Tag Archives: Wallace Stevens

Revised Essay on Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar”

Wallace Stevens’ poem “Anecdote of the Jar” explores the struggle between humans and nature.  Nature, left alone, grows continuously, existing harmoniously in interconnected ecosystems.  Every creature, plant, and organism in nature plays a role in supporting the rest of the environment.  Humans, on the other hand, tend to take over when they enter a new place, destroying everything in their paths and, as a result, disrupting the delicate balance that existed before their intrusion.  Humans introduce artificiality into the world, converting nature from its original state of vitality and freedom to one of repression and control.  In the poem, the jar, a manmade object used for containment, is the ultimate representation of this repression.  Stevens uses style, symbolism, juxtaposition, personification, and the relationship between the narrator and the jar to effectively illustrate the containment imposed on nature by humans.

A jar is an object, made by man, of unnatural materials, with an artificial shape.  It is described vaguely as “round” like a typical jar (2).  It has a definite, immovable shape that forces whatever object or material placed inside of it to conform to its shape.  Stevens gives it a sense of superiority with the description “tall and of a port in air” and by placing it physically above the rest of the environment, “upon a hill,” suggesting it has an advantage over the wilderness (8, 2).  A jar also serves as a barrier between what is inside and what is outside.  The final feature of a jar that supports the argument that it represents containment is its lid.  When in place at the opening of the jar, the lid completely shuts out the rest of the world, enclosing only what is desired in the limited space of the jar.  The jar itself is the most obvious illustration of containment.

The jar is also personified.  It is described as having “made the slovenly wilderness/ Surround the hill” (3-4).  It is more than just an object; it takes on human characteristics, such as the ability to interact with and affect the world around it.  It represents something much larger than itself; it represents humanity and civilization.  The jar’s interaction with the wilderness of Tennessee reflects humans’ interaction with the natural world.  The most important action the jar performs is “[taking] dominion everywhere” (9).  This line reveals the true power the jar has over the wilderness.  The wilderness was suppressed, “sprawled around, no longer wild,” when it “rose up to [the jar]” (6, 5).  While the jar is merely sitting on a hill, it is capable of exerting such a force over nature that it tames the unruly wilderness, forcing it to surrender to its control.

In addition to the jar’s personification, the relationship between the narrator and the jar reinforces the argument that the jar is representative of humanity as a whole.  The fact that the narrator, “I” in the first line, places the jar into the scene, introducing it into the wilderness, demonstrates that it is an extension of him.  The jar did not appear on the hill on its own, it originated from the nameless, faceless narrator.  The power behind the jar’s influence over and interaction with the environment is the narrator, a human being.  Humans do not always directly impact the natural world, but their influence can be felt through the byproducts of their presence.   The jar, a symbol for all of humanity, contains the wilderness, reflecting humanity’s repression of nature.

Stevens contrasts the jar with the environment in which is it placed, emphasizing their differences.  He states it plainly in the last line when he says the jar is “like nothing else in Tennessee” (12).  Firstly, the jar is an inanimate object, manmade, not a part of the nature surrounding it.  The wilderness is made up of living creatures, plants, and organisms that “give of bird or bush” (11).  Trees and animals do not exist isolated from everything around them.   Instead, they provide for and sustain each other.  Secondly, the jar is immobile, described as either “upon a hill” or “upon the ground” (2, 7).  The wilderness, in contrast, is portrayed as “slovenly” (2).  It is unruly, overgrown, and constantly changing.  The wilderness “rose up” and “sprawled around,” proving it is capable of movement (5, 6).  Lastly, the jar is described as “gray and bare” (10).  It is dull, plain, and ordinary.  The “slovenly” wilderness is filled with color and texture: leaves and trees, flowers and plants, as well as the diverse creatures that live in an environment such as this.  By employing these contrasts, Stevens sets up two opposing forces that make up both sides of the struggle between the jar, representing humanity, and the wilderness, which represents the natural world.

Containment is an important theme that appears continuously throughout the poem. The most obvious place it can be observed is with the jar, but there is another important instance in which it is present as well: the setting.  The fact that Stevens places the jar in “Tennessee” not only provides a real world setting in which the poem takes place but also emphasizes the theme of containment (1).  Tennessee is an arbitrary boundary created by humans, with the purpose of taming the huge continent and bringing it under the control of man.  State lines did not exist in the natural world before humans came in and took over.  Their creation is a way for man to establish his dominion over the unruliness of nature, just as the jar takes dominion over the wilderness.

Furthermore, the poem itself reflects the theme of containment.  The style of writing is succinct, with no unnecessary words.  The three stanzas are uniform, each consisting of four lines.  In the same way, each line is generally the same length, never exceeding eight words.  The poem is not written in free verse where there are no rules and the poet is free from restrictions.  Instead, Stevens abides by certain limitations.  The short length and compact appearance of the poem can be observed when it is viewed in its entirety.  The poet’s conciseness of language and manner of writing echo the restrictiveness of the jar on the natural world around it.

Stevens’ choice of a jar as the subject of the poem successfully expresses the battle between humanity and the natural world.  Jars contain and restrict.  They serve as an excellent representation of the result of human interaction with nature.  In this poem, the jar represents humanity and its pattern of suppressing nature, taming it in order to fit into man’s ideal civilization.  Nature may still exist, but it will be in a different, more limited form, such as an occasional potted plant, garden, or park.  Rarely is it left to flourish as it did before humans or their influence interfered.

Comparison of Stevens and Coover

“A man and a woman 

Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird 

Are one.” (Stevens 10)

 

“That sweet odor that girls have.  The softness of her blouse.  He catches a glimpse of the gentle shadows amid her things, as she curls her legs up under her.  He stares hard at her.” (Coover 207)

Both of these texts deal with  extreme objectification, specifically the young girl in “The Babysitter” and the blackbird in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” from a variety of different viewpoints.  Both use the many-perspective narrative technique to fully explore the profundity of their subjects; however, Stevens uses his to sway the reader towards a calming sense of interconnectedness with nature while Coover employs the narrative style to overwhelm the reader with fewer, more extreme view-points to highlight the discordant tendencies of the traditional societal roles of women.

Stevens uses thirteen different stanzas, varying in tone and composition to reveal the nature of human misperceptions.  He uses the blackbird as the central object of the poem to call attention to and glorify the commonly overlooked blackbird.  With each stanza, he offers a different vignette which proposes a new way of examining the blackbird.  These many view points offer contradictory messages of tranquility and violence and nothingness and significance and result in a whirlwind of observations that culminate in the blurring of time and order,  which can be seen through claims in the final stanza such as “it was evening all afternoon” and “it was going to snow” (Stevens 50).   Coover uses a similar technique in the narrative of “The Babysitter”.  The chronology of the story is disjointed into short stanza-like paragraphs which vary in tone depending on the speaker.

Stevens uses the many dimensions of his narrative to depict an incalculable vastness of the physical world through heavily examining facets of the blackbird.  In doing so, he tackles the concept of sexuality with the above quote, acknowledging its immense influence over society.  Coover uses the multiple viewpoint method to demonstrate the ways in which the young girl is sexually objectified by societal roles for women.  Nameless, she is without a clear identity, defined instead by those around her as they focus and fantasize the different aspects of her sexuality.  To Mr Tucker, she is a fetishized reincarnation of his and his wife’s lost youth, to Jack and Mark she is the physical satiation of their most innate desires, and to Jimmy and Bitsy, she is an interim mother.  Each of these representations are shown through differing narrative styles; however, she is without a voice of her own and is thus torn apart by the tsunami of fantasy roles she as a malleable youth is expected to fulfill.

Close Reading of Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar”

Wallace Stevens’ poem “Anecdote of the Jar” explores the struggle between humans and nature.  Nature, left alone, grows continuously, existing harmoniously in interconnected ecosystems.  Every creature, plant, and organism in nature plays its a role in supporting the rest of the environment.  Humans, on the other hand, tend to take over when they enter a new place, destroying everything in their paths and, as a result, disrupting the delicate balance that existed before their intrusion.  Also, humans introduce artificiality to the world, converting nature from its original state of vitality and freedom to one of repression and control.  Stevens uses a jar in the wilderness as the subject of the poem because as a manmade object used for containment it effectively illustrates the struggle between humans and nature.

A jar is an object, made by man, of unnatural materials, with an artificial shape.  It is described vaguely as “round” like a typical jar (2).  It has a definite, immovable shape that forces whatever object or material placed inside of it to conform to its shape.  Stevens gives it a sense of superiority with the description “tall and of a port in air” and by placing it physically above the rest of the environment, “upon a hill,” suggesting it has an advantage over the wilderness (8, 2).  A jar also serves as a barrier between what is inside and what is outside.  The final feature of a jar that supports the argument that it represents containment is its lid.  When in place at the opening of the jar, the lid completely shuts out the rest of the world, enclosing only what is desired in the limited space of the jar.  The jar itself is the most obvious illustration of containment.

The jar is also personified.  It is described as having “made the slovenly wilderness/ Surround the hill” (3-4).  It is more than just an object; it takes on human characteristics, such as the ability to interact with and affect the world around it.  It represents something much larger than itself; it represents humanity and civilization.  The jar’s interaction with the wilderness of Tennessee reflects humans’ interaction with the natural world.  The most important action the jar performs is “[taking] dominion everywhere” (9).  This line reveals the true power the jar has over the wilderness.  The wilderness was suppressed, “sprawled around, no longer wild,” when it “rose up to [the jar]” (6, 5).  While the jar is merely sitting on a hill, it is capable of exerting such a force over nature that it tames the unruly wilderness.

In addition to the jar’s personification, the relationship between the narrator and the jar reinforces the argument that the jar is representative of humanity as a whole.  The fact that the narrator, “I” in the first line, places the jar into the scene, introducing it into the wilderness, demonstrates that it is an extension of him.  The jar did not appear on the hill on its own, it originated from the nameless, faceless narrator.  The power behind the jar’s influence over and interaction with the environment is the narrator, a human being.  Humans do not always directly impact the natural world, but their influence is felt from the byproducts of their presence.

Stevens contrasts the jar with the environment in which is it placed, emphasizing their differences.  He states it plainly in the last line when he says the jar is “like nothing else in Tennessee” (12).  Firstly, the jar is an inanimate object, manmade, not a part of the nature surrounding it.  The wilderness is made up of living creatures, plants, and organisms that “give of bird or bush” (11).  Trees and animals do not exist isolated from everything around them.   Instead, they provide for and sustain each other.  Secondly, the jar is immobile, described as either “upon a hill” or “upon the ground” (2, 7).  The wilderness, in contrast, is portrayed as “slovenly” (2).  It is unruly, overgrown, and constantly changing.  The wilderness “rose up” and “sprawled around,” proving it is capable of movement (5, 6).  Lastly, the jar is described as “gray and bare” (10).  It is dull, plain, and ordinary.  The “slovenly” wilderness is filled with color and texture: leaves and trees, flowers and plants, as well as the diverse creatures that live in an environment such as this.  By employing these contrasts, Stevens sets up two opposing forces that make up both sides of the struggle between the jar, representing humanity, and the wilderness, which represents the natural world.

Containment is a theme that appears continuously throughout the poem. The most obvious place it can be observed is with the jar, but there is another important instance in which it is present as well: the setting.  The fact that Stevens places the jar in “Tennessee” not only provides a real world setting in which the poem takes place but also emphasizes the theme of containment (1).  Tennessee is an arbitrary boundary created by humans, with the purpose of taming the huge continent and bringing it under the control of man.  State lines did not exist in the natural world before humans came in and took over.  Their creation is a way for man to establish his dominion over the unruliness of nature, just as the jar takes dominion over the wilderness.

Furthermore, the poem itself reflects the theme of containment.  The style of writing is succinct, with no unnecessary words.  The three stanzas are uniform, each consisting of four lines.  In the same way, each line is generally the same length, never exceeding eight words.  The poem is not free verse, where there are no rules and the poet is free from restrictions.  Rather, Stevens abides by certain limitations.  The short length and compact appearance of the poem can be observed when it is viewed in its entirety.  The poet’s conciseness of language and manner of writing echo the restrictiveness of the jar on the natural world around it.

Stevens’ choice of a jar as the subject of the poem successfully expresses the battle between humanity and the natural world.  Jars contain and restrict.  They serve as an excellent representation of the result of human interaction with nature.  In this poem, the jar represents humanity and its pattern of suppressing nature, taming it in order to fit into man’s ideal civilization.  Nature may still exist, but it will be in a different, more limited form, such as an occasional potted plant, garden, or park.  Rarely is it left to flourish as it did before humans or their influence interfered.

Comparison of Donald Barthelme and Wallace Stevens

“The apparent purposelessness of the balloon was vexing (as was the fact that it was “there” at all).  Had we painted, in great letters, “LABORATORY TESTS PROVE” or “18% MORE EFFECTIVE” on the sides of the balloon, this difficulty would have been circumvented.  But I could not bear to do so.” (Barthelme 606)

“Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan

Of tan with henna hackles, halt!”  (Stevens)

According to the introductory paragraphs about Donald Barthelme, he expressed the idea that “language, rather than what language represents, could be the subject of fiction” (604).  I believe “The Balloon” reflects this idea in a way.  The narrator never reveals satisfactorily why the balloon is there.  There are no explanatory signs on it such as those the narrator suggests in the passage above.  He seems to simply be interested in the peoples’ reactions to it: wonder, anger, admiration, and pleasure among others.  While I was reading this story, I had the single-minded need to discover the purpose for which the balloon was there, over New York City for twenty-two days.  I became just another observer of the balloon, searching for its origin and its significance just like all the other characters.  By the end I decided that that’s what the narrator wants, simply to make people think differently and admire without giving in to the desire of finding meaning in everything.  The balloon has a specific meaning, possibly related to the narrator’s unhappiness, but he isn’t willing to reveal it to the rest of the world.  His goal is to make the people and furthermore, the reader, appreciate the balloon for being a balloon without giving it an underlying significance.

This story made me think of Wallace Stevens’ “Bantams in Pine-Woods,” which presents a similar idea.  There is no discernable meaning or plot to Stevens’ poem.  The opening stanza quoted above, is gibberish, meaningless, but it sounds nice when read aloud.  The poem is simply words put together in a manner that sound pleasing to read.  There may be some deeper meaning, but the person who wrote the poem is the only one who can possibly identify it.  Stevens, like the narrator in “The Balloon,” is hiding the profound significance from the readers.  Try as we might, we can’t decipher every word and stanza to say with confidence that we understand Stevens’ meaning.  It appears that his only obvious goal was to create something that can be appreciated for the way it sounds and the language itself.

Stevens keeps the reader in the dark by using alliteration of strange words and incoherent sentences.  Barthelme keeps the reader in the dark by focusing on the reactions of the people living under this strange balloon.  He takes the reader on a journey of various attempts by different characters to understand the balloon, but never reveals the true reason for its existence.  For me, reading both of these works was a similar experience.  It was like going through a maze and ending up back where you started.  I continued searching for the other side but only ended up appreciating the journey.

On Pecha-Kuchas and Wallace Stevens

As we discussed in class yesterday, you’ll begin the class you lead this semester with a modified pecha-kucha presentation. Traditionally, a pecha-kucha is an image-heavy presentation in which 20 slides display for 20 seconds each as a speaker narrates them. This pecha-kucha on emotionally intelligent signage is a classic example. I said yesterday that I’m consistently proud of the p-ks my students have produced–if you want to read about why, feel free to visit this blog post from my academic blog, which also links to a number of p-ks from ENWR classes I taught last year. This fall, students in my American Modernisms course also did pecha-kuchas to explain various terms related to modernism–they’re collected here (I’m still trying to find time to get a couple of them up on the site).

In the p-ks you do this semester, you should have 10 slides devoted to contextualizing an author and 10 slides devoted to a close reading. The modification to the format, then, is mostly in the last ten slides, where you’ll emphasize specific words in a passage from the text. Once you’ve recorded it and posted it to YouTube/the blog (or had me post it to YouTube/the blog), it will look something like this.

“Whirled” – “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, line 7

The action, “whirled”, which the blackbird takes in the third stanza of Wallace Steven’s, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, is pivotal to understanding the blackbird’s role and significance within the poem. The blackbird “whirled in the autumn winds” (7). Though the blackbird has wings and is able to fly against the winds, it accepts the winds and lets them take him wherever they please. In letting the winds take him, it is evident that the blackbird realizes and accepts the fact that life and existence are essentially, at their core, beyond his control. The blackbird has acknowledged the fact that “it was a small part of the pantomime” (8), or rather a just a mere, tiny speck in the whole pantomime, or “dramatic theater” of life, existence, the universe, etc. This profound understanding of life that the blackbird has is far beyond human comprehension; humans fail to grasp this idea that they are just tiny, tiny specks in the whole of existence and rather, like to consider themselves somehow superior or larger than that. The reader is able to see that this self-knowledge that the blackbird has mastered is beyond human comprehension, in the ninth stanza. “When the blackbird flew out of sight/It marked the edge/Of one of many circles” (35-37). The blackbird’s acceptance of its small place in universe “marks the edge” of the comprehension that humans have of their own existence, thus its “flying out of sight” means its flying out of a human being’s zone or circle of comprehension; the blackbird’s comprehension of existence is far beyond where humans can see – it is entirely out of sight for humans.        Additionally, the reader is able to see the fear that humans have in coming to this realization that they are just tiny specks, in stanza eleven where a man is scared when “he mistook/The shadow of the his equipage/For blackbirds” (45-47). The man is scared because as he rides along in this coach, a symbol of man’s feeling of superiority and of their belief that they are larger than they really are (perhaps to go do some seemingly important, grand task), he sees the shadow of “blackbirds”. In seeing the “blackbirds” instead of seeing the shadow of this symbol of superiority, the man is really seeing the truth of man’s small existence, over which he truly has little control, and thus the man gets scared when forced to face this truth of life. Yet, I don’t think the point of the poem is to scare us; this fact that we are all tiny specks, intertwined and connected to make up something larger than life is something beautiful – “A man and a woman and a blackbird/Are all one” (11). This poem stands to say that we as humans shouldn’t be afraid of this fact, but instead we should embrace the oneness of everything woven together to make up something much larger and greater than ourselves.

“dominion” – “Anecdote of the Jar,” line 9

I chose this word in Wallace Stevens’ poem “Anecdote of the Jar” because in my opinion it expresses the main struggle of the poem between man and nature.  The poem starts out with a jar, a seemingly harmless object made by man, which is placed in the wilderness of Tennessee.  It is described as a “round” jar, which portrays an image of containment and control in contrast to the “slovenly wilderness” (2,3).  In the first stanza and continuing through the second the wilderness seems to have the power in this Tennessee countryside as it “surround[s] the hill” where the jar has been placed and then “[rises] up” to the jar (4,5).  But the jar eventually wins in this struggle.  It tames the wilderness to “no longer [be] wild” (6).  The description of the jar continues, being described as “tall and of a port in air,” an image that seems to give the jar more power and relevance amidst the unruly forest (8). Then the poem culminates in the line “It took dominion everywhere” (9).  Here we see that man has won over nature completely wiping out the freedom of growth of the wilderness by restraining and controlling it.  There is no life sustaining and life giving power in the place taken over by civilization as shown in line 11, “It did not give of bird or bush.”  Humans have taken over and sucked the life out of this Tennessee wilderness.

I found the jar to represent man, specifically civilization and the tendency for man to take over landscapes of nature that were once colorful, life giving, and beautiful and turn them into dull, “gray[,] and bare” concrete landscapes made by man (10).  I also think it’s important to note that the title is “Anecdote of the Jar.”  This isn’t something that actually happened; a jar didn’t tame an entire forest.  The jar represents humanity and its tendency to take over and destroy the natural world.  This path of destruction can start with something as simple as a jar.