May 9, 2011

Wallace Stevens' "Anecdote of the Jar" and the Perception Process

You have left your house. You are walking around. Where does your eye go, or your ear? Your mind? Your heart?

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]



Jeff M said...

For my college senior thesis paper, I proposed to my professor that I would sit in my basement for two days without human contact, food or water, and write about what kind of transformation I would undergo. It was part of the professor's obsession with "seeing," which was loosely connected to the class theme. He liked the idea. Of course, he was Vietnam Vet and considered Moby Dick the greatest American novel written, so he was a bit of a loon. No, I didn't conduct the experiment. My newborn son and high maintenance wife discouraged the experiment. If only...then again, "if only" is the mantra for most lives.

Banjo52 said...

Jeff, good stuff! Might your experiment have been something like a Native American vision quest?

I wonder if these questions take us right to the nature of reality--for what we perceive as reality might depend awfully on how recently we've eaten a corndog.

By the way, although I prefer Gatsby and Huck Finn, I do see the argument for Moby Dick as THE great American novel. But that's another topic . . .

Anonymous said...

Stevens is having a good time with this one, isn't he?

(Melville? You're pretty funny, too.)

Jeff M said...

Moby Dick...I recently began to re-read the book again, this time in a poorly insulated sun room off my girlfriend's home. In the early morning, say 6:30 a.m., I'd step into the room and immediately see my breath. I'd turn on the space heater and sit in a wicker chair, opening the wine-stained edition that once belonged to my brother, now dead four years. In Missouri, the wind is like a gale --- and I was ship on the high seas, pummeled by drafts. The prose came alive in those few hours I read, and I believe it is one of --- if not the --- greatest work in American literature. I'd continue reading it now, but palm fronds and humid heavings from Mother Nature would not reveal the true nature of the work.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Jeff, have you evolved into your professor?

Banjomyn, I think I would get this poem better if I could see a photo of the jar on the hill. How can a jar make the wilderness surround a hill? Or is it making the wilderness more slovenly? Was everything afraid of the jar? Was everything tamed by the jar?

Jeff M said...

A very good question. I would say that each of us become throughout our lives like the people we have come to admire, almost like they are open jars of paint in which we dip our fingers into, become stained for a time and, inevitably, remove with time and growth. Like the jar on the hill.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Oooh, good one, Jeff. We become a bit of everything around us. And after a while, we have become so many 'bits' that we are unique. Is that it?

Barbaro said...

Delicious image of reading, Jeff. Can we still access such delightful immersions with a Kindle?

Stevens is not an easy poet to love, but this poem has always been especially irksome to me. The more I read it the more the first line bothers me. Stevens is nothing if not restrained in most of his work, yet here the speaker goes out of his way to be disruptive. Who is this guy, and why doesn't he have anything better to do? Why not put some honey in that jar and let it rest in the cupboard where it belongs, and leave the wilderness alone?

I think the Quakers might take issue with your definition of "witnessing," but I'm not an expert. I think they'd want to get God or some divine influence in on the act somehow.

Jeff M said...

No, you can't. The first time I touch a Kindle will be the first time I destroy a Kindle.

Jeff M said...

And I don't think there is any evidence of chaos within nature. Chaos, as defined by the Ancient Greeks, is a state lacking order or predictability, two circumstances that nature, in spite of what the human eye sees, is not cognizant of. It simply does what it was created to do; it does not color outside of its own definition and purpose. It may seem like that to us, but nature in all its guises and presentations has its innate and stern purpose. Unlike humans, who build homes in flood plains, wage bets on money that isn't there and marry people based on superficial reasons.

Banjo52 said...

I've devoted my May 13 post to responding to at least some of your thoughtful, provocative points here. I hope we can carry on the talk over there. In the meantime, thanks for these ideas.

Banjo52 said...

Jeff, that's well said. How would you explain/describe/define nature's "innate and stern purpose"?

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