17 April 2012

National Poetry Month: 17

Two by Wallace Stevens (1879 - 1955). Like Charles Ives, another American individualist/modernist artist, he made his living as an insurance executive. That's often considered a strange occupation for an artist, but personally, I don't see it that way; his insurance work involved assessment and investigation and an awareness of risk and reality, qualities that are useful for an artist (as is the discipline necessitated by a regular job). He spent most of his life in Hartford, Connecticut, which certainly has an aura of respectable dullness, but at that time the Hartford Atheneum under Chick Austin's leadership was actually one of the leading centers of modernist art in America (one of the earliest American exhibits of Picasso's work was held there, as was the premiere of the Stein/Thomson opera 4 Saints in 3 Acts, which Stevens attended).

Nonetheless I can't help feeling the first poem here is a bit of a reflection on a certain type of American conformity. I love Stevens's use of color. The second poem is just there for beauty's sake, the beauty of winter, which can take longer to appreciate than the more obvious seductions of the warmer months.

Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

– Wallace Stevens

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