It Took Dominion Everywhere

The mind sometimes strays from its chosen path. The part of this entry in PASSIONATE PURPLE (my first choice of RED was simply unbearable to read) is a slightly irrelevant RANT that may even detract from the argument I’ve been trying to develop here. SKIP IT if you'e tired of rants. I include it merely because writing it down made me feel good. So I decided to leave it in, rather than excise it.

Wallace Stevens is apparently one of those poets you either love or hate. When I was a grad student and one of my college professors stated unequivocally that Wallace Stevens was the “greatest American poet ever,” I immediately dismissed the professor as a f _ _ _ _ _ _g idiot and promptly withdrew from the class. (There are persistent rumors that INTP’s can be rather opinionated, but personally I tend to dismiss those rumors as mere jealousy on the part of those incapable of becoming INTP’s.)

Though Wallace Steven is to me nothing more than a provocative minor poet, he was (or is, for all I know, or care) the darling of literary critics who pushed style over content, arguing that “style is all” and, with a suggestion I found particularly irritating, argued that poets like Thomas Hardy are hopelessly dated because they lack style. I won’t rehash this debate but will note that personally I think the argument is pure bullshit.

(Let me back away a minute here and introduce you to my favorite poetry anthology, Louis Untermeyer’s Modern American Poetry, simply the best collection of poems I’ve ever read, accompanied by insight that seems “right on,” perhaps, of course, because it mirrors my own ideas so closely.)

Commenting on some of Stevens’ early poems, Untermeyer says, “Such poems have much for the eye, something for the ear, but they are too fantastic and dandified for common understanding.” Summarizing, Untermeyer states, “Some commentators maintained that Stevens was obsessed with nuances, superficial shades of color, infinitesimal gradations. Others declared that Stevens had added a new dimension to American poetry.” According to Stevens, “Poetry is the subject of the poem.” And on that note, we can begin to see why, unfortunately, poetry, like much of modern art, has become the province of a “literary elite,” a rather small group, rather than the province of the people.

Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar,” is a poem that at first exposure made me irate. Upon later reflection, though, it puzzled me rather than just irritating me. To me, at least, it raises the whole question of “objective correlatives to a new level:”

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose upon it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

As a lover of wilderness, I first found the idea that a simple jar could transform the wilderness as preposterous and offensive. Encountering it later in a different context and forced to cover it “objectively” in a classroom, I had to stand back and look at it from some different perspectives.

Still, that’s a rather large claim for a simple, bare, gray jar, isn’t it? And round it “was.” Before the jar, we would have to assume, “wasn’t.” Wasn’t there? Didn’t exist? Was … nothing? And why was it “nothing,” non-existent? Because the jar wasn’t?

In what sense was the wilderness slovenly? Was it merely “untidy”? Or was there something truly offensive about it? Was it offensive because it was “untidy” or because it couldn’t be controlled and contained? Was Stevens merely another Bushy, non-conserving, conservative who feared or despised what could not be shaped and controlled? Or did he truly have a unique insight into man’s relationship with nature?

There is something strangely appealing in the image of this jar sitting in the middle of a wilderness, the “wilderness rose upon it.” The jar is a focal point, as it were, that somehow unifies and gives meaning to the wilderness. Perhaps it merely reminds me of “formal gardens,” with their formal patterns, which I find both appealing and repulsive. Here the jar takes the place of the traditional central fountain. These formal gardens, though they seem symbolic of man’s desire to control nature, also suggest our need for, and admiration, of nature’s beauty.

The simplicity of the jar, though, also suggests Japanese gardens where “lanterns” or simple figures of Buddha often serve as a focal point for a garden that attempts to mimic nature. Although the gardens attempt to capture the essence of nature, they are also quite “formal” in the sense that they follow certain “rules.” Though I generally dislike “formal gardens,” I absolutely adore well-done Japanese gardens. I’m not quite sure why, but I suspect that’s precisely what I am trying to explore in this essay.

The key to the poem, of course, lies in the line “It took dominion everywhere.” It, the jar, a symbol of man’s oldest artwork, the earthen jug that first simply carried life-giving water, later becoming the dominant artwork of many civilizations, the ceremonial fount of holy water, the urn of ancestral remains, as a symbol of Art, gives meaning to the wilderness, indeed, controls our very understanding of “wilderness.”

And there’s our dilemma. Is it true that there really are no “objective correlatives,” that culture so dominates our existence that nothing makes sense outside that context? Do objective correlatives become objective correlatives through cultural associations? Can an object, outside a cultural context, have any “meaning”?

Is the joy I find in hiking mountain wildernesses merely the result of the culture I’ve been raised in and not the result of some primitive identification with my surroundings? Or, is it a means of escaping a culture that I find increasingly oppressive and a means of rediscovering true meaning in my life?

:: MT and AT&T Broadband ::

I finally heard back from my ISP and, just as I expected, I am unable to run MT on their servers because they don't support CGI's.

If I'm going to make the switchover I'm going to have to pay for a separate server. I must admit that I'd really like to construct a site like Jeff Ward's site where the blog is just one part of the site, but money will probably be the deciding factor. I'm sure as heck not going to start working in order to produce such a page.

2 thoughts on “It Took Dominion Everywhere

  1. Read Martin Heidegger; it will help you to understand the phenomenology that Stevens hopes to convey. Heidegger talks of poetry as a Greek temple that “makes visible the invisible air” – it somehow structures the wild air into calm stillness, a stillness perhaps like the statue of the God – the essence of spirit – which once stood within the temple.

    The jar is Heidegger’s temple, ordering the disordered “wilderness” of our subjective, perceived knowledge of the world – the jar is the essential truth, the essential spirit of the world always processed through imagination.

    Read “Angel Surrounded by Paysans.” The angel is the “necessary angel of reality” – necessary reality to order the disorder of imagination.

    Just a thought..

  2. Ever been to Tennessee? It has that orange brown hue like earthen jars. This poem is based on association, more than theory, despite what Stevens himself says, or Eliot about objective correlatives. These poets took themselves too seriously, as do you. If he put something in Kentucky, it wouldn’t be a jar; it would go with the bluegrass, though. Maybe it would be a guitar string. I myself left a bucket in . . . where was that? This kind of sentimental, gently philosophic lyric is dead; and I doubt it was ever consoling (its intention), for it is essentially ironic.

What do you think?