Thursday, September 22, 2011

Wallace Stevens on a glass of water

There seems to be tons of literature on Wallace Stevens and his poetry. Should I read it all and carefully compare it with my own thoughts; correct them, refine them and write a piece at the end of all that work, I never would have gotten around to put down a word on his work.

And this I just can't allow, as interesting and mind-tickling as his poetry is.

Take "The glass of water", for instance:

That the glass would melt in heat,
That the water would freeze in cold,

Shows that this object is merely a state,
One of many, between two poles. So,
In the metaphysical, there are these poles.
Here in the centre stands the glass. Light
Is the lion that comes down to drink. There
And in that state, the glass is a pool.
Ruddy are his eyes and ruddy are his claws
When light comes down to wet his frothy jaws
And in the water winding weeds move round.
And there and in another state
the refractions,
The metaphysica, the plastic parts of poems
Crash in the mind
But, fat Jocundus, worrying
About what stands here in the centre, not the glass,
But in the centre of our lives, this time, this day,
It is a state, this spring among the politicians
Playing cards. In a village of the indigenes,
One would have still to discover. Among the dogs and dung,
One would continue to contend with one’s ideas.
From Parts of a World, 1942, 1951

The object is merely a state between two poles. Between nothingness and it-ness, perhaps. Between endlessness and time? These propositions point to what Stevens himself probably points towards that there is a continuum of existence, not stopping by the word or concept a glass or water represent, but stretching out endlessly. Which, of course, is the same as saying that nothing really is. 

Stevens, a connoisseur of Asian art, must have known well the Eastern way of looking at things directly and immediately, existing only here and now take zen as an example. A world or world-view without time is quite hard to grasp for the Western mind; or perhaps the human mind, driven as we are of appointments and schedules and all of that.

The glass is a glass in this moment, in this environment. In a much warmer environment, the glass will melt, becoming something seemingly other. What else can the glass become? Gas, air, stars? If we remove time, all of them.

Here in the centre stands the glass. The centre, which is now, here (our ways of trying to pin down something in time and space). When we see the glass now, it is a glass. That's what's real to us. But in the metaphysical, according to Stevens, there are poles at each side of the object we see the glass. But why should the metaphysical be something else than what is right here, right now; the glass and ourselves?

You could go all metaphysical about this poem, but really, if you just take a straight look at it, read it and see or sense directly what it is what comes up? It seems to me that it is circling around something, an underlying unity of sorts. 

This poem, there is really no beginning or end to it. There is a great sense of a loop of existence, wiping out anything to do with beginnings and ends. 

And of course there are lines that stand out poetically. I particularily like that "the plastic part of poems / Crash in the mind" with "the refractions" and "the Metaphysica" (not in that order, though). The metapoetic turns in many of Stevens' poems direct his poems inward, toward some common poetic ground which is almost possible to see if you squint through the words to look directly at it, rather than the words themselves. 

This too is a part to notice: "Here in the centre stands the glass. Light / Is the lion that comes down to drink. There, and in that state, the glass is a pool." There, and in that state, the glass is a pool. Doesn't this point to the relativity of things? The glass of water is only a glass to us, but  a pool to the thirsty lion-light, bathing in the glass of water which, from the light's perspective, is a pool of something clear and thirst-quenching.

"But in the centre of our lives, this time, this day / It is a state". There. He puts it simply and squarely. Things are not things, defined by borders like the edges of a glass, or the wetness of water. Things, what we call things, are states, different states of a great existing thing. To put it thingly.

Will we continue to contend with our ideas?
I guess so, but we don't have to. 
We can settle with looking straight at things, taking them for what they are; not what we think they are.

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