

Poem of the Day: Wallace Stevens' "Anecdote of the Jar"

Anecdote of the Jar
(published 1919 in Stevens’ first collection, Harmonium.)

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

The appeal, or lack of it, in this much-anthologized Wallace Stevens poem has always interested me. I offer it now because it seems a good November (or early March) poem. Although it’s rather theoretical or symbolic, it also makes sense on the literal level: there’s no foliage to block the view of a jar placed upon a hill. So the jar’s centrality in the scene has at least a bit more plausibility than it might in seasons of full leaf or snow covered mountains.

If memory serves, my first reaction years ago, at age nineteen, went something like this: “How un-pretty this language is. Even the poet calls it a mere anecdote. As for theory, what a lot of bunk. One jar sucks up a wilderness? All those trees, branches, snakes, worms, bugs, birds. Surely not.”

Or here I was, holding forth: “I’m nineteen, and I’m just starting to get dunked in this poetry business, which is also philosophy biz, and I want nature to win. In fact, I’m on the Wordsworth team, and I agree with him that nature has already won, will always win, even as it stoops, bothering to bless and teach us, rather than rubbing our noses in our insignificance. Only some arrogant yappers out there don’t see and smell their smallness. Why, I’m pretty sure I feel the ‘correspondent breeze’ flowing through my shirt, even as we speak.”

Oh, yes, that’s precisely what I said one March day while traipsing across a ridge in southeastern Ohio.

So who was this impenetrable, unmusical, cerebral shell of a Connecticut insurance guy named Stevens, this mere American, telling Anglophile me—and my Wordsworth!—about some banal jar’s “dominion”?

At least Keats’s version of the story (in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”) had the courtesy to elevate the jar to the loftiness of “urn,” which he connected to immortality. The wise, tragic Keats would never think to set a jar in competition with a mountain, then claim that some plain old cylinder of glass or clay had actually won—a jar with no carvings, nothing else special, shrank mountains, brambles and skunks, put ‘em in their place. I think not.

And Keats had the judgment to keep his peculiar admiration for jars and art in the parlor, a small room where art belongs, along with his quaint notions about art as your taxi to eternity.

I said all that too, verbatim, out loud, right to Nature—the one woman who might listen. (Easy, now). I meant it, but I also wanted to remain in Her good graces. It was clear that She was bigger than I was. And artsy jars? Not so much. I could smash them and corporate Wallace Stevens with one youthful, manly sneeze.

Now, decades hence, I haven’t done a complete reversal. If I want peace, I go to nature--or some convenient, suburban variation on nature--a Metro Park. But nature is often too hot or too cold, rainy, muddy, full of mosquitoes.

And, can there be any doubt that if I see a jar in the wilderness, I’ll focus on it, even a plain old canning jar, homely, man-made thing? The eye must go to something. It might focus on a bobcat, but I’ve seen a lot more jars than bobcats, even on hillsides, in the form of litter and illegal dumping.

One jar—not dozens in a pile of roadside junk, which doesn’t count—one jar "placed" upon a hill in Tennessee? That would be the different thing and the man-made thing that would draw my merely human attention. Maybe I’d be embarrassed to call it kin or confess its “dominion,” but I hope I’d be honest enough to admit the truth: I’m at least as connected to it as I am to the trees. As the lone and different thing on the hillside, the jar makes me see it, along with a new fact or two.

* *


Brenda's Arizona said...

Wordsworth was always my favorite. His nature was my nature. I bought 'The Prelude' just to read as pleasure, and pleasure it was.

But Anecdote of the Jar is pretty darn weird. The more I read about it, the more I want Wordsworth back! I worry that my appreciation of poetry has failed me. I read that Marianne Moore said this poem is plain - that cat and dogs can read. A jar just sitting on the ground... hmmm. Maybe that really is poetry?
Thank you for making me think harder about poetry than I have for years!

BANJO52 said...

Interesting line from Ms. Moore! Thank you. For what it's worth, "Jar" took a while to grow on me (does that sound weird? Am I now inside a jar?). And I'm still not sure I'd call it a favorite (isn't it all brain, no heart?). But after it bounces around in the skull for a while, at least a few things clear up. In case I don't add this any time soon, you might enjoy Wikipedia's commentary on possible interpretations; some people don't think "Jar" is as simple as Marianne Moore does.

Barbaro said...

You really need to check out

We (and Stevens) seem to have been on a very close wavelength the last couple days.

While I generally prefer Stevens to Williams, I can't help feeling "Wheelbarrow" to be a much more direct, concrete, and succinct version of "Jar."

BANJO52 said...

Barbaro, I agree, "Red Wheelbarrow" makes an interesting comparison, as do our two posts. I'll have to think about preferring one poem over the other, but I do think "Wheelbarrow" has more emotional or intuitive appeal. I think "Jar" is first chronologically. So you suppose Williams was competing with Stevens? (Well, if I weren't a New Critic, I might ask that question . . . )

I apologize for reading your name as Brenda's Arizona. I was hurrying, which I've never done well.

Paula said...

Not being a student of poetry I can't say for certain what the poem is about but I like the comparison to Keats' ode. I also admit that I visualized an old fashioned canning jar (re Roy Harvey Pearce, makes me wonder if this the Dominion canning jar is a little too convenient or just a common place fact in 1919?) with a weathered screw on lid. Then I was thinking about what things would look like viewed through the sides of the jar. I don't know about the awkward language, I'm just wondering how to shoot the photograph. Maybe that evening there were fire flies in it? That would make a fine image, I'll have to work on that. I guess I've lost the poetry thread...

BANJO52 said...

Paula, at the risk of getting too rhapsodic, I'd say just look where the poem has taken you--to fireflies, among other things. So I'd say you've done anything BUT lose the thread; in fact, you've just extended it--beautifully.

And by the way, I hear that others have speculated about (or made statements on?) the old Dominion jar business.

You might enjoy looking at Barbaro's post, which he refers to here, AND the William Carlos Williams poem he mentions, which is at least as pictorial as "Jar."

Great comment. Thanks.

Paula said...

I'm familiar with the Williams poem, it's one I remember studying in the past. I saw the first line of it at the bottom of your page and looked it up for a reread. I still find it very "zen".

Ken Mac said...

enjoy the mellow nature of your blog

Ken Mac said...

and I love wordsworth too

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