Let Be Be Finale of Seem

SA187
Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955)

“The Truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Oscar Wilde

The Emperor of Ice Cream

by Wallace Stevens

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

 

Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.


 

I don’t know why I love this poem.   Maybe it’s the mixture of serious with the silly. It paints a great picture, even if I am not sure I totally understand what its all about. Good poetry has a veil around it that allows the reader to decide and this one leaves plenty for the reader to interpret.

A more interesting question is whether Wallace was intentionally playing with a sonnet concept when he wrote it? At first glance this is obviously not a sonnet, at least to any purist. But when I look closer, I am not so sure. It is 138 syllables in length, shockingly close to our 140 syllable traditional sonnet.  It is 16 lines, not 14, but its clever in how the rhyming scheme is incorporated with a 1-2 punch at the end, just like an English sonnet.  The final two lines of each stanza is 21 syllables.   If you count enough sonnets there are plenty of others that finish with an extra syllable or two when it carries the sonnet to its natural conclusion.

Stevens was consciously moving away from traditional metrical poetry to voice his own unique style throughout his career. But the pull of tradition impacts writers and artists in unusual ways and it would have been interesting to have a conversation with Wallace on whether, even subconsciously, his experience with sonnets had an impact on his creation of this wonderful poem.

I often am attracted to a poem for one line and for me in this poem it is the line “Let be be finale of seem.”   It is such a convoluted use of the word be and yet it makes sense to me.   It says to me – our impressions have the final say in what’s real and what is not, for though we may have eyes in our heads it is our brains that decide what is that we see.

And Yet One Arrives Somehow

 

rolla-henri-gervex
Rolla by Henri Gervex

Arrival

by William Carlos Williams

And yet one arrives somehow,
finds himself loosening the hooks of
her dress
in a strange bedroom—
feels the autumn
dropping its silk and linen leaves
about her ankles.
The tawdry veined body emerges
twisted upon itself
like a winter wind . . . !


There is a tradition in poetry which I admire; that being established poets mentoring the next generation of poets who are pushing the current boundaries of poetry.  Many of my favorite poets have maintained a wide circle of friendships, and provided encouragement and criticism to new writers,  helping them to hone their craft.

William Carlos Williams is an example and maintained correspondence and friendships with many poets, including Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Charles Abbott, James Laughlin, Louis Zukofsky, and Denise Levertov to name a few. Levertov, a disciple of Williams’ Imagist style, wrote him an admiring letter when she was young, and included several of her poems. Williams wrote back, providing validation and the most generous act of all, suggested edits, to help refine her writing technique.

Levertov penned an interesting explanation of why modern poetry evolved in the 20th century beyond the confines of more formal metrical structure like sonnets.  In it she wrote:

“.….I do not mean to imply that I consider modern, nonmetrical poetry “better” or “superior” to the great poetry of the past, which I love and honor. That would obviously be absurd. But I do feel that there are few poets today whose sensibility naturally expresses itself in the traditional forms…The closed, contained quality of such forms has less relation to the relativistic sense of life which unavoidably prevails in the late twentieth century than modes that are more exploratory, more open-ended. A sonnet may end with a question; but its essential,underlying structure arrives at conclusion. “Open forms” do not necessarily terminate inconclusively, but their degree of conclusion is–structurally, and thereby expressively–less pronounced, and partakes of the open quality of the whole…The forms more apt to express the sensibility of our age are the exploratory, open ones.”

Excerpt from The Function of The Line, 1979.  Yale University Press.

It is an interesting idea, that the poets of the 20th and now 21 century have left structure and rhyme behind because there are no answers to the madness that befalls this world on a daily basis.  But there’s always been madness.  And in my opinion, if poetry lacks beauty, in some form, it lacks a timeless quality that is the cornerstone of verse that survives its epoch.  As readers we toy with darkness and enjoy rolling in the mud from time to time, but’s its the light of poetry that is the bread of life for our souls. Its why, when I ask someone, do you have a favorite poem, the answer if yes, is more often than not, a metrical rhyming poem.  A poem where there is a reassurance of an answer. Poems where there is something concrete in meaning or imagery for the reader to find, not words that were by design to be elusive, there is something for the reader to hold on to.

Wallace Stevens’ legacy is primarily his originality of free verse, but he wrote beautifully in traditional forms as well, even if he found “it sounded like the rise, of distant echo from dead melody, soft as a song heard far in Paradise.”


Sonnet

by Wallace Stevens

Lo, even as I passed beside the booth
Of roses, and beheld them brightly twine
To damask heights, taking them as a sign
Of my own self still unconcerned with truth;
Even as I held up in hands uncouth
And drained with joy the golden-bodied wine,
Deeming it half-unworthy, half divine,
From out the sweet-rimmed goblet of my youth.

Even in that pure hour I heard the tone
Of grievous music stir in memory,
Telling me of the time already flown
From my first youth. It sounded like the rise
Of distant echo from dead melody,
Soft as a song heard far in Paradise.

Home To Your Heart

 

Wallace-Stevens-portrait
Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955)

 

“One thing I am convinced more and more is true and that is this: the only way to be truly happy is to make others happy. When you realize that and take advantage of the fact, everything is made perfect.”

William Carlos Williams in letter to his Mother, published in Selected Letters 1957.

 

Slow Movement

by William Carlos Williams

All those treasures that lie in the little bolted box whose tiny space is
Mightier than the room of the stars, being secret and filled with dreams:
All those treasures—I hold them in my hand—are straining continually
Against the sides and the lid and the two ends of the little box in which I guard them;
Crying that there is no sun come among them this great while and that they weary of shining;
Calling me to fold back the lid of the little box and to give them sleep finally.

But the night I am hiding from them, dear friend, is far more desperate than their night!
And so I take pity on them and pretend to have lost the key to the little house of my treasures;
For they would die of weariness were I to open it, and not be merely faint and sleepy
As they are now.


I am a little envious of artists whose skill and daring make it possible for them to earn a living as an artist.  I have never had such pluck.  I am in good company when it comes to poets in that regard.  Many of the poets I admire and who helped shape the poetic language of the 20th Century did not make their living as a poet.  William Carlos Williams was a doctor, a general practitioner in Patterson, NY and Wallace Stevens was an executive for a insurance company in New York City.  Either could be the patron saint of the responsible adult toiling daily in a job they may or may not love, but which gives structure and financial stability to their life so that in their free time they can pursue their art.

Both Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams pushed the boundaries of free verse and helped redefine American poetry. William’s wrote in Modern American Poetry (1950); “The job of the poet is to use language effectively, his own language, the only language which is to him authentic.”  Neither WCW or Stevens is known for classical poetry, quite the opposite, they are known for their free verse, and yet, like most poets, the sonnet form is like a siren calling them to the shore, and they are inspired to take their turn in wrestling with tradition.


Explain My Spirit

by Wallace Stevens

Explain my spirit—adding word to word,
As if the exposition gave delight.
Reveal me, lover, to myself more bright.
“You are a twilight, and a twilight bird.”
Again! For all the untroubled senses stirred,
Conceived anew, like callow wings in flight,
Bearing desire toward an upper light.
“You are a twilight, and a twilight bird.”

Burn in my shadows, Hesperus, my own,
And look upon me with a triumphant fire.
Behold, how glorious the dark has grown!
My wings shall beat all night against your breast,
Heavy with music—feel them there aspire
Home to your heart, as to a hidden nest.