Susan Howe: The essence of Wallace Stevens: Roses, roses. Fable and dream. The pilgrim sun.

First posted October 23, 2015

A poem is a glass, through which light is conveyed to us.

“March… Someone has walked across the snow,

Someone looking for he knows not what.”

“Singeth spells.” The poetry of Wallace Stevens makes me happy. This is the simple truth. Pleasure springs from the sense of fluid sound patterns phonetic utterance excites in us. Beauty, harmony, and order are represented by the arrangement, and repetition, of particular words on paper. No matter how many theoretical and critical interpretations there are, in the end each new clarity of discipline and delight contains inexplicable intricacies of form and measure. 

The last poems Wallace Stevens gathered together under the general title The Rock are moving, lyric meditations on the civil and particular. As if from some unfathomable source, knowledge derived from sense perception fails, and the unreality of what seems most real floods over us. As a North American poet writing in the early twenty-first century, I owe him an incalculable debt, for ways in which, through word frequencies and zero zones, his writing locates, rescues, and delivers what is various and vagrant in the near at hand. 

As Emily Dickinson put it: 

“The Zeroes – taught us – Phosphorous 

We learned to like the Fire.”


“Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

Stevens wrote “The Course of a Particular” when he was 73. It was published in The Hudson Review (Spring 1951) along with “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” but omitted by accident (according to the poet) from his 1954Collected Poems. “The Snow Man,” written almost exactly thirty years earlier, is eerily similar. (Both fifteen-line poems progress in tercets from “one” to “no one.”) Perhaps, sounding its spectral refraction, he subtracted his second cold pastoral accidentally on purpose.

Today the leaves cry, hanging on branches swept by wind,
Yet the nothingness of winter becomes a little less.
It is still full of icy shades and shapen snow.

The leaves cry… One holds off and merely hears the cry.
It is a busy cry, concerning someone else.
And though one says that one is part of everything,

There is a conflict, there is a resistance involved;
And being part is an exertion that declines:
One feels the life of that which gives life as it is.

The leaves cry. It is not a cry of divine attention,
Nor the smoke-drift of puffed-out heroes, nor human cry.
It is the cry of leaves that do not transcend themselves,

In the absence of fantasia, without meaning more
Than they are in the final finding of the ear, in the thing
Itself, until, at last, the cry concerns no one at all.

Most critics read the season as autumn. For me, its lyric
 austerity defines late February weather in Guilford, Connecticut. Often on afternoon winter walks out on the quarry during this coldest month, there is hardly any foliage to cry in the raw air. Some brittle oak leaves still cling to their branches like tattered camouflage while tiny salt hay spindles scud across withered grass and frost-worked asphalt. Smoke-drift from indoor woodstoves is another vagrant variant. So is the coldness of green. The idea that green can be cold comes to me from Thoreau, who notes pine-green coldness in winter woods and the way light straggles

For Stevens, “Today the leaves cry, hanging on branches swept by wind, / Yet the nothingness of winter becomes a little less. / It is still full of icy shades and shapen snow.” “Shapen” is an obsolete past participle. This wild word relic softly and serenely concerns no one. Its pastness echoes in the sound of wind soughing through pitch pines.

On my way home, I see a small stream rushing along under ice. Maybe the nature of a particular can be understood only in relation to sound inside the sense it quickens. Setting sun. A mourning dove compounds invisible declensions.

“Deep dove, placate you in your hiddenness.”

In an essay titled “The Present State of Poetry” in American Poetry at Midcentury, Delmore Schwartz recalled: “In 1936 Stevens read his poems for the first time at Harvard—it was probably the first time he had ever read his poetry in public—and the occasion was at once an indescribable ordeal and a precious event. Before and after reading each poem, Stevens spoke of the nature of poetry…the least sound counts, he said, the least sound and the least syllable. His illustration of this observation was wholly characteristic: he told of how he had wakened that week after midnight and heard the sounds made by a cat walking delicately and carefully on the crusted snow outside his house.”…