The face of the giant | Wallace Stevens

I thought, on the train, how utterly weI thought, on the train, how utterly we have forsaken the Earth, in the sense of excluding it from our thoughts. There are but few who consider its physical hugeness, its rough enormity. It is still a disparate monstrosity, full of solitudes & barrens & wilds. It still dwarfs & terrifies & crushes. The rivers still roar, the mountains still crash, the winds still shatter. Man is an affair of cities. His gardens & orchards & fields are mere scrapings. Somehow, however, he has managed to shut out the face of the giant from his windows. But the giant is there, nevertheless.

-Wallace Stevens

Souvenirs and Prophecies, ed. Holly Stevens (New York: Knopf, 1977), note of April 18, 1904, p. 134.

The House was Quiet and the World was Calm~~Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens is a relatively recent addition to the hallowed mental halls of poets I love. In fact, I fell in love with his poetry right around the same time I fell in love with another man from Connecticut. (Wink.) And like all poets and writers I love, I get defensive of where and how their works are used. Particularly on the wild, wild west of the internet.

Wallace Stevens is quotable, to be sure. I know many folks stumble on this site by having searched, “The self is a cloister full of remembered sounds.” And often, in the summer, the line “The summer night is like a perfection of thought” shows up here and there, but really, the whole poem is worth a look. On a summer night, naturally.

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

~~Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955)
(from “Harmonium,” 1923)

Another interesting thing about internet postings of poetry is that the posters often “clean up” intentional word choices and spellings. Poor e.e. cummings is often a victim of this, but it happens to Stevens too. The poem above usually appears online with either “much” or “most” deleted from line 7, even though every edition of Harmonium and the Collected Works, as well as the many poetry-appreciation anthologies in which it appears, publish the line that Stevens actually wrote: “Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be…” So perhaps that is the best argument I can make for books, for printed, paper-and-ink books: “The access of perfection to the page.”

Wallace Stevens | The Woman That Had More Babies Than That

The Woman That Had More Babies Than That
by Wallace Stevens

Venice Pavilion and Auditorium, ca.1905

I
An acrobat on the border of the sea
Observed the waves, the rising and the swell
And the first line spreading up the beach; again,
The rising and the swell, the preparation
And the first line foaming over the sand; again,
The rising and the swell, the first line’s glitter,
Like a dancer’s skirt, flung round and settling down.
This was repeated day by day. The waves
Were mechanical, muscular. They never changed,
They never stopped, a repetition repeated
Continually—There is a woman has had
More babies than that. The merely revolving wheel
Returns and returns, along the dry, salt shore.
There is a mother whose children need more than that.
She is not the mother of landscapes but of those
That question the repetition on the shore,
Listening to the whole sea for a sound
Of more or less, ascetically sated
By amical tones.
The acrobat observed
The universal machine. There he perceived
The need for a thesis, a music constant to move.

II
Berceuse, transatlantic. The children are men, old men,
Who, when they think and speak of the central man,
Of the humming of the central man, the whole sound
Of the sea, the central humming of the sea,
Are old men breathed on by a maternal voice,
Children and old men and philosophers,
Bald heads with their mother’s voice still in their ears.
The self is a cloister full of remembered sounds
And of sounds so far forgotten, like her voice,
That they return unrecognized. The self
Detects the sound of a voice that doubles its own,
In the images of desire, the forms that speak,
The ideas that come to it with a sense of speech.
The old men, the philosophers, are haunted by that
Maternal voice, the explanation at night.
They are more than parts of the universal machine.
Their need in solitude: that is the need,
The desire, for the fiery lullaby.

III
If her head
Stood on a plain of marble, high and cold;
If her eyes were chinks in which the sparrows built;
If she was deaf with falling grass in her ears—
But there is more than a marble, massive head.
They find her in the crackling summer night,
In the Duft of town, beside a window, beside
A lamp, in a day of the week, the time before spring,
A manner of walking, yellow fruit, a house,
A street. She has a supernatural head.
On her lips familiar words become the words
Of an elevation, and elixir of the whole.
Wallace Stevens: Opus Posthumous: Poems, Plays, Prose