Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Wallace Stevens: Questions are Remarks

Goldbarth’s poem about the typo in Simak’s A Heritage of Stars did, in fact, send me back to Wallace Stevens and I read this:

Questions Are Remarks

In the weed of summer comes the green sprout why.
The sun aches and ails and then returns halloo
Upon the horizon amid adult enfantillages.

Its fire fails to pierce the vision that beholds it,
Fails to destroy the antique acceptances,
Except that the grandson sees it as it is,

Peter the voyant, who says, “Mother, what is that” –
The object that rises with so much rhetoric,
But not for him. His question is complete.

It is the question of what he is capable.
It is the extreme, the expert aetat. 2.
He will never ride the red horse she describes.

His question is complete because it contains
His utmost statement. It is his own array,
His own pageant and procession and display,

As far as nothingness permits… Hear him.
He does not say, “Mother, my mother, who are you,”
The way the drowsy, infant, old men do.

Wallace Stevens

Today, I read it again and now I’ll write about it for a little while. An initial response, hopefully taking me further into the poem.

In some ways, it reminds me of Emerson’s “Nature,” especially Emerson’s claim that only a child perceives the sun, only a child can truly see the sun. In other ways, it is its own entity, full of its own insistences, like Stevens’ usual reminders of the primacy of perception, of individual perception, of an individual’s take on the world, constructed of both the world itself and the individual’s imagination.

Peter, in the poem, “will never ride the red horse she describes.” None of us will. None of us can. It’s impossible. Even if we ride red horses, they will never be identical to the one seen and described by her, the one constructed, in part, by her imagination, her perception.

What I respond to most, I think, in the poem, is this notion of “antique acceptances,” this notion that we’re so full of what we’ve already seen and what we’ve already heard that the very light of the sun itself cannot pierce the veils of our assumptions and presumptions and pre-conceived notions. It’s our “antique acceptances” walling our imagination off from its natural relationship with the world, walling us off from the sun.

Except, of course, that the grandson sees it as it is, sees it uncolored by 3000 years of solar writing, solar assumptions, solar study, solar theorizing, solar worship, solar poetry, and solar so forth. Even if, says Wallace, even if the boy stops to ask what that thing is, he still apprehends it fully. His question, says Wallace, is complete.

There is no desire to make that sun other than what it is, no desire to transform it into a symbol, into a metaphor, into a suggestion, into memory, into something to worship or to fear.

In the same way, the child – even as he may ask his mother who she is – has no desire to change her. He does not see her as anything other than what he sees her to be. His question, again, is complete. (Is this, in its own way, unconditional love?) This is contrasted with the “other” form of infant in the poem: the drooling, toothless old man, the drowsy old man. He, the old man, may ask the same question, but his is tinged with a desire to see something different, to know something different. Think of just a few of the different ways we can ask that question:

Who are you? (I honestly don’t know who you are and I’m curious).
Who are you? (Who is this person that I thought I knew?)
Who are you? (Have you changed? Have I changed?)
Who are you? (Was I wrong about you?)

And consider how we might, even if we're not as old as the toothless and drowsy guy, ask that same question of those we love, or those we claim to love, and how often we imply a desire to see something different.

I’m out of time now, but I must add this, for myself, so that I might remember to think about it later: I have no idea what’s up with the “2” in the fourth stanza.


cborglum said...

Okay, so I stumbled on your blog a couple weeks ago doing some random searching for stuff about the song "Jokerman," and then I see the stuff about beer brewing, and now I see a clear interest in and thoughtful reading of Stevens.

If I weren't married and also were a woman, I'd be asking for a picture. Fortunately, we don't have to worry about all that. Nice reading of a poem I hadn't encountered before by my favorite poet.

Written said...

I almost hate commenting with what I am about to remark, when I have yet to produce any meaningful comments in response to Schulze's entries, BUT--

I am amused, even tickled by the fact that a stranger, who stumbled upon Schulze's blog in much the same fashion as we former students (and perhaps some current students) did, has a similar reaction as some of his post-scholastic admirers (well admirer is a bit of a strong implication). In my conversations with the handful of LB kids I keep in touch with who also had Schulze as a teacher. I have heard, multiple times, almost in the same tone and syntax, "Oh my god, you found Schulze's blog: I've been reading it. I would go gay for that man." It is your perception of the world, of poetry, literature, and music, as well as your varied and no-so-common, yet oh-so-intriguing hobbies that leaves a small part of so many of your former students wish themselves older, or you less married, or circumstances less tabooed.

And to continue on this silly tangent, even though "we don't have to worry about all that", the kicker in this whole situation is that the man is one of the few who are classically beautiful, but seem to have no inkling of their attractiveness.

Wow. That was a bit awkward.
I suppose the point is, Schulze: you are admired, envied, and hero-worshiped more than you might know, however, if with no other merits, at least the hero-worship evolves from, for example, such Important Shit as a spot on interpretation and contemplation of a Wallace Stevens poem. I think that is a wonderful legacy.

Honkymagic said...


Any thoughts on that "2" in the fourth stanza?

writteninthemargins said...

I have been frantically trying to figure out the "2". Not yet, but I've even been dreaming about it. Nagging, nagging, nagging at me.

writteninthemargins said...

However, perhaps it is this simple answer: "the expert aetat. 2." Aetat: I think it means something like of your age, or in your age. Perhaps the 2 is simply an explanation on that. He is 2?

Honkymagic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Honkymagic said...

That has to be it. The expert, age two. The dictionary I first consulted gave a slightly misleading definition of aetat, but looking at a few others makes it clearer.

Tiffany said...

Stevens is referring to his grandson (age two at the time, or he is thinking back at a time that was two).