Every time the bucks went clattering
A firecat bristled in the way.
Wherever they went,
They went clattering,
Until they swerved
In a swift, circular line
To the right,
because of the firecat.
Or until they swerved
in a swift, circular line
To the left,
Because of the firecat.
The bucks clattered.
The firecat went leaping,
to the right, to the left,
Bristled in the way.
Later, the firecat closed his bright eyes
(from, Stevens, Collected Poetry & Prose, p.3)
In Earthy Anecdotes, written in 1918, WS seems to be entertaining himself with a little taste of post-modern experimentation. The poem manages to appear simple while at the same time giving us drama, action, closure, humor, a sense of rhythm, form and order, elegance, minimalism, and also conjures the mood of swiftness, suddenness and finality of death, a death undescribed, that leaves in its wake, a sense of ease.
Ronald Sukenick writes of it, "The 'clattering' of the animals ordered by confrontation with the 'firecat,' representing a given principle of order." (pp. 215-216, WSMTO) Ecologists tell us that the wolf culling the caribou is the instrument of nature’s order. Stevens recognized this in the mountain-lion (implied in 'the fire-cat') that fells the deer. There is an order within the poem; there are orderly repetitions of phrases: ‘the bucks went clattering’ occurs three times, once as ‘they went clattering;’ the ‘firecat’ and/or some form of ‘bristle’ occurs six times. ‘Swerved,’ ‘circular line,’ ‘right’ and ‘left’ all occur variably twice or thrice. The entire poem is built up of these repetitions, with only two extraneous images: ‘Oklahoma,’ at the beginning, and the image of ‘closing eyes’ and ‘sleep’ at the end. There is some inferred resonance between these two 'states,' perhaps.
It really is an incredible poem with its simplicity and elegance of line, its rhythm, humor, drama, action and closure; it imagery of the bucks - large, relatively clumsy animals with very loud hoofs - compared to the cat who bristles with the fire of its incredible bursts of energy, and its bright, predatory sight. The closure of the poem is total.
Stevens' sense of humor is subtle in this poem, and often appears like this, quite apart from his more obvious incongruities and other humorous devices, as a gentle good-natured benison, extended even towards nature's more rough play, elsewhere celebrated as 'nature, red in tooth and claw.' Stevens is not at war with nature, and his feeling towards nature will recur repeatedly throughout his poetry.
Addendum, October 26, 2004: This poem is prefigured in a letter to his mother from a vacation resort in Ephrata, Pa, dated August 4, 1895. The pertinent lines are from some sort of old drinking song that has no doubt become part of the play of teenagers. It's meant as a joke to make fun of drinking, even though they may be experimenting with it themselves: "Oh! hic - keep to the middle of the road/Oh! hic - keep to the middle of the road/Don't look to the right/Don't look to the left/But keep to the middle of the road." It's part of Stevens' genius that he is able to incorporate these kinds of archaic jingles/ limericks in the rhythms of his poetry.
Addendum, December 6, 2009: Stevens' daughter, Holly Stevens, writes about 'Earthy Anecdote' in her retrospective book on her father "Souvenirs and Prophecies": "(quoting his letter home): 'Thence I went through Nebraska and Iowa (which is a superb state) and on to Niagara Falls and to New York and home. The best thing I saw was a lightning storm on the prairie. I leaned out of the smoking-room window and watched the incessant forks darting down to the horizon. Now and then great clouds would flare and the ground would flash with yellow shadows.' The geography he traversed put him near, if not in, Oklahoma and, in his reference to 'a lightning storm,' perhaps the background for 'Earthy Anecdote' where 'Everytime the bucks went clattering/over Oklahoma/a firecat bristled in the way.' The next entry begins within a sentence, preceded by an excised page, and we cannot be sure whether it was written in Reading or after Stevens returned to New York. Certainly the territory described is Berks County, Pennsylvania, or nearby. '...the hotel there. We drove right and left and got to Strausstown at four o'clock.'" (p.148)
Yet another plausible interpretation for stevens' verse.