Well, I had hoped that Wallace Stevens`Harmonium would be a great read and re-kindle my interest in modernist poetry. I can`t say that it has. At one point, I had considered going into modernism before I ended up in Canadian literature as a scholar, and reading Stevens`work vindicated that decision for me. It is not that Stevens is not a good poet, he is, but more that I was often left confused and scratching my head. Reading Harmonium was like riding a roller-coaster (a terrible cliche, I know), it had some amazing highs but also lots of lows and some moments where you are just clicking along hoping that the thrills will start soon.
Take the opening poem, “Earthy Anecdote,” for example. It is a short poem, 20 lines, with short lines. It concerns a firecat who makes the bucks swerve away from it. Who or what is the firecat? It is not the name of an actual animal, or at least not a recognized name for one. So do we take it as an allegorical animal or an actual one? The poem itself is quite elliptical, repeating itself and coming back to this action of the firecat threatening a hear of bucks in Oklahama. The poem ends with the firecat closing his “bright eyes” and sleeping, suggesting that it has eaten its fill and now rests. I read this poem a number of times, trying to make sense of it but ultimately coming to frustration. I cheated for this review and glanced at Bart Eeckhout’s “Wallace Stevens’ ‘Earthy Anecdote’: or, How Poetry Must Resist Ecocriticism Almost Successfully”.* He goes through a number of different readings of the firecat before settling on it as an actual predator of some kind. When I read the poem again, as I did just now, I still feel like there is a river of meaning to which I can only gain glimpses and small tastes rather than full mouthfuls. This is, perhaps, Stevens’ goal (and if so, he does it well). At its best, poetry fills me with joy, longing, desire, and a raft of other emotions. At its worst, it leaves me feeling confused and wondering what I missed.
Harmonium does have plenty of interesting environmental themes running throughout it. In “The Snow Man,” the speaker ponders what it must take to truly regard winter in a place:
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
The connection between bodily awareness of cold and the perception of winter here is intriguing and apt. Having grown up in Canada, I do feel that you do not truly perceive winter until you feel its cold biting into you so that your perception of icy beauty is also tinged with the pain of cold air on skin. The poem ends with:
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
This elliptical ending brings the reader back to the speaker standing in the cold trying to “see” the winter truly. Instead, he only sees that there is nothing there to behold (note the confusion of senses with him listening to the wind and regarding the frost visually at the poem’s beginning), and then he realizes the nothing that exists in winter. Having been outside on a day where the temperature fell below -50 with windchill, there really is no sound around, instead an absence of sound and movement (because everything else is just trying to survive in their hole/home).
I found Stevens’ environmental poems (if I can call them that), the most rewarding and I wish I had taken more careful notes on which ones I like best. However, too often I found myself confused by poems like “The Load of Sugar-Cane” or “Cy est pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule, et les unze mille vierges” where the titles make reference to some event or character I don’t know and the words of the poem seem disconnected from that same reference. You could easily write a dissertation or three on Harmonium, but this is not what I wanted to do when I set out to read the collection. Perhaps, the fault lies in trying to get through it speedily rather than reading it several times over the course of a year. Anyways, this collection made me realize why I am not a poet: because I want my meaning to be understood, not always immediately, but at least accessibly in a way that does not require ten minutes of Google searching and Google book scanning to get a sense of what is there.
I recommend this books for grad students of American literature and the most ardent of poetry lovers. Otherwise, this probably is not for you.
Stevens, Wallace. Harmonium. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947. Print.
*The article is available on Eeckhout’s Academia.edu webpage or in Comparative American Studies 7.2 (2009): 173-92.