literature, What I am reading

The poet W as comedian

I have discovered over the last six weeks that Wallace Stevens is, after all the strife and seclusion of this last sixteen months, surely the best antidote to our troubled times. Why is that? Wallace Stevens is a poet of comedy, and comedy relieves the distress of tragic history. Comedy reconciles the restless, Romantic imagination with the present and the real. When the world falls apart, one must cultivate one’s garden, but also tell some comic stories over dinner. It is comedy, not alone but inseparable, that moves the infinite conversation on.

That is what I have discovered in making Wallace Stevens my writer in depth over the last month and a bit. While over many years I had seen Stevens as a serious conceptual poet, maker of supreme fictions, full of the maker’s rage to order words of the tragic-gestured sea, I have now discovered that Stevens took more delight in the glassy lights, which dance and bobble on the fishing boats at anchor offshore, and so arrange abundant days into a deepening, enchanting night.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Wallace Stevens, the idea of order at key west

Comedy can never reign supreme, and yet allows all of us who are subjected to those who seek domination to escape from our cages, and to dance in the truth. Comedy lightens up Cassandra when there is no hope. Comedy mocks authoritarianism. Comedy finds the object of delight amidst months of despair – a blooming flower, the ripples on a crafted lake, a rich plum upon a table. Comedy schools the riotous mind, discontent with both present and past, that yearns only for a future that never arrives. In The Comedian as the Letter C, Wallace Stevens narrates the comic odyssey of his persona Crispin, a poet who tries to find his place and time on a journey from the East to West coast of America (via Yucutan, as the sea route then went). Crispin’s striving to be a Modernist rebellious poet – to make it new, to invent a terrible new beauty, to shock the contented masses to live among his monsters – is enervated by the sun and warmth and presence of the earth that he finds on his odyssey.

Crispin dwelt in the land and dwelling there
Slid from his continent by slow recess
To things within his actual eye, alert
To the difficulty of rebellious thought
When the sky is blue. The blue infected will.

Wallace Stevens, The Comedian as the Letter C

This Ulysses finds he loves Penelope more than smiting the sounding furrows to seek a newer world. Crispin discovers in the comic denouement of the beautiful world the true harvest of his imagination – the unquenchable plum.

… It seemed haphazard denouement.
He first, as realist, admitted that
Whoever hunts a matinal continent
May, after all, stop short before a plum
And be content and still be realist.
The words of things entangle and confuse.
The plum survives its poems….

Wallace stevens, The Comedian as the Letter C

This passage from The Comedian as the Letter C comes in the fifth section of the poem and is entitled “A nice shady home.” After all adventures, who does not wish to return to a nice, shady home? So, Stevens shows us the way to navigate through modernism, romanticism, realism and yet stranger doctrines to the comfort, comedy and comity of a quiet, normal and noble suburban life. The wisest art, the most blessed stories, the deepest poems are comedies. The comedians tell us the emperor has no clothes. The fools coax Lear back from the brink. They treat of our all too human weaknesses, and let us marry our faults with forgiveness. It is comedy, gently holding the hand of tragedy in truth, that we ought turn to in our time of troubles today. In the world of pandemic and uncontrolled technocracy, we all may learn to stop short before a plum, and find there content with the real.

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