Poet's Pick April 20
Wallace Stevens: "Of the Surface of Things"
Selected by L. S. Klatt
National Poetry Month 2012

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L. S. Klatt's Poetry Month Pick, April 20, 2012

"Of the Surface of Things"
by Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)


In my room, the world is beyond my understanding,
But when I walk, I see that it consists of three or four hills and
   a cloud.


From my balcony, I survey the yellow air,
Reading where I have written,
‘The spring is like a belle undressing.’


The gold tree is blue.
The singer has pulled his cloak over his head.
The moon is in the folds of the cloak.

* L. S. Klatt Comments:
Where does poetry come from?

This is a question that Wallace Stevens—whose intuitions Harriet Monroe faintly praised as “supersensitive to beauty but incased in the protective armor of the business attorney”—had been pursuing since his Harvard days. In “Of the Surface of Things,” published in 1919 when he was 40 and still not a household name, Stevens poses three possible answers: observation, figuration, and revelation.

In section one, the poet confesses that, confined to “my room, the world is beyond my understanding.” Thus, in order to discover what lies outside his private space, the poet must come out of the closet. Like the landscape painter, the poet of the open air describes what he sees. In this case, it is the “Surface of Things,” the bare elegance of “three or four hills and a cloud.” Observation is not complicated; the eye reports rather than interprets. And because of this simple attention, the universe is knowable.

In the next section, the poet is positioned on a “balcony,” simultaneously indoors and outdoors, midway. Here, Stevens suggests that the converse between the outside world and an inner life of language is what generates poems. As in the first section, the poet is a surveyor of the wide world, and it is in this light— “the yellow air”—that the poet reviews, perhaps revises, the line that has occurred to him in his study: ‘The spring is like a belle undressing.’

To put the world into words necessarily changes it. Poetry figures reality, what Stevens sometimes calls “the plain sense of things,” so that in the simile, ‘like a belle undressing,’ ‘spring’ becomes prettified, romanticized, perhaps even falsified. But “the world” that once was “beyond my understanding” has now become legible. More than that, it has become gorgeous.

In the last section, the lyric “I,” which up to this point has spoken for the poet, has inexplicably disappeared. First person has been abstracted into third person, absorbed into the character of the “singer.” The mode of composition recommended here is a withdrawal from the visible world altogether. In pulling the cloak over his head, the “singer” darkens his eyesight in favor of revelation. Within his “cloak,” the “singer” illumines himself by the light of an imaginary “moon.”

This brings us back to the beginning of the poem where the cloistered self cannot comprehend “the world.” Stevens may be suggesting in this last section that such ignorance is not as dire as first supposed. Elsewhere Stevens insists that “Those who seek for the freshness and strangeness of poetry in fresh and strange places do so because of an intense need.” In other words, the creative soul—whether poet, singer, or painter—invents what will ultimately satisfy him. When day is done, when its “freshness” has been exhausted, the artist retreats into a dark place, into “the folds of” his brain, where anything is possible. There, “the gold tree” becomes “blue” and the universe, once again, wonderfully bewilders.

We may be tempted to see in the three panels of this triptych the American tradition entire; the poet of the open air is Whitman, the poet in the closet is Dickinson, the poet under the cloak is Stevens himself.

But Stevens, I think, invites us instead to consider these sections more as the stages of a rocket. The first two are necessary but mechanical and fall back to earth. In the last stage, the would-be poet hides in his craft and generates a momentum by which he imagines himself supersonically in space. For what is a poem if not a moonshot?

About L. S. Klatt:
L. S. Klatt teaches American literature and creative writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Recent poems of his have appeared or will appear in Denver Quarterly, The Cincinnati Review, West Branch, Hotel Amerika, Washington Square, and Best American Poetry 2011. His latest collection, Cloud of Ink, winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, was published last year by the University of Iowa Press.

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