not less because in purple I descended
the western day through what you called
the loneliest air, not less was I myself.
what was the ointment sprinkled on my beard?
what were the hymns that buzzed beside my ears?
what was the sea whose tide swept through me there?
out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
and my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.
I was myself the compass of that sea.
I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
or heard or felt came not but from myself;
and there I found myself more truly and more strange.
(from Stevens, Collected Poetry & Prose, p.51)
* * * * *
I wrote about this poem before in comparison with 'The Snow Man,' with which it was originally published as a companion piece. At that time I compared the two poems with meditative states of mind. In the Christian tradition these would be 'the Snow Man' as 'apophatic,' and 'tea at the palaz of hoon' as 'kataphatic.' In this tradition, the interest is on the type of awareness of God, and since this awareness cannot be unmediated, the apophatic awareness is mediated by images of simplicity, 'pure awareness,' clarity, 'pure being', and even more to the point, 'negation,' while the kataphatic awareness is mediated by sense-oriented imagery, such as 'seeing God' in a spectacular sunset, or 'experiencing God' as a golden radiance or a sensation of warmth, etc. In the case of this discussion, if we substitute the words 'poetry' or 'creativity' for 'God' we can understand how these two poems could be read with a spiritual awareness in mind. And it doesn't seem to be too far-fetched to do this in the case of Stevens, since there is considerable biographical evidence to support that he sublimated his religious feelings, and more, into his poetry.
What I really like most about this poem is the way it seems, to me, to celebrate Stevens' genius. A little window, whether or not intentional, into his experience. I've noticed a number of commentators see this poem as a fabulous example of 'solipsism,' a kind of philosophy of self, in which 'I' am the ultimate source and arbiter of all reality, ie 'my view is all that is real.' New Age pundits are often attributed with this kind of thinking. Personally, I feel there is a great deal of truth in it, but we haven't yet articulated an adequate philosophy that unifies 'self' and 'world.' We are getting closer, as for example in the development of theological theories such as 'co-creationism.'
The best literary critique of these two poems, showing their relatedness, that I've found so far is in Robin Gail Schulze's Teaching Stevens and Moore: The Search for an Open Mind, in Teaching Wallace Stevens, Practical Essays (Serio & Leggett). She writes, " 'Tea at the Palaz of Hoon' and 'The Snow Man' are notoriously difficult poems to teach, but I find the context of Stevens' other pairs once again makes my work easier...
...Students come to the 'Tea'/'Snow Man' pair armed with the knowledge that Stevens equates northern climes and icy states with an absence of the imagination, southern locales and warmth with the play of an active fantasy." (p.187)
"Students rarely fail to see that both (poems) make prominent use of the sun as a trope for imaginative power. In quest of 'reality,' the snow poet fights to suppress the imaginations' power to warm the mind and set it simmering. The snow man's imaginative sun is a 'January sun,' a 'distant glitter' that provides little light and less heat, low on the horizon and very far away. In 'Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,' however, Stevens creates a counterconsciousness so expansive that his imaginative sun usurps all experience. Reveling in the makings of his own mind, the Hoon poet becomes a fire ball, 'descend[ing] / the western day' in purple, the very image of a brilliant sunset. Poem to poem, Stevens places two different suns close to the horizon to reflect two different states of the Stevensian imagination - one distant, pale, and weak, the other close, blazing, and potentially obliterating. The 'mind of winter' turns to a mind of summer." (p.188)...
"My sharpest students will often note that, thorughout his set, Stevens exploits the contrast between the desire for exterior and interior experience played out in the snow poet's blowing wind and Hoon's blowing hymns. To extinguish the imagination and confront the elemental, one must 'have been cold a long time,' accustomed to an arctic mental landscape without protective images. The Hoon poet, on the other hand, leads an indoor existence, luxuriating in a palace of tropes of his own making that isolates him from the 'not me.' Where the snow poet works to achieve a point of abject deprivation, to become nothing more than a part of the landscape in a search for 'real' sight, Hoon participates in the civilized artifice of a high tea, an indoor ritual of pure pleasure." (pp.189-190)
"'Not less.' Hoon's journey thus begins where the snow poet's leaves off, at a point where nothing less is possible, a poetic ground zero. Hoon rebuilds from a place of imaginative diminishment, 'Not less,' to make a world in which he finds himself 'more truly and more strange.' 'One' becomes 'nothing' only so that 'less' can become 'more' in a poetic cycle that implies an endless repetition of making and unmaking in turn." (p.190)
"(Stevens) finds either pole of his imaginative project ultimtely static and undesirable. Both the snow man and Hoon, for differing reasons, inhabit 'The loneliest air,' Hoon trapped in his own perceptions, the snow poet caught in a space that prohibits all access to conscious discourse. Stevens insists that each of these states 'must change.' " (p.191)
This is true in the spiritual life as well. We shift from apophatic forms of prayer to kataphatic and back again. By the way, my training in Spiritual Direction at 'Mercy Center Institute of Spiritual Direction' in Burlingame, California, is what makes me aware of this.