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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

On Stevens’ “Add This to Rhetoric”

After a little over-indulgence on my part in wide-ranging and free-flowing rants for the past couple of posts, I’ll stick to a specific subject this time. This is one of my favorite poems by Wallace Stevens that, if not one of his most polished or succesfully ‘artful,’ is still an unbelievably powerful example of the man’s skill and intellect.

Add This to Rhetoric

It is posed and it is posed.
But in nature it merely grows.
Stones pose in the falling night;
And beggars dropping to sleep,
They pose themselves and their rags.
Shucks . . . lavender moonlight falls.
The buildings pose in the sky
And, as you paint, the clouds,
Grisaille, impearled, profound,
Pftt . . . In the way you speak
You arrange, the thing is posed,
What in nature merely grows.

To-morrow when the sun,
For all your images,
Comes up as the sun, bull fire,
Your images will have left
No shadow of themselves.
The poses of speech, of paint,
Of music—Her body lies
Worn out, her arm falls down,
Her fingers touch the ground.
Above her, to the left,
A brush of white, the obscure,
The moon without a shape,
A fringed eye in a crypt.
The sense creates the pose.
In this it moves and speaks.
This is the figure and not
An evading metaphor.

Add this. It is to add.

Though Harold Bloom is probably correct on both points when he says that “Add This to Rhetoric” is “a kind of footnote to the greater poem, [‘The Poems of Our Climate’],” I still find it to be one of my favorite of Stevens’ poems. “The Poems of Our Climate” seems to belie the imperfection which it claim is “our paradise.” Admittedly, it does this beautifully; but that is part of why I prefer “Add This…,” which, instead, eschews beautiful, meditative images for simplistic ones that depict their subjects while demonstrating the poem’s premise, and which uses a grammar that demonstratively appropriates “…of Our Climate”‘s paradisiac imperfection for its own purpose.

The repetition in the first line sets up the sense of resignation and perpetuity that Stevens weaves throughout the rest of the poem, and, in using a pronoun without reference, refers to everything that it is possible to perceive and represent. “It” is a wildcard, is multifarious, and the speaker will, throughout the poem, give us a variety of things that retroactively fill the empty referent. But it is important that the pronoun is a variable before it is defined. These things, stones, beggars, the sun, are not the one and only thing that is posed, but they are used to give us a sense of what it means to be ‘posed,’ to demonstrate how, in the way we speak, we arrange that of which we speak. The second line goes on to differentiate the pose from the subject, pointing out that the pose is in addition to the subject, which, in its natural context, ‘merely’ grows. The rhyme ending the two lines emphasizes the differentiation between the two, the first ending on a hard, final ‘d’ to contrast the innate finality of representation’s posing with the second line’s open-ended, soft ‘grows,’ representing nature’s cyclical and continuous forms.

What is fascinating about this is that, even just this far in, rhetoric, defined by the OED as “the body of rules to be observed by a speaker or writer in order that he may express himself with eloquence,” is jammed. The very first line prevents rhetoric from being used and demonstrates that, in certain situations, something must be added to rhetoric for it to function. After the fact, we are capable of parsing the sentence, but it is only when the rules on which we rely (rhetorical and grammatical law, which one could say parallels natural law in Stevens’ oeuvre) are added to that we can return to the rules and put them into use. This retroactivity is something that occurs throughout the poem, with each line being dependent on what follows to explicate its significance, much as the object is only made significant by human imposition.

The first object which we may add, which may fill in for the first line’s empty referent, is ‘stones,’ probably the only object which could come first in the sequence of referents to follow. A stone is the most utterly inert possible object. It can do nothing without being acted upon by an external force; yet the third line already succumbs to the caveat of human representation: we anthropomorphize it, give it a will, say that stones ‘pose,’ even though we have already been told that everything that merely is in nature ‘is posed‘ by something external to ‘it.’ To muck matters up even more, stones are zeugmatically linked to beggars, a living thing with a will. Though ‘it’ and its position are pre-established as separate, the speaker has already blurred the boundary between them. He almost immediately fails at maintaining the separation between the inertness of the object which is posed by his speaking and the position which his speaking imposes. The brilliance of the third line becomes clear, though, with the next two lines, because the stones indeed do not pose themselves. They only pose ‘in the falling night.’ We, as readers, are accustomed to the description of ‘night falling’ as one of the most basic linguistic representations of night’s arrival. But night, truthfully, has never fallen. Night has never ‘done’ anything. It simply is, it grows. But in this rhetorical construct of an actively falling night, the stones gain a sentience that is equated with the most basic volition. We, as humans, must sleep, and homeless people, having no choice, simply drop wherever they are in order to do so. It is ‘will,’ but only marginally, as marginal as the will that we ascribe to stones in perceiving and representing them. Though homeless beggars “drop” without intent and purely as a function of what they are, in that marginal and infinitesimmal will they are refused freedom from the human affectation of posing themselves and their constituent rags, just as the human rhetorical construct of “night falling” imbues its constituent stones with the will to pose themselves.

But then, catching himself with a “Shucks…,” the speaker realizes what he has just done and, with resignation and contempt, reiterates the key to the third line. He does not correct himself, though, doesn’t say “Dammit, night doesn’t fall!” Instead, he uses the moon as a synecdoche for the night, simultaneously substituting it for the night while acknowledging it as a part of the night that ‘falls,’ just as the stones are imbued with minimal will by being within the night.

The speaker then gives it another go, this time using something inert, though man-made, and once again positions it within something natural, almost as if to say, “Okay, well that didn’t work, but maybe this will.” The next sentence, contained in lines seven through nine, is marvelous in its proliferation of possible interpretations, all its parts nested to provide a sentence ultimately undecipherable by rhetoric. This undecidability of the sentence is staggering: to what do the adjectives ‘grisaille, impearled, profound’ refer, the buildings or the clouds? Which of the two is the subject of the painting? Do the buildings pose in the sky, and also in the clouds as ‘you’ and the clouds simultaneously move? Is there another verb that would have appeared after the sentence splutters out to tell us what the clouds do? Or does it mean to say that the clouds are posing as well, along with the building? Suddenly conscious of this inability to distinguish between the representation, perception, and ‘mere’ existence of buildings and/or clouds, the speaker gives up again with “Pftt…” and restates the opening two lines. However, instead of being neatly contained in their own sentences, each ending with a period, as the first two lines have the contrary theses written, the first stanza’s final sentence ends by melding the two opening sentences together. What ‘merely grows’ ‘in nature’ and the way it ‘is posed’ are no longer separable, and the reiteration of the imposition echoed and restated here holds more weight in the overall construct than the objects as they are, sans pose. They are no longer coequal and coeval. The fact that “In the way you speak/ You arrange, the thing is posed” (and the variability of the pronoun that is posed) precedes and becomes more important than the thing that is posed.

This imperfection, which “The Poems of Our Climate” posits is our paradise, is resolutely demonstrated throughout the first stanza. The ideas start and falter, attempting to maintain a separation between what is perceived and its perception, but they fail. The attempt to perfectly delineate the edges between the two, between the pose and what is posed, fails; yet in its failure, in its imperfection, it leads the speaker to the next stanza in which he resolves to no longer keep the two separated. He succumbs immediately to the natural imposition of representation and reiterates it in order to demonstrate that these words are not the ‘it’ that merely grows, but the object as it is posed.

The second stanza’s opening line positions the subject in the future, an important distinction in that the things that merely grow, that are posed in our speaking of them, eventually shuffle off the impositions of human rhetoric. However futile it is for us to attempt depicting without posing, it is equally futile to force these poses to stick to their subjects. The careful balancing of ‘For all your images’ between the subject of the sentence, the sun, and its verb of ‘coming up’ is a complicated shift in the jamming of rhetoric that occurs in the first stanza. The speaker is no longer simply demonstrating how the rules of rhetoric fall short of helping us parse sentences to understand their meaning; he is demonstrating what can be added to rhetoric, because ‘for all your images’ can be understood in two ways: in spite of all your images and representative of all your images. This divide is weighted towards resisting them, because the sun still comes up ‘as the sun,’ but the speaker immediately includes a representation of the sun, ‘bull fire,’ reiterating that even this depiction of ‘the sun… as the sun’ is incapable of maintaining the distinction between the posed and the pose. ‘Bull fire’ is a powerful image, an animal and an element that each resist and destroy things set before or on them. Intrinsic to the pose in which this rhetoric places the sun is this capability, to resist and destroy. The careful ideological positioning of the concepts in the next two lines (“Your images will have left/ no shadows of themselves”) is an incredibly adept continuation of the pose itself. The poses we place by perception and representation between ourselves and what we perceive will cast no shadows on the subject of our perception. The poses that we create replicate in ourselves, not in the posed.

The next section of the second stanza had me a bit bewildered when I first became interested in exploring how this poem works. But Stevens, in this stanza, begins using line breaks to duplicate his meanings as well, and this multiplication of meanings, in defiance of rhetoric, is a magnificent clue and simultaneously a demonstration of the poem’s point. The first instance of this proliferation occurs with ‘Your images will have left,’ meaning they will have gone by their own will, reiterating the inefficacy of our posing (in contrast to the next line’s addition that they will have left because the sun will have thrown them off). The double meaning here doesn’t so much splinter as reinforce, and this reinforcing occurs a few more times in this stanza, albeit with much more duplicitous meaning. The key to the second half of this stanza, at least for me, and I have no way of confirming this other than that it is the means by which I reached a consistent understanding, is the implicit echo of the aphorism that “art is a lie that tells the truth.” The poses of speech, paint, music— these poses themselves are the subject; art is implicitly equated with the ‘her,’ and she, the corpus of art, lies. It tells untruths, poses, by its very nature. The sentence continues, of course, and the image of art lying becomes the image of a woman posing for a work of art of some sort.

The complexity of the image is multiplied by the fact that art, ‘her,’ is not even actively posing anymore. Her worn out arm falls down, touching ground. Though the speaker willfully succumbs to the specific metaphor of bull fire in the previous sentence, being willing to interrupt his apparently almost successful representation of the sun sans pose to reiterate that it is still posed, the inverse is demonstrated here. Even when art is exhausted, when the active effort of posing is dropped, like the beggars in the first stanza, without intention and as a mere function of necessity, there is still an interstitial posing that art’s exhausted body forces on her surroundings. The moon is depicted, not by itself, but in relation to her, in relation to art, even though it is only a marginal depiction of the moon. The moon is an indefinite shape, a dimly painted brush-stroke above the reality of her, of art, posing as subject, and it is given shape even by the explicit representation of the moon as ‘without shape.’ All of this accomplishes a careful dissolution of the lines between posed and pose, subject and object, reality and art. This is a poem, yes, an artful posing, but the unintentional poses proliferating along with the loss of distinction between subject and object are capable of coming in contact with reality of the posed (as the sun is bull fire), however indistinctly blurry, as efficiently as the artfully posed. The moon, the model, the corpus of art, the representation of this specific scene of moon above model, all of them are consumed by each other, all are subjectively related. And, almost tragically, all are exhausted. The carefully indistinct depiction of the moon is artifice on a corpse. The indistinctness that the moon itself takes on as a result of the depiction will fade. Just as the sun, in spite of our images, will come up as the sun, this representation of the moon is equally doomed. In this exhaustion, this failure of accurate and realistic representation, we may be capable of glimpsing the real.

We cannot, however, separate the two from each other. From a rhetorical standpoint, the final words of the sentence very clearly demonstrate the failure of art to modify reality; but the image itself, the metaphor’s complexity, its disdain for and intentionally obscure depiction of reality, is what makes it possible for rhetoric to reach beyond itself and give an honest attempt at representation, perhaps even an honest representation. Rhetoric innately poses, and the pose, the image, while matter-of-factly obscuring the subject, makes possible a miraculous return to the subject that is posed, even possibly the subject unposed.

The final five lines of the poem confirm this. The rhetorical construct of speech and movement gains its meaning because of something above and beyond rhetoric. The mere sense, with yet another duplicitous meaning, used as both verb and noun, creates the distortion of rhetoric. But in this representation, and here the speaker gets specific to this representation, this poem itself, is a route back to the source. All of this, in its interweaving and duplicitous complexity, is not an evasion, not a metaphor or an image or a distorting representation, but the figure itself. Through rhetoric, through the pose, through the sense, through the faulty representation and the complex metaphors that fail to accurately depict their implicit subject, the subject is reached.

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Filed under: Analysis, Poetry, Stevens, Writing, , , , ,

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