Dave Buckhout .
Wallace Stevens was chief architect of an experimental ‘modernist’ style of poetry. He broke from conventional expectation and allowed the subtle whims of free-associative verse a leading role. In Stevens’ capable hands, he helped explode the staid / censored artistic traditions of the early twentieth-century in step with the Picassos, Kandinskys and Paul Klees (a personal favorite of W.S.) who were then taking TNT to expectations—and reveling in the deconstruction. Stevens helped re-imagine, re-engineer and re-chart the future of poetry away from fixed-points and tired meters towards one teeming with unexplored abstractions. Where there had been inertia, Stevens injected a lethal dose of ‘chaos theory.’ Given his occasional fiery—highly public—outbursts, raconteur-ism certainly seemed a conscious part of his plan. He may have only admitted it with a wink, but jostling things up lay at the core of his stylistic divergence (his long-running feuds with traditionalist Robert Frost helps support this theory).
And yet, part of why he remains a fascinating character is that this convention-defying art seems at best improbable in scanning his ‘traditionalist’ bio: a successful lawyer turned successful executive, eventually becoming a vice-president at insurance giant, The Hartford. And what’s more, this career was well-established in advance of his major artistic works even appearing—let alone the rightful accolades his poetry would eventually receive … It certainly takes all types; and perhaps it was this straight-laced work-a-day existence that fueled his alter-ego verse. At the time (his major works published between 1920s-1950s), it was a highly unique rendering of the art-form. Steven’s playful, yet polished sculpting of word-sentence-theme, the abstract moods, the fantastical impressionistic settings, these are the traits that continue to impress over half-a-century later—despite the wide-ranging societal / artistic upheavals that have occurred since he was putting his work to paper. Generally-speaking, abstraction has an easier go of it, time-wise; works that purposefully incorporate contemporary fads adding in time-stamps that often tag a piece for the dustbin just as soon as its “fifteen minutes” are up … Not so with abstraction. Not so with ‘Wally.’
Abstraction wrapped around a theme has always drawn me in for closer inspection. It is the lack of definitive boundaries that does it. In the freely expressed strokes of Stevens’ poetry is an invitation to apply your own meaning, to apply the unique blend of conscious / subconscious influences that makes our personal perspective ours. Reading Stevens, I always felt he was issuing that invitation: “here is verse; make of it what you will” … A few years back, I did just that. What follows is a verse-style ‘riff’ on a passage from Stevens’ “The Comedian as the Letter C,” a long-form poem in his first book of poetry: Harmonium (1923). This particular passage I found easily applicable to life’s ebb-and-flow, the ups-downs, the metaphorical nights and the light-of-days in a perpetual cycle. But there was one key point in the metaphor (as I interpreted it): in the darkest dark of night, that it when it is most important to push hard for the warmth of light. Do not narrow your scope, your expectations—do not settle for the ‘moonlight fiction.’
"The Moonlight Fiction" » A Tribute in Verse
And as he came he saw that it was spring,
A time abhorrent to the nihilist
Or searcher for the fecund minimum.
The moonlight fiction disappeared.
"The Comedian as the Letter C" › Wallace Stevens
Poise under pressure. The unknown: fostering the inquisitive or feeding the fear harbored in shadows? in negative voids lurking? Walk through, steer into the darkness. Be bold; night but the prelude to day, light … But then: the night consumes day—all of light. Swallowed whole, a dreadnought veil that consumes, devours. It lords over. Dusk. Night … Dawn. Day. The rebirth, the mysterious vapors—inchoate, incorporeal—swept off with the rising of the miracle eye. Warmth, light, our universal reason to live rises to the east.
Seize. Live. Produce. Create beneath the prodigious light that pours, the Angel Falls of potential soaking the sponge-like sense of youth when all is still possible, attainable—eventual, even … But then: forced to grope through the gray, the cloak descending as a curtain at show’s end, bringing the fertile soaking to a close. Suspicion, mystery, the unknown reigns. Anxiety spins webs of sleek silken fear; dreading, treading the light-less ink. The webs of fears spider across flailing arms, fluttering hands and face; heartbeat racing … Breathe deep. Steer into it: the darkness.
Moonlight rains silver slivers on plains folding into dark corners untouched, hiding the threats imagined, the threats real. What lies beyond this silver front? out amongst the vacuous formless hallow, beyond sight dilated? Imagination—fear—strains to give the shapeless life, the contrived awarded breath and blood and bone. What lies at the heart of the mammoth maw, the dark lethal riddle of the unknown? Disorder. Question. Wilderness. The nihilist’s fuel: fear! that shapeless boneless threat hinting of the feral enigma sowing its oppressive seed, grafting terror … And yet to fear fear is to fear life, its most terrified act a negative amongst the tens and hundreds of thousands that are not. To relent beneath the ripping overcast—swallowing hard, eyes darting, heart-pounding—gives shape to the gulag / the sanitarium within: where the madness is made docile, drugged, orderly. To fear is to be alive. To fear fear is to walk dead … And Wallace, old Wally, Hartford’s poet laureate, he tried to warn us … Submission, oppression? Alive, yet dead. Wally’s sage advice: tack into the storm, the darkness. For beyond lies the dawn, the gold-mandarin rising to east.
The mentioned dawn: the spring of each day. We embed a trust in each-and-every day, each opening scene. The curtain rises; the audience filled with promise, expectant of a greatness still possible—probable, even—anticipate, prepare. Go in! Seize! full-bore into the spring rolling out the day’s first rays, lighting the way … Still, on the fringes: the skirling peal of anonymous grey. Incognito it rushes in, surging up around ankles and shins as a riptide sweeps the beach. This creeping draw fogs the possible, the probable. “Vague” is personified, an asshole who’d just as soon throw sand in your eye as spit in it. Beneath the tutelage of the feared unknown, its unlit shadows—that damned moonlight fiction—the scene devolves on something much less than the probable possibility, the barren rickety hat-rack in the dusty corner on which we hang promise to languish, calcify … And yet it is what it is: sub-glorious, sub-standard, sub-par—and certain. It is the desolate minimum. And therein lie inspiration, the alternative to the sub-glorious reason: the desire—the need—to seek the fruitful maximum. We do it if only to spite the cynical “grey” … And light returns. It is beating darkness senseless. And the rays burn fog. Night becomes day. The gloom fades, brilliantly.
Wally could see it coming: the dull unquestioning drone that lines the contours of the feared unknown: encapsulating, metastasizing, devouring wonder from the inside-out—cell-by-cell—atom-by-atom—flensing the inquisitive carcass—bones left to bleach in the Saharan moonlight … And what then? An ancient certainty asserts itself, the certainty of stifling inquiry, cross-examination, hope for the dawn. The pious minimum—fecund, stale, safe (?) — reigns, as the dark over night. The certain tortoise removes to its inner sanctum, to the safety of a fantasy. And yet this perceived safety, too, is subject to the unknown mysteries, the shell-cracking vagaries—the unlit crevices beyond the silver slivers but fertile hunting-grounds of a predator known only as ‘narrow.’ As certain as the coming spring will cancel this narrow minimum, the calcified canards of those chosen tribunes shall wield their fury, their narrow hellfire fantasies. They serve their purpose: like the frog’s mosquito, the spider’s fly, the hawk’s rodent—i.e. the maximum’s protein. The unquestioning will feed the spring: grist for the millstone of the day’s early rays. For it is good and bright …
Wally tried to warn us. We should take heed. Your dawn awaits.
Publication Date: October 2, 2012