Guest Blog Posts

Fractal: The Wallace Stevens Centos – guest blog post by Kyle Harvey

Every so often, we are fortunate to read a line of poetry that changes the way we look at the world. This was my experience the first time I read the third line – the last line of the third stanza – in “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.”

The world imagined is the ultimate good.

After returning to this poem dozens of times over the last few years, I stumbled onto a fascinating discovery regarding the lines of this particular work. Like so many young poets, I’ve often mistakenly search for some big, red bow to tie up the end of a poem. Looking at this line, I wondered how Stevens had managed to go on and write another five stanzas, three lines each, for a total of fifteen more brilliant lines. I compared my favorite line to the last line of the poem:

In which being there together is enough.

Another amazing line. Curious, and perhaps curiously, I began to read the last lines of each stanza, in reverse, starting with the last line of the poem:

In which being there together is enough.

How high that highest candle lights the dark.

A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

The world imagined is the ultimate good.

The sound and rhythm of these lines, read in this newly discovered order, gave me chills. I read the lines from the poem this way another four or five times and then wrote them down, altering the end-stops slightly, so that the poem read a bit more fluidly:

In which being there together is enough –

How high that highest candle lights the dark,

A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous,

A light, a power, the miraculous influence,

Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

The world imagined is the ultimate good.

I was profoundly moved. These stanza-ending six lines, read in reverse– a cento– quickly became one of my favorite things to read aloud to anyone willing to listen. Obsessed with my new treasure, I began to read through Stevens’ collected works, similarly extracting the last lines of each stanza, eliminating the remaining lines, and reading the lines in reverse as centos. I found that many of these curations read with a similar beauty.

I began to ask questions. Was this intentional? Is it the integrity of his lines that allows for such effortless rearrangement? Is his poetry quantum in nature?

The idea of poetry being somewhat quantum-mechanical has certainly been widely discussed, particularly in regards to Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. Further, Charles Olson advanced the idea of quantum poetics in his manifesto “Projective Verse” under the heavy influence of Einstein’s theory of relativity, as well as his disdain for any responsibility, on the poet’s behalf, to chronology, which he often discussed when riffing on history, Herodotus and his use of the word ‘istorin as a verb. Could Stevens’ poetic discourse have led him to a similar revelation?

In a letter to Barbara Church in August, 1951, Stevens writes, “The quantum theory to which he [Jean Paulhan] refers is not a thing to be assimilated offhand,” and later goes on to say, “The philosophy of the sciences is not opposed to poetry any more than the philosophy of mathematics is opposed.”

This is to say, Stevens was absolutely thinking about physics, quantum theory and science of poetry. Though how many of his thoughts about quantum theory found their way into his poetry we will never know. Appropriately, Stevens seems to acknowledge, and perhaps favor, the argument and paradox in “Adagia” when he writes, “Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully.” In another letter written to Barbara Church that October, 1951, Stevens writes that his chief deduction is, “… that poetry is supreme over philosophy because we owe the idea of God to poetry….”

Had Stevens, at this point, worked past any ideas of quantum-mechanical poetry?

Perhaps his work is similar to that of Jackson Pollack, Hokusai and Leonardo da Vinci – fractal in nature – defying logic, while seemingly creating and holding form subconsciously. His work seems to naturally lend itself to being perceived from any and all angles, not unlike a crystal or a drop of water. Once again, in “Adagia,” Stevens deepens this mystery with his aphorism, “Reality is not what it is. It consists of the many realities which it can be made into.”

It isn’t the answers to these questions that matter most to me, but the beauty of these centos. The following are some of my favorites.

From A Postcard From the Volcano

Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun
a spirit storming in blank walls
will speak our speech and never know,

and what we said of it became
beyond our gate and the windy sky,
the look of things

left what we felt. These
had a being, breathing frost
as quick as foxes on the hill.

From Anglais Mort A Florence

Before the colors deepened and grew small
he yielded himself to that single majesty,

but he remembered the time when he stood alone
turning in time to Brahms as alternate

more leanly shining from a lankier sky
was not the moon he used to see, to feel

that dark companion left him unconsoled.
His dark familiar, often walked apart.

From Re-Statement of Romance

In the pale light that each
upon the other throws

so far beyond
the casual solitudes,

only we two are one,
not you and night,

and in perceiving this
I best perceive myself.

From The Poem That Took The Place of a Mountain

Recognize his unique and solitary home
[he] would discover, at last , the view toward
which they had edged,

where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:

Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,
a place to go to in his own direction,

even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table,
the poem that took the place of a mountain.

From Vacancy in the Park

Under its mattresses of vines
come back to see a certain house
by a woman, who has forgotten it
from a shore at night and disappeared,
someone looking for he knows not what.

From The Irish Cliffs of Moher

Of sea and air, it is as he was
of poetry, the wet, green grass
above the real at the head of the past,
shadows like winds at the spirit’s base.

From Debris Of Life And Mind

Stay here. Speak of familiar things a while
and feel that her color is a meditation.

Besides, when the sky is so blue, things sing
She will speak thoughtfully the words of a line

that a bright red woman will be rising,
that it is as if we had never been young.

It is as if we were never children.

From The Woman In Sunshine

Invisibly clear, the only love
bearing the odors of the summer fields

more definite for what she is-
burns us with brushings of her dress.

Nor the beginning nor end of a form:
the warmth and movement of a woman.

Nor the beginning nor the end of my questions, I turn the work of Stevens over in my mind. I continue studying the lines, pulling them apart, piecing them back together. I am someone looking for he knows not what. In the end, I realize Stevens had already explained to me what was most important to remember: The world imagined is the ultimate good.

Grateful acknowledgement to THINK Journal and The Wallace Stevens Journal in which this work first appeared.

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Kyle Harvey, author of the poetry collection Hyacinth (Lithic Press 2013), was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award and winner of the Mark Fischer Poetry Prize. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Life in Poetry, Dirty Chai, Dream Pop, Entropy, Heavy Feather Review, HOUSEGUEST, Metatron, New Bile, Pilgrimage, Pith, SHAMPOO, Think Journal, The Wallace Stevens Journal, and elsewhere. He has published the two serial poems July and Farewell Materials (Lithic Press), as well as a package of broadsides titled The Alphabet’s Book of Colors (Reality Beach). He is currently at work on a documentary film about the poet Jack Mueller and a seemingly never-ending manuscript titled The Alphabet That Never Recovers. He lives with his wife and children in Fruita, Colorado, where he designs books for Lithic Press.

5 replies »

  1. James Longenbach sort of touches on this idea of rearrangement in his essay ‘Lyric Knowledge’ which you can find at The Poetry Foundation. He speaks from the context of the lyric mode but i think when he questions

    “Why, when we’re driven to be lyrical, are we gratified by familiar patterns, formal patterns made by breaking words into syllables, structural patterns made by conjoining words with other words? Why do we imagine we may be liberated by unfamiliar patterns, patterns whose novelty depends on patterns we already know? Why, having experienced the pleasure of a lyric poem, do we bother experiencing it again? Why, when we’re in love, can the repetition of an experience feel more fulfilling than the discovery of it?”

    i think this is applicable to these cut ups of Stevens & may help understand why his poems can be moved around & still make sense.

    Liked by 1 person

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