Man and Bottle
The mind is the great poem of winter, the man,
Who, to find what will suffice,
Destroys romantic tenements
Of rose and ice
In the land of war. More than the man, it is
A man with the fury of a race of men,
A light at the center of many lights,
A man at the center of men.
It has to content the reason concerning war,
It has to persuade that war is part of itself,
A manner of thinking, a mode
Of destroying, as the mind destroys.
An aversion, as the world is averted
From an old delusion, an old affair with the sun,
An impossible aberration with the moon,
A grossness of peace.
It is not the snow that is the quill, the page.
The poem lashes more fiercely than the wind,
As the mind, to find what will suffice, destroys
Romantic tenements of rose and ice.
by Wallace Stevens
‘Mind’, ‘poem’, and ‘man’ are one in this poem, and wlling to reduce both the truth and our fond illusions about a peaceful life (‘romantic tenements of rose and ice’) to ‘what(ever) will suffice’ in order to ‘content the Reason concerning war.’ We have to persuade our own reason that war and destruction are a part of life. After all, even the mind destroys, as it supplants one theory with another, one belief with another, one life-enhancing fiction with another. This process of ‘reduction’ is a characteristic of ‘winter’ which blights its terrain.
When reading this poem, one can only think of our present war, and how we’ve had to persuade ourselves that it is about 9/11.
As Labor Day draws near, I’d like to remember all those good working-class families who have sent their boys and young men over there, with all of the best of intentions about supporting and protecting our nation. I pray that this explosion of destruction will soon come to an end.
A friend pointed out that I may be ‘reading into’ WS. Well, ‘reading into’ is what makes great literature 'great' down through the ages. Everyone is ‘reading in’ and it seems to consistently work. We see ourselves, our own thoughts and feelings, our own beliefs. This is the great benefit of good literature. However, eventually, when interpretation gets very far from the original intent of the author, then scholars must attempt to piece back together from the original sources just what the poet meant. They may or may not be successful in doing so.
Anyway, I don’t think I’m entirely off the mark here, with my reading of WS. I often find that I understand his poetry as well as his scholars in many respects, and that their more specialized notations enrich my interpretation and rarely contradict my own sense of the verses. I always read through the poems on my own several times, until I have a convincing sense of meaning and feeling. Then I turn to the scholars to take their 'reading' of the poem. So far, I am not far from the mark, usually. At any rate, I don't think I'm in danger of distorting Stevens' poetry. I love this poetry so much, it would certainly disappoint me if I did.
In some ways, I am perhaps elevating WS's poetry to the level of a scripture, like the great vedantic texts or lovely taoist poetry. I confess that I'm seeking something here. I'll report, as I go along, as to how successfully I am finding it.