Wallace Stevens wrote a now-famous poem entitled “Anecdote of the Jar.” It goes as follows:
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
and sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
I’ve always had problems with this poem and with Stevens generally, though he did write plenty that is, if not especially coherent, at least interesting lexically and from the standpoint of imagery and tone. When I think of Stevens, I think of a man reciting nonsense in very serious tones. Because it’s hard to make much sense of lots of Stevens’s stuff and because his diction is diverse and often unexpected, I read some of his stuff to Lennie a few months ago. I figured it was just a way of exposing her to sounds other than my usual vocabulary at little risk of getting bogged down in meaning. Strange, I guess.
Anyway, in the last couple of months, I’ve read two tributes or parodies or something relating to the poem, and they’ve both irritated me because it was as if they were trying to be more clever than they in fact turned out to be. It was as if they were trying to get by with an inside joke, but the Stevens poem is so well known that it’s not really an inside joke. It’s like being very proud of a painfully obvious punchline. What’s more, both have a sort of titular pun clanging around in them, making the arm-waving “look at me, this is my version of Stevens’s poem” feel of the poems that much worse.
The first example I encountered was by Robert Wrigley in Lives of the Animals, which I treat here. He also seems to wink in the direction of Yeats in the stanza I quote below:
And though I wander around it, my widening gyre,
my careful forensic finds no line, no
other post anywhere, only this, which,
because it is wood, will fall,
the slovenly wilderness at last
avenging its mystery, its jarring illogic —
In retrospect, I actually like the poem, and it provides a pretty decent sort of answer or response to Stevens’s poem, but the “jarring” pun and the self-consciousness of it sort of turn me off.
Similarly, in the April 2005 volume of POETRY (which is uncharacteristically thick and full of poetry in comparision to volumes from the last year or two, which have been prose-heavy without any extra thickness), Lauren McCollum acknowledges Stevens openly but goes on with the not-oblique-enough-to-be-subtle punning, as follows:
His spare hand tore at the wilderness
as if it were a metaphor or something
that couldn’t be as it seemed
I was jarred with the whole of my state…
It’s still an ok poem (Wrigley’s is better), but would have been better without the obvious references, which seem rather like somebody stating the obvious without knowing it’s obvious and thinking they’re pretty darned smart for having managed it.