Monday, June 19, 2006

Poem of the Week 6/19/2006: The Poems of Our Climate

The Poems of Our Climate

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations - one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.

Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one's torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

Wallace Stevens 1942

"The Poems of Our Climate" twists back on itself (I love poetry that does this), first offering its own perfect image, and then becoming frustrated with that perfection, that completion. It touches on so many things - let me see if I can straighten my thoughts. The image of the bowl, light, and flowers at once rests as an image of perfection, simplicity, beauty, and domesticity. The poem might easily reduce to "humans are always unsatisfied," but, since the flowers represent so much and the poem goes into more detail, we may discuss fragmentation, beauty, and complexity.

The opening image is breathtaking. Stevens draws out the perfection of the image with simple diction and trumpet-like consonants. The hard "c" opens the poem, echoed in the "k" sound in "pink," "carnations," "reflecting," and "cold, cold." Similarly, the "l's" and "t's" sharpen the image. Also helpful is the lucid diction. Stevens chooses words as literally straightforward as "clear," "snowy," and "pink and white." The only less tangible element is the image of "snowy air," but a little energy goes into the imagining of it, and the hazy room's flowers materialize.

Stevens must work hard to carve this image, because the rest of the poem hinges upon it. The discussion starts immediately; he writes, "one desires / So much more than that." So yes, there is a perfect bowl of perfectly radiant carnations, but we want more. Perhaps the narrator nods at the readers, asking us whether we would be content with a poem whose sole preoccupation was that image. Could we be happy with such simplicity?

Perhaps offering another description for further meditation, the narrator writes of it as "a bowl of white, / Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round. / With nothing more than the carnations there." Important in this description is that the narrator does not add anything to the image. There is "nothing more" than the flowers and bowl. This is what we are talking about, he reiterates.

The second section adds more stock to the argument that humans can't be satisfied with simplicity. The speaker offers a hypothetical, writing that even if "this complete simplicity" took away suffering and cleansed the self, "Still one would want more, one would need more, / More than a world of white and snowy scents." And when we think about it, yes, being cleansed sounds nice but not permanent. In fact, it sounds a little dull, or even stifling. No matter how clear the snowy air was, the purity would inevitably fade or stagnate.

Or at least the mind would, sitting in this unbearably perfect room with its flawless bowl of flowers. No matter how incredible this immediate reality, the mind wanders, wants to escape, go into the past, the future, other, more, beyond, back.

Stevens gives little more reason for the tendency to roam than that "the imperfect is so hot in us." This contrasts nicely with the cold porcelain, suggesting that perfection slows movement, while the imperfect moves us with convections of "flawed words and stubborn sounds."

This explanation, though, still leaves something hanging; it doesn't explicity treat why the imperfect burns us so, content to observe that it does, and embed the fragments of why within the poem. It's a good question - why might the imperfect move us so? I suggest that it has something to do with the infinitely unreachable ideal of perfection; when we see something incomplete, the tendency is to try to complete it. This may sound trite, but think about it, even in terms of this poem.

The reason I write this blog is because the "meaning" (though I hesitate to use that word - it reduces the poem to content only) is not immediately present. In some ways, then, it is incomplete without a reader's conscious input, for the meaning isn't spelled out on the page. It requires work, and this mingles the won concept with value.

I have another thought about the vase of carnations. If they represent beauty, then the never-resting mind might be a reaction to their beauty, a desire to replicate the perfection of the moment (Scarry 3).

But in any case, it's a wonderful poem, and I will fine tune this last bit later later later!

1 comment:

Linda Kerr said...

This has been a favorite of mine for years. You have done a wonderful job of analyzing it. Thank you so much!