A poem I like a lot: Matt Mitchell's selection
Sometimes a poem's greatness can be found in the sheer playfulness of its language. Our appreciation of National Poetry Month comes to an end with a tribute to just such a work.
By Matt Mitchell
Posted Saturday, April 29, 2006, features
[Note: In honor of National Poetry Month, The Online Gargoyle asked each of Uni's English teachers to pick a favorite poem. We were curious: What does this poem mean to you? Why does it move you? How does it move you? What's the history of your relationship with the poem? Suzanne Linder started us off with her selection on April 5, followed by Steve Rayburn on April 7, Rosemary Laughlin on April 14, and Elizabeth Majerus on April 20. Today Matt Mitchell, who teaches sophomore English, brings the month to a close with a discussion of his choice.]
Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) has long been one of my favorite poets. He has a reputation as a difficult modernist poet whose poems explore the nature of the imagination and reality, and while I enjoy and appreciate this aspect of his work, I also simply find him terrific fun to read.
His lines are like verbal calisthenics, jaw gymnastics (to borrow a phrase from Del tha Funkee Homosapien), and you can pick up his “Collected Poems” and open anywhere and start reading. You may not feel confident that you “comprehend” the poem on a literal level, but there's pretty much always something very new, mysterious, and fun going on with the language. I'd say start enjoying Stevens on that level, and you're likely to be surprised by sudden flashes of insight into the nature of art, poetry, and the imagination in his poems.
“The Comedian as the Letter C,” from Stevens's first published book of poems (“Harmonium,” 1923), is probably my favorite example. It's a long one, a kind of mock epic about the conquest and colonization of the American continents by an unlikely fellow named Crispin. And while serious thoughts can be gleaned from the poem, the language pops and crackles in a way that goes far beyond its surface sense. In other words, enjoy this poem first as a verbal display; set aside the urge to pin it down or “interpret” it, and surrender to the magic of its baroque linguistic bombast.
Here's an excerpt from the first section of the poem. Read it in a loud and clear voice, and groove on phrases like “wig of things” or “nincompated pedagogue” or “general lexicographer of mute and maidenly greenhorns” for their sheer improbability and delightfulness. Hear the mock-pompous tone,
the ironic seriousness of the syntax alongside the sheer silliness of the vocabulary. It's like a brief vacation from the workaday, literal, rational, mundane language we use all the time.
“The Comedian as the Letter C”
I. The World without Imagination
Nota: man is the intelligence of his soil,
The sovereign ghost. As such, the Socrates
Of snails, musician of pears, principium
And lex. Sed quaeritur: is this same wig
Of things, this nincompated pedagogue,
Preceptor to the sea? Crispin at sea
Created, in his day, a touch of doubt.
An eye most apt in gelatines and jupes,
Berries of villages, a barber's eye,
An eye of land, of simple salad-beds,
Of honest quilts, the eye of Crispin, hung
On porpoises, instead of apricots,
And on silentious porpoises, whose snouts
Dibbled in waves that were mustachios,
Inscrutable hair in an inscrutable world.
One eats one paté, even of salt, quotha.
It was not so much the lost terrestrial,
The snug hibernal from that sea and salt,
That century of wind in a single puff.
What counted was mythology of self,
Blotched out beyond unblotching. Crispin,
The lutanist of fleas, the knave, the thane,
The ribboned stick, the bellowing breeches, cloak
Of China, cap of Spain, imperative haw
Of hum, inquisitorial botanist,
And general lexicographer of mute
And maidenly greenhorns, now beheld himself,
A skinny sailor peering in the sea-glass.
What word split up in clickering syllables
And storming under multitudinous tones
Was name for this short-shanks in all that brunt?
Crispin was washed away by magnitude.
The whole of life that still remained in him
Dwindled to one sound strumming in his ear,
Ubiquitous concussion, slap and sigh,
Polyphony beyond his baton's thrust.
Poem: “The Comedian as the Letter C,” by Wallace Stevens. The entire six-part, nearly 20-page poem can be found here.