July 21, 2010

That airy dream of the future

My Facebook update today read: "Be seated, thou. Be seated."

It is cryptic and almost meaningless without the context, isn't it? It is a reference to the last line of a Wallace Stevens poem, titled 'Mozart, 1935'.

Here is the relevant excerpt:
"That airy dream of the future,
The unclouded concerto . . .
The snow is falling.
Strike the piercing chord.
Be thou the voice,
Not you. Be thou, be thou
The voice of angry fear,
The voice of this besieging pain.
Be thou that wintry sound
As of the great wind howling,
By which sorrow is released,
Dismissed, absolved
In a starry placating.
We may return to Mozart.
He was young, and we, we are old.
The snow is falling
And the streets are full of cries.
Be seated, thou."
I should admit that I would never have understood the poem as I now do if I had not read what this lovely blog post elucidates!
"The present must pass, and what is created remains. It is not the second coming of Christ that will comfort and save the masses in this poem; it is Mozart. It is the power of expression and the imagination that can reflect the present and offer absolution and the release of sorrow. We need to save ourselves, by force of the imagination and the transformation of what we experience into something that will survive to relate the experience to humanity as it gets older. Thus, the young Mozart still comforts and offers something to us, grown old and weary from war, economic depression, personal tragedy, and the inevitability that it will all happen again."
Alan Perlis goes further in explaining this poem in his book, Wallace Stevens: A World of Transforming Shapes):
As he does in so many poems, Stevens uses a contrived character to talk about himself as poet. The poet's song, which is a pastiche of many of the composer's songs, reminds us of our mortality by stripping away the feelings that enable us to avoid it. Each circle takes a turn inward until the poem reaches its center - the place from which no one can turn.

The feeling of death, which is a nearly constant presence in Stevens's poems, evokes two accompanying feelings, each usually expressed in circular patterns: terror and emptiness. The first is a dominant force in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and the prevailing force in "Domination of Black," a poem in which the eerie presences of night circulate and confound in the memory.
I could go on but I suggest you read more at the book (I got a copy from the local public library but it is available to read in great part via Google Books).

Stevens remains a poet whose poetry I find difficult to understand but still find amazing to just read over and over. There is a certain music in the arrangement of words that is alluring even when I do not understand it completely. You get the feeling he is saying something important - which you know is true but teases you by being on the fringes of your understanding. I should add that,
with the help of critics like  Perilis, Bloom, Vendler, and others, I am beginning to really understand the depth of many of his poems. But his oeuvre is so vast and his poetry has been analyzed so much, with various critics having explored so many different themes in each of his poems, that one wonders if one will ever completely "get" his poetry. And so I keep coming back to it every few months and re-reading the same poems and reading more and more about them, again and again, in a circular pattern of understanding and not understanding.

"Poetry, then, is the only possible heaven. It must necessarily be the poetry of ourselves; its source is in our imagination.” - Wallace Stevens

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