My final two paragraphs last Saturday (April 30) felt right for Langston Hughes’ “Daybreak in Alabama,” but they might apply even more clearly to Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar.” Therefore, I brashly, narcissistically repeat last Saturday’s words here:
“I’ve recently heard a couple of poets say that witnessing—that highfalutin, almost mystical form of observation—amounts simply to paying attention, honestly close attention. We must shut up and observe. I’m only so-so at it, but when I succeed, the payoff feels tremendously good.
“. . . I like the colors, patterns and shadings of the tangles of brush before complete greening obscures them. Buds are nice, but those browns, grays, and lines should be enough to please anyone. If I then find a bird who is, intentionally or not, making himself the interesting center of attention in that tangle, I’ve seen something that matters, and it's been a good day.”
If we keep looking at something—until we feel we have witnessed it—there’s usually a focal point that has captured our attention and held it. That’s pretty basic (though it also strikes me as interestingly complex. In evolutionary terms, is this the eye of the hunter detecting what’s different, what’s other, which might become food? Or an encroaching enemy?)
Why then do many readers warm slowly, or never, to “Anecdote of the Jar”? Maybe it’s too much brain, too little heart? Maybe its central idea feels both obvious and passion-less? Maybe we’ve seen the graffiti or the scrawling on walls in public restrooms: “Wallace Stevens is an emotional skinflint?”
Maybe we want Wordsworthian rapture when speaking of nature and Keatsian rapture when speaking of art, and Stevens gives neither—though his final line strikes me as a controlled exclamation.
Whatever the case, “Anecdote of the Jar” has grown on me over the years. I find myself in the midst of its central truth more and more frequently as I look around, in both city and country.
So in today’s photos I offer two common birds (like Stevens’ common “jar”), the cardinal and robin, in a context meant to illustrate Stevens’ point. The birds would be appealing on their own, but they—and the scene as a whole—are more powerful because of the interplay between the focal point and its larger context, the lines and shades of brush that simultaneously point to the bird and try to ignore or obscure it.
The two loud singers might seem to be trying to make themselves the center of a piece of art, like a jar on a hill in Tennessee, but I doubt that they have anything more in mind than claiming territory and attracting hot chicks.
For me that raises another interesting and perhaps contradictory point: in “Anecdote of the Jar” a human mind and hand are necessary to create a visual, aesthetic, psychological center in the tangle of raggedy forest. If the jar were removed, would nature return to its state of randomness, a condition not far from chaos?
At the risk of trying to one-up Ruskin’s notion of the “Pathetic Fallacy”—attributing human characteristics to nature—I ask, why shouldn’t we wonder if the birds have aesthetic, philosophical awareness and intent in placing themselves in an eye- and mind-catching place. The brightly colored, vocal critters are creating objects of art in which they are the main characters. Over the protests of trees and brush, the birds are both the artist-creator and the art itself. Maybe it’s something like performance art.
Surely the birds are at least opera stars, all soloists, central targets for reviewers’ pens. Or cheerleaders. Or oiled body-builders flexing. Or skinny models strutting down a runway. Or children (of all ages) who sense that negative attention (hawks, wild cats) is better than no attention at all.
Oh my yes, that’s a stretch. Isn’t it?
("Anecdote of the Jar" has also appeared here at Banjo52 on Nov. 12, 2009 and March 30, 2010).
Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens : Poetry Magazine [poem/magazine]