Monday, March 14, 2005

Poem of the Week 3/14/2005: The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm

The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was not book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Wallace Stevens

It's always exciting to discover a new poet who you love - so I was very excited to find Wallace Stevens. He is kind of post-modernist (though definitely not post-modern thank goodness) and talks a lot about stillness. Or his poems distill a moment and give us that quiet. I chose this poem because I think that it sums up a lot of what being alone and, not trying to be clich‚ though maybe doing it anyway, being alive is all about. Being at college has really underlined my own need for personal space and alone time. Just that time to let your thoughts sift out or spin or just run. Reading, listening to music, cleaning, organizing, making lists, painting one's toes, creative dressing, all of those things are so calm. And, as Wallace Stevens might contend, they are what helps us appreciate everything, these smaller elements of living.

This poem works on a deeper level than that, though; he doesn't just want us to enjoy our alone time. He would like to tell us that the meaning is all around. There is a nice little term that I picked up for this in Honors - self-similarity across scale. That is, there is a common thread through all things. The pattern is the same on the microscopic and the macroscopic. So this poem has ss - scale (how I abbreviate it) in its own apparent simplicity. The form itself is simple. There is no crazy rhyme scheme, and the "stanzas" are just couplets. Then the diction is simple, the night is simple, the elements in the poem (aka the situation) is simple, made up of very few elements, and the message is that simplicity is what makes us humans so wonderful. And yet this idea is very complex, because every piece in this poem works with every other piece to construct this simple meaning. The quiet and the calm are both part of the situation within the poem, the elements which are necessary for the poem's meaning, and they are the meaning itself. But they are the other things at the same time - this is what I was talking about last week with Wordsworth and paradox. One element is at once three (and probably more) things. I like how everything in the poem has a consciousness. The idea of a book having a consciousness is very beautifully and thoughtfully detailed in an essay called "Criticism and the Experience of Interiority" by Georges Poulet. I would recommend it to anybody interested in this idea of the existence of the book and the book's dual consciousness. I am rambling - the book has a consciousness, and the person responds to that consciousness, wanting it to be his always, wanting it to be honest or beholden to him (both connotations of the word "true"). And the house and summer night respect the consciousnesses of the man/book, and respectfully remain silent to encourage the meaning of the book. So all of these complex elements work together to construct a simple message. Like an infinite structure that builds up to a simple package. So anyway. That is all for the poem of the week this week, and I hope that you are all having a wonderful spring break, if it is your spring break!

- Sarah "contemporize your knight bitches" Smith

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