Christmas has for me long been associated with a good read. Books have always figured prominently on my wish lists, and to be able to curl up with a good new book was ever an essential part of the festivities. This time around it was not a new book, but one I was given way back in September and have not yet been able to put back on its shelf: "Wallace Stevens: The Collected Poems". How did he manage to stay beneath my radar for so long? True, I had read the odd poem, but individually they had somehow not amounted to a significant encounter.
Latterly, I have been getting to know (I think - I hope!) his "The Man with the Blue Guitar", a long poem which seems to have inspired as many interpretations as there have been interpreters, analysts and reviewers. So, it is about perception; it deals with the different natures and roles of poetry and music; it is a debate between philosophers of the Realism and Anti-Realism schools; it is concerned with form and function in art; it is a dream sequence; and so on. They seem to agree about only one thing: it was inspired or suggested by Picasso's Blue Period painting.
Here now, for what it is worth, is the way I have come to see the poem:
It takes the form of a dialogue between the man and "them" and it opens with:
"The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."
The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."
And they said then, "But play you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are."
There are thirty-three such sections, though of varying length.
I suppose that the first thing that might detain the reader is "A shearsman of sorts". It's unexpected. In what sense is a man playing a guitar a shearsman? But we see, as the poem progresses, that he is shaping reality. He is bent over his guitar, an image, perhaps, of the artisan/craftsman's concentration as he brings the inherent beauty out of his natural material - though changing it in the process.
The poem raises the question: can we, in fact, see things as they are? "Things as they are" is a phrase that is repeated like a refrain throughout the poem, but it could be said that the reality we see is merely a figment of our brains. If these were constructed differently, or if our eyes were sensitive, not to what we now call the visible part of the spectrum, but to rays of longer or shorter wavelengths, would not the world look rather different? Or to take another example: our brains do not receive photographic-type images from the world. Rather, a few cells receive data concerning straight lines in the field of vision, elsewhere others are informed about the existence of corners, yet others handle curves, and so forth. Somehow these fragments are assembled to form the picture that we "see", but if our brains were structured differently... So the day is green, but the guitar, the shaping tool (and/or the organ of the man's perception?) is blue.
In a much later long poem, "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven", Stevens again uses the same colour coding:
"....... and green, the signal
To the lover, and blue, as of a secret place
In the anonymous color of the universe."
In the same poem we also read:
"Reality as a thing seen by the mind,
Not that which is, but that which is apprehended."
So the guitarist asks (section XII):
do I begin and end? And where,
As I strum the thing, do I pick up
That which momentously declares
Itself not to be I and yet
Must be. It could be nothing else."
As he shapes reality and finds in it meaning that was not apparent when the material was in its "raw" state, he momentarily (whilst the shaping proceeds?) "loses" himself (loses track of his identity, the me/not me) in what emerges, for reality is not as it had seemed to be. Or again, we read:
"Poetry is the subject of the poem,
From this the poem issues and
To this returns. Between the two,
Between issue and return, there is
An absence of reality."
Taken in its entirety, the poem seems to me to suggest the existence of three realities: "Things as they are", things as we perceive them and things as imagined (shaped) by the creative imagination. In this, poetry is taking over from (has to take over from) religion. It dons the mantle that religion once wore in making sense of the universe.
Exceeding music must take the place
of empty heaven and its hymns."
Or again: in "An Ordinary Evening...." (Section IX) we read:
"We keep coming back and coming back
To the real: to the hotel instead of the hymns
That fall upon it out of the wind."
"Reality is the beginning, not the end,
Naked Alpha, not the hierophant Omega,
It is the infant A standing on infant legs
Not twisted, stooping, polymathic Z"
The poem is ultimately optimistic.
"You as you are? You are yourself.
The blue guitar surprises you."
and Stevens at the end finds his authoritative voice:
"And things are a I think they are
And say they are on the blue guitar."
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Question: What should we make of Section III ? Ideas welcome. (It is "they" who speak.)
"Ah, but to play man number one,
To drive the dagger in his heart,
To lay his brains upon the board
And pick the acrid colors out,
To nail his thought across the door,
Its wings spread wide to rain and snow,
To strike his living hi and ho,
To tick it, tock it, turn it true,
To bang it from a savage blue,
Jangling the metal of the strings...."
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