Stevens’ Transport of Summer

Stevens “Transport of Summer,” published in 1947 is definitely more philosophical than his earlier books. Surprisingly, because I don’t particularly like “philosophical” poems and because I don’t think I really agree with Stevens’ overall vision, I found myself intrigued by these poems, particularly the longer poems entitled “Esthtique Du Mal,” “Creedances of Summer,” and the particularly long “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” However, I’m going to save any discussion of those poems for a later time, after I’ve read all of his poems and, particularly, after I read the prose selections in the book where he more clearly articulates his aesthetics and view of poetry.

Even without these long poems there are many intriguing poems in this section. Two of these poems seem typical of Stevens’ attitude toward life and art, while the third seems strangely out-of-character for Stevens. The title “Men Made Out Of Words” could almost stand as a summary of Stevens’ philosophy:

MEN MADE OUT OF WORDS

What should we be without the sexual myth,
The human revery or poem of death?

Castratos of moon-mash -- Life consists
Of propositions about life. The human

Revery is a solitude in which
We compose these propositions, torn by dreams,

By the terrible incantations of defeats
And by the fear that defeats and dreams are one.

The whole race is a poet that writes down
The eccentric propositions of its fate.


At first glance, the title seems outrageous. Men are made out of flesh and blood, not words. Considering the first line, though, one begins to suspect the real power of words. Though Stevens doesn’t specify what he means by the “sexual myth” it’s clear that most of us, at least to some extent, are controlled by the myths of our time, by the myths of what it means to be a man or by the myths of what it means to be a woman. We are eunuchs of “moon-mash,” of the lunatic propositions that, unless we are very lucky, or perhaps very unlucky, often control our lives without our ever being aware of them. Our very understanding of ourselves is the result of “propositions” that have been composed by the great dreamers of the human race, dreamers often driven by dreams of defeat. What if life is meaningless? What if there is finally nothing but death?

“The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm” helps to explain how these propositions become part of our lives:

THE HOUSE WAS QUIET AND THE WORLD WAS CALM

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

This poem is strangely seductive for someone like myself who has spent so much time, particularly in the summer when not teaching, reading, meditating on life and life’s meaning(lessness.) Reading, and the willing suspension of disbelief, is almost a form of self-hypnosis where the reader escapes to an imaginary world that, at least for a while, seems more real than the outside world, seems more real than the world held captive behind a glass screen where there never seem to be real victories and people commit unimaginable acts of horror on victims who no longer seem human. No wonder that mere movies can never capture the “true” essence of a book, an essence that can only be distilled in the human imagination.

It’s easy, and comfortable, to become immersed in Stevens’ world of the imagination. Somehow, though, it seemed very strange to be suddenly called to attention by:

THE GOOD MAN HAS NO SHAPE

Through centuries he lived in poverty.
God only was his only elegance.

Then generation by generation he grew
Stronger and freer, a little better off.

He lived each life because, if it was bad,
He said a good life would be possible.

At last the good life came, good sleep, bright fruit,
And Lazarus betrayed him to the rest,

Who killed him, sticking feathers in his flesh
To mock him. They placed with him in his grave

Sour wine to warm him, an empty book to read;
And over it they set a jagged sign,

Epitaphium to his death, which read,
The Good Man Has No Shape, as if they knew.

Now, God knows, I don’t claim to understand this poem, but that doesn’t mean I’m not fascinated by it. This strange little poem seems to fuse Buddha, or at least the Buddhist idea of rebirth, and Christ. I mean, who else but Jesus is associated with Lazarus? But in what sense did Lazarus “betray” Christ? I thought that was Judas? Did the fact that Jesus had the power to raise the dead betray him to Church leaders, leaders who certainly couldn’t stand the competition of someone who REALLY COULD perform miracles? Suddenly, though, Jesus seems identified with all those charlatans or miscreants who were tarred and feathered and driven out of town, though in this case the “sour” wine and “empty book” suggest a slightly different kind of lynch mob. The last line of the poem, which, of course, is also the first line of the poem, because what else can you consider a title like this, seems to suggest that “God,” and perhaps a truly good man is god-like, has no shape, cannot be real. “As if they knew,” of course, seems to suggest precisely the opposite.

3 thoughts on “Stevens’ Transport of Summer

  1. Stevens said that a good poem should “resist the intelligence, almost successfully.” Well, I’m afraid “The Good Man..” WAS successful! I’ve been waiting for 30 years for this poem to come into focus.

  2. In the first place, this is one of the few, if not the only, bitter and enraged Stevens poems –although there is a hint of his disdain for Christianity in “Sunday Morning”.

    “She hears, upon that water without sound,
    A voice that cries: “The tomb in Palestine
    Is not the porch of spirits lingering;
    It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.” “

    The earlier poem is based upon a continuum, clearly reminescent of both Buddhist and Hundu reincarnation, and also the poems of Rumi.

    The “betrayal of Lazarus” I think is the end of the continuum –where an individual, under their own power, can create incremental improvements over the cycle of life. Now Jesus is the gate keeper to immortality –both in this life and the next.

    This has larger echoes to the world we live in, and which has exacerbated –where under our new “social darwinian” world view, ordinary people are not entitled to improved lives, only the winners. To become a winner, “anything goes”.

    Think of the endless assurances we are given that business is inherently crooked, and politics is inherently dirty.

    I think Stevens questioned the whole world view.

  3. ‘Real’ needs not shape. In Section 14 of The Diamond Sutra, it is written: “Consequently those who have left behind every phenomenal distinction are Buddhas all.”
    The Prajnaparamita Sutra says that “emptiness is form; form, emptiness.”
    “As if they knew” suggests that the saying of something so far beyond comprehension is not the comprehending of it.
    I’m pleased to have found your prompt of Stevens.

What do you think?