Stevens Transport of Summer, published in 1947 is definitely more philosophical than his earlier books. Surprisingly, because I dont particularly like philosophical poems and because I dont 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, Im going to save any discussion of those poems for a later time, after Ive 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 doesnt specify what he means by the sexual myth its 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 lifes 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.
Its 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 dont claim to understand this poem, but that doesnt mean Im 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 couldnt 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.