Sunday, February 28, 2010

Charles Wyatt on "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Wallace Stevens"

I think I need to look at some history. In the past several years, I’ve been fascinated by Rembrandt drawings and this led me to many attempts to draw them again in poems. It didn’t take me long to realize that almost all of those images had narrative implications. So my question to myself became, “What comes next?”

Then I became interested in archaic words as points of departure for poems. A poem examining an antique word asks another question, “What went before?” It burrows into the word and tries to discover its possible cosmologies. Then I became interested in fairy tales (because I’m a fiction writer and I wanted to burrow into the notion of story). There’s a lot of counting in fairy tales which seems to have more to do with music than with narrative—perhaps it’s the hinge where the two parted—I still puzzling this out. Anyway, there are always fairy tale images floating around in my unconscious these days.

I tell my students that poems come out of poems and stories come out of stories. But there are lots of ways that can happen. We can take a story type as a cantus firmus and write a new melody over it. Using the musical analogy is comforting to me because I’ve made my living as a symphony musician for most of my life, and I like to think of music both as something that comes out of poems, and as something that builds them or allows them to happen.

I’ve always enjoyed reading Wallace Stevens. My grandmother gave me The Collected Poems when I graduated from college. I’ve read them in a kind of sleepy way, listening the way people listen to music while doing other things. So when I got the idea of doing a sequence of poems which use lines of Stevens as points of departure, I found myself doing something new. In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking asks, “Why can’t we remember the future?” He’s led to that question by a mathematics that allows time to move in either direction. But there is something in music that is kin to this notion. Neurologists have discovered that musical memory lies in a different place in the brain and works in a different way. People who have totally lost short term memory still have musical memory. Oliver Sachs has written a lot about this issue.

When I play a Mozart flute concerto from memory, I am connected to everything which came before, but also to everything that is coming. There is a continuum which allows the musician to be connected to all of the music even though he or she is still having to plow through the present moment of life’s narrative (however long the present is).

So a line of Wallace Stevens has any number of histories, all its connections with the poem it’s in and all the other poems it lives with in that ratty old book my grandmother gave me. And if I let it fall on me like music, it connects with my own images which spring out of the future. I’m getting to burrow back and float forward at the same time.(I don’t know if it’s completely honest to say images spring out of the future, but I do know they weren’t there a moment ago. Where were they?)

Because I was thinking about “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” as a model, I wanted the poems to be short. I wanted to let go of them as soon as I could. Of course, they hung on as long as they wanted. Back to process. Like blowing bubbles? Some burst. Revision meant going on to another poem. First person didn’t work very well for me—I think Stevens uses it when he’s being most cerebral. This isn’t what I was after. I just wanted to let go and float away.


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  2. If “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is a collection of sensations, rather than of epigrams or ideas as Stevens asserts (according to Helen Vendler in her book on his longer poems, On Extended Wings), then I’ve tried to do the same thing with this grab bag of found lines.

    I notice that only one of the lines I chose comes without a verb (an old Stevens trick) and that’s III. It’s the only one in which I can’t recall what happened in the leap from the WS line to the business of morning light and moving air and bees – the Stevens line is a mystery to me now. All the others I selected seem like little narratives, or, at least, they suggest stories to me. Maybe it is the Rembrandt effect. What comes after the sovereign and sign? What’s next? That day it was bees. And we end up in the lap of a fairy tale.

    Thanks for your attentive notes.