- How Stevens Transforms Us into Musical Readers
SINCE THESE MEDITATIONS originate in a public address delivered in Hartford, Connecticut, in the month of November, and since I always work from poetry outward towards my topic, Wallace Stevens’ late poem “The Region November” would seem an apt place to start. Stevens delivers a mournful poem in these twelve lines, situating us exactly where we tend to find ourselves in the American Northeast in November: in the middle of an autumn marked by the stark sounds of the soon-tobe-bare trees in the north wind. Here we are “again,” his speaker says in a lilting language that echoes “the treetops, as they sway” (CPP 472), in a familiar season amidst familiar sounds. Stevens’ speaker aches, and we ache with him, in an effort to wrest knowledge, perhaps a secret kind of knowledge, from the wind in his poem. Yet, as the trees continue “Saying and saying” as they sway, we recognize with him the impossibility of ever truly being able to decode meaning in the text that is the natural world, which is “So much less than feeling, so much less than speech” (CPP 473, 472). Stevens can only travel the distance from the sound of the north wind, with which he begins the poem, to the intensification of the same sound at its close; the trees and wind sound “deeply and loudly” early in the poem, and by its end only “Deeplier, deeplier, loudlier, loudlier, / The trees are swaying, swaying, swaying” (CPP 472, 473).
If lyric poetry can, as Stevens shows in “The Region November,” situate us in the moment in which we find ourselves, it can also transport us to other times and places. So, by encountering another poem, Stevens can place us in the fullness of midsummer. I cite the first of ten cantos of his beautiful long poem “Credences of Summer” (1949), so that we can reflect on the ways he transports us to another season:
Now in midsummer come and all fools slaughtered And spring’s infuriations over and a long way To the first autumnal inhalations, young broods Are in the grass, the roses are heavy with a weight Of fragrance and the mind lays by its trouble. [End Page 117]
Now the mind lays by its trouble and considers. The fidgets of remembrance come to this. This is the last day of a certain year Beyond which there is nothing left of time. It comes to this and the imagination’s life.
There is nothing more inscribed nor thought nor felt And this must comfort the heart’s core against Its false disasters—these fathers standing round, These mothers touching, speaking, being near, These lovers waiting in the soft dry grass.(CPP 322)
I cannot read these lines to an audience without feeling the rush of emotion I first felt upon reading them over thirty years ago, in an undergraduate class on “Modern British and American Poetry.” Then as now, I was struck by the insistence of Stevens’ speaker in the poem. Although summer is emblematic of the most ephemeral of seasons—as children didn’t we all wish it would last far longer than it does?—Stevens’ speaker renders the summer moment still. In fact, as the poem continues, he commands us to experience the present as though it were permanent: in the first stanza, we find “all fools slaughtered / And spring’s infuriations over”; in the second, “This is the last day of a certain year / Beyond which there is nothing left of time”; and in the third, he persuades us that there is nothing beyond this moment, for “There is nothing more inscribed nor thought nor felt / And this must comfort the heart’s core against / Its false disasters. . . .” We bask in the images of the last few lines as if the fathers, mothers, and lovers were to stay in place forever: “these fathers standing round, / These mothers touching, speaking, being near, / These lovers waiting in the soft dry grass.” If “The Region November” plunges us into the sad and declining autumn moment, reading “Credences of Summer” in the middle of autumn transports us to midsummer as if that...