May 13, 2011

"Anecdote of the Jar," "Ozymandias," Permanence and Perception

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley : The Poetry Foundation [poem]

Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens : Poetry Magazine [poem/magazine]
Jean Arp, "Torso of a Giant," 1964, D.I.A.

The visitor comments in response to the May 9 post on Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar” are unusually interesting, thoughtful, and provocative. So, as I’ve done a few times, I’m using today’s post to respond.

Readers dropping in for the first time today will get a lot more from the discussion if they first look at the May 9 post. Yes, this is time-consuming; for that I apologize, but I like the points and questions visitors have raised.

I wonder if anyone will take on the turbo-charged Jeff and Barbaro. FYI, I recently bought a Kindle; satisfied owner, I am. But let’s make that a later, separate discussion.

In what follows, I refer to Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias,” as an argument about art, or monuments, that runs counter to Stevens’ suggestions, so here’s a link to “Ozymandias” as well as a link to Stevens’  “Anecdote of the Jar.”

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley : The Poetry Foundation [poem]

Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens : Poetry Magazine [poem/magazine]

AltadenaHiker, do you mean you hear Stevens winking (at the outrageousness of his proposition?)?  I hear the wink, but not the outrageousness.

Brenda, isn’t all this simply the way the eye-brain connection works, a simple physiological and psychological fact? Was it Sesame Street where one puppet said, “One of these things is not like the other” and “It isn’t easy being green”?  We see what stands out, and often it stands out just by being unlike everything around it. 

I don’t know if that difference causes fear in animals and plants, but to the human eye and brain, it would make the forest—yes, the huge, “slovenly” forest—seem to surround the jar, seem subservient to the jar as focal point, at least in the mind of a human observer. And maybe, yes, this would make the forest seem “tamed” because, in a way, it’s been conquered by, made secondary to, this man-made or simply other object, force.  Now add in the fact that the jar will likely outlast all the forest organisms, and we have the classic conflict of art vs. nature (immortal shape or words vs. perishable life). The jar doesn’t even have to be pretty to win.

Let me paraphrase the philosopher Berkeley, with his tree falling in the forest and the question of whether it makes a noise if no one is there to hear it: . . . “If a jar is placed in the forest, and there’s no one there to perceive it, does it still make the forest slovenly and subservient to the jar?” In the same way, can a bright, melodious bird humble the rest of the wild? Oh my.

Now if you mix in what I hear AH saying—that there’s at least some playfulness or downright ornery mockery from Stevens as . . . instigator? . . .  then maybe it’s Oh, Oh, My, My. 

One of the most common explanations for why humans create art (and children) is that we feel it’s a hedge against mortality. We die, but our art doesn’t. Our art and our children live on after us.  Of course, that’s not foolproof thinking (or is it just sensing or intuiting?), as Shelley’s great poem “Ozymandias” reveals. However, barring unusual circumstances like defacement, a painting will outlive its painter.  After two thousand years, we still go to see the objects in Rome, not the dead Romans who made them.

Barbaro, should Keats have left the nightingale alone? That’s hardly a perfect analogy, but think about it. 
Song Sparrow

Like you, I’m much more likely to be stirred by nature than art, but organisms die, whether they live downtown or on a Tennessee hill. Art and architecture don’t technically live forever, but left untouched, they outlast tree, bug, bird, and human—by centuries.

Jeff, in the end, long after humans, yes, cockroaches will probably survive jars. Is that what you mean by nature's order, its triumph over chaos or entropy? Well, in that long, long view, you're right. But Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" will survive both its creator and its bird.

So, even if Stevens is delivering his argument with a wink, he probably thinks there’s truth in it. First, the jar is different and therefore commands our attention, whether or not we like that fact. Our rods and cones have a mind of their own.

Secondly, even if it’s not a wonderfully sculpted jar, even if Stevens or we would never call it ceramic art, even if it’s just a pickling jar, it will not only visually and mentally dominate, but also outlast each tree, bird and bush in the raggedy ass, mortal forest.

It seems all wrong, doesn’t it.  That jar is just a crappy, functional kitchen item or umbrella holder ("tall and of a port").  But it’s the star of the show in the forest, even in Tennessee, where forests are especially grand. Man made that jar, and in the poem, a man chose to place it there, where it would necessarily take dominion, simply by virtue of the way human perception and the process of decay go about their business.

I humbly submit that all this irony—this seemingly wrong, daft hierarchy—is why Stevens is winking, if he’s winking. And just to repeat the obvious (is that what I’ve been doing all along?), if we remove the human element as the perceiver, all bets are off. Will ants and chickadees and poison oak feel the primacy of the jar? I humbly submit that we’ll never know, and that’s not Stevens’ point anyway. He’s interested in what art does to, and for, the eye and mind of the species that's created it.

Jeff, palm fronds in Missouri? But more importantly, I like your paint analogy, though I still have stains from quite a few folks, both those in the flesh and those on the page. For that, I'm grateful.



Jeff M said...

Sure palm fronds in Missouri --- anything can grow and/or live anywhere. Like the jar on the hill. Girlfriend has a couple of these fronds in our sun room.

Write more later.

Birdman said...

What an intriguing post today. Big Wallace Stevens fan here.

Anonymous said...

I love the way your brain is always on spin cycle.

(I don't believe we create art as a bid for immortality. I think we create -- do anything, really -- in an attempt to make sense out of things. We're genetically disposed and driven to find patterns, and if no pattern exists, invent one.)

Banjo52 said...

Jeff, now I get it.

Birdman, was he an acquired for you, as he's been for me?

AH, good point. I agree that making sense of things (including ourselves) is probably the primary and conscious cause for creativity. But at the subconscious level, the immortality biz, with poems or novels or paintings as one more kind of offspring, makes sense to me.

I don't know how much documentation there is, or can be, but I do know I'm not at all the first or only person to think such stuff. (Can't remember the sources I've come across on this).

Your pal,
Spin Dry (aka Mr. Circles)

Anonymous said...

Uh-uh, I'd switch that around -- conscious = immortality; subconscious = obsession with patterns.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Does anyone ever read Ozymandias and know him differently? Not as having a hand that mocked him/her, but as a hand that fed or caressed?
Like a jar on a hill - it wasn't always a jar on a hill. It once was a jar that held preserves, jam? It held my favorite jam, hence it was my favorite jar. Now it is on a hill, in a poem.
But that is for another poem, right?

Pasadena Adjacent said...

From the land of limited time, Greetings Banjo!

I didn't get the poem and yet the comments are so interesting. Love Greek vases. One of my favorite collections at the Getty. Arp's sculpture looks like a bronze tumor.

Hey, you can't please everyone, right?

Hope your well. btw: my renters (sparrow couple) are still going strong. Beautiful tweeters those two

Banjo52 said...

AH, I'm mulling it over.

Brenda, probably another poem, yes, but I like the questions. Is the jar the same item when the jelly's gone? Should we give it a different name?

I have a hard time imagining a caressing Ozy because the poem paints only his arrogance, including the mammoth statue of himself.

PA, like Keats' Grecian Urn?

I do like what I've seen of Arp because I strongly prefer curves to angles. I'm still trying to make my peace with all the glass rectangles of office buildings. At sunrise and sunset there's progress, but I'm still with Ken Mac in preferring the old guys, wrinkled and weathered. Glass towers honestly remind me of "Ozymandias."

I like idea of birds as renters, and I do think sparrows are underrated because they're common. Mine are usually limited to house sparrows, but this year I have a couple of white-crowned sparrows, and what a goofy, fun helmet they wear. I'll get a pic up soon.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I'm still short on time. In case you haven't visited, Jesus remains in top spot on my blog.

Now I realize I missed the second poem by Shelly. I love it when it comes with a recording. For me, this version is easier to follow and more romantic. The impression made by the desert rings true. I give it a thumbs up.

When I stop being sad, my creativity and intellect will kick back in. Till then, I plan to keep up the heavy labor involved with home repair and makeover.

Banjo52 said...

PA, I hear. Thanks for the update. And yes, I check your place every few days.

Lovers' Lane