Poets tend to get annoyed when asked to explain what a particular poem ‘means’. If I could have expressed it in any other way, thinks the poet, I would have done so. In the words of one particular poet, a poem should not mean, but be, and in a quote which I now can’t track down T. S. Eliot apparently once remarked that the meaning of a poem is akin to the bone that a postman throws to a dog, a metaphor presumably designed to stop slavering strangers insisting that he ‘explain’ The Wasteland to them on the late-night tube. In my ongoing struggle to experience poems in a meaningful way rather than simply being intimidated and thus bamboozled by them, I tend to cheat, asking not what they mean but rather what goes on in my mind when confronting myself with them. Trying to memorise poems is one way of unlocking them; reaching a point of semantic saturation is a means of getting beneath the surface, to get at the poem’s sense and effect, or maybe of slowly allowing it to detonate; after all, in the words of Ezra Pound, poetry is language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree. An imaginary bomb with real shrapnel. Or, if we want to be more esoteric, a pheasant disappearing in the brush. That line is from Wallace Stevens, whose work has, since I was introduced to it in a consistently rivetting poetry class in Limehouse (given by someone I think of as the Angela Carter of poetry), presented an ongoing challenge to any tentative techniques I have developed for handling poems. Stevens’s poems seemingly mix abstract modernism with mystical, often gnomic images. Here is a particularly enigmatic example:
The Anecdote of the Jar
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
It would be wrong to think of the poem as presenting a riddle to be solved. There is no key or set of keys which will allow me to ‘get’ this poem or any other; it is not a cryptic crossword clue. Whatever is happening, it is going beneath the surface.
If we begin with the first word and syllable: an I, presumably that of the poet. This being poetry, the difference between eye and I is often moot. The eye, like the jar, is round, and seeks to take dominion over what it surveys. Some have pointed to Emerson’s eyeball: “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end.” It might even be the eye of a blackbird:
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only thing moving
Was the eye of the blackbird.
In both cases the I/eye unifies the universe, placing itself at the centre and organising the world around it: The wilderness rose up to it. In this poem, the jar contains the I. It is the poet who has consciousness, not the jar.
Given the difficulty of making sense of this poem one sensible approach is to walk away, to take a step back, and to get a sense of the scale of the absurdity. Does placing a jar on a hill give that jar dominion over the surrounding countryside, somehow over a whole state? Or a city?
On Saturday morning, 10th December 2016 someone placed an empty tube of paprika-flavoured Pringles on a wall outside the Vittoriano Museum in the centre of Rome, overlooking the Foro Romano*. It jarred in its landscape. After all, litter is ‘matter out of place’.
Oddly enough, just up the road, there is this. Someone ordered it placed there.
Trying to memorise Stevens’s poem in Rome draws my attention to all the domes and other round things placed on hills, all embodying consciousness and seeking to impose order on the landscape. It makes me think of the architects’ drawings and models that must have preceded them. All architects are in a sense utopians, imagining a world transformed with the embodiment of their vision at the centre, colonising and framing the landscape, making the wilderness surround what they have placed there. Maybe one counterpart for the poem is ‘Ozymandias’, another example of power centring the universe around it. Then, on a different scale from the Colosseum: this blog. In writing it I am also claiming dominion. This is my perspective, and simultaneously a container, one which claims a certain domain. Such interventions in the landscape are now nothing new – indeed, they go back almost as far back as the human species.
The difference here is that Stevens isn’t actually placing a jar, or even, in a sense, pretending to. The jar does not have the properties of consciousness and dominion; it is the I who places the jar who imputes them, or rather, it is the writer of the poem, or rather it is the I reading it who does so. Let’s be glib: the jar is an empty signifier (or at least it is until we throw a match into it); the jar-as-poem is just a vessel for the meaning the reader puts in it. The poem is the jar. Hence it has often been read as a commentary on art itself. In 2009 the artists Miroslaw Balka placed a literal shipping container in the Tate Modern, and in another flawed attempt to centre the universe on myself I wrote about it. As for Steven’s poem, the only true response would be another poem (beginning I placed a tube of Pringles… **) or another work of art. Some have argued that the poem can only be read as a response to Keat’s ‘Ode On A Grecian Urn’, and to the claims it makes to a unity between of consciousness and nature. Steven’s poem seems to refuse such a claim – the jar apparently dominates the wilderness, but it is not part of it. Others have looked at the biblical allusions. We can easily picture the jar as a cross on a hill, and the echoes of the phrase ‘burning bush’ certainly evoke this sense. There are obvious political interpretations: imagine the jar as a flag. Or a burning flag. Or a phallic object.
This may be cheating. The poem is explicitly about a jar, one that is gray and bare. It seems odd, then, that someone identified the type of jar in question – a transparent glass jar. The claim that it is a mass-produced object evokes Warhol, and also Duchamp taking the piss (possibly in the jar). But while Ai Wei Wei smashed up Ming vases as a comment on his own cultural heritage, this jar seems to represent nothing but power, dominion, a colonising consciousness. If the poem were called Dominion it would be less mystifying. But that would be (again) cheating. We have to deal with the poem as it is, which is hard on initial readings, because it jars, not just in the landscape but also in its form: while most lines feature four stressed syllables, there are two which break the rhythm, with only three. I’m counting Tennessee as two stressed syllables, which may be why he chose that particular state; or maybe it was because he was in Tennessee and he did place a jar there. It is after all an anecdote.
I am now going to memorise ‘Ode On A Grecian Urn’ and then see what happens. A poem may emerge. A poem may not emerge.
* To quote the 21st century Jamaican-American poet Shaggy, it wasn’t me.
** Except I didn’t.