Caveat: The Vulgate of Experience

ImagesWallace Stevens is possibly my favorite poet. At the least, he's in a list of "10 most important" for me. I was reading a poem called "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven" – there are places where you can find the text online (though not copy-and-pastable – what's below, I re-typed myself – pardon any typos).

It's a longer poem (about 23 pages), which I can't reproduce in total, but here is the starting canto and a pair of cantos farther along that stood out for me.

An Ordinary Evening In New Haven

The eye's plain version is a thing apart,
The vulgate of experience. Of this,
A few words, an and yet, and yet, and yet–

As part of the never-ending meditation,
Part of the question that is a giant himself:
Of what is this house composed if not the sun,

These houses, these difficult objects, dilapidate
Appearances of what appearances,
Words, lines, not meanings, not communications,

Dark things without a double, after all,
Unless a second giant kills the first–
A recent imagining of reality,

Much like a new resemblance of the sun,
Down-pouring, up-springing and inevitable,
A larger poem for a larger audience,

As if the crude collops came together as one,
A mythological form, a festival sphere,
A great bosom, beard and being, alive with age.

The color is almost the color of comedy,
Not quite. It comes to the point and at the point,
It fails. The strength at the centre is serious.

Perhaps instead of failing it rejects
As a serious strength rejects pin-idleness.
A blank underlies the trials of device,

The dominant blank, the unapproachable.
This is the mirror of the high serious:
Blue verdured into a damask's lofty symbol,

Gold easings and ouncings and fluctuations of thread
And beetling of belts and lights of general stones,
Like blessed beams from out a blessed bush

Or the wasted figurations of the wastes
Of night, time and the imagination,
Saved and beholden, in a robe of rays.

These fitful sayings are, also, tragedy:
The serious reflection is composed
Neither of comic nor tragic but of commonplace.

It is the window that makes it difficult
To say goody-by to the past and to live and to be
In the present state of things as, say, to paint

In the present state of painting and not the state
Of thirty years ago. It is looking out
Of the window and walking in the street and seeing,

As if the eyes were the present or part of it,
As if the ears heard any shocking sound,
As if life and death were ever physical.

The life and death of this carpenter depend
On a fuchsia in a can–and iridescences
Of petals that will never be realized,

Things not yet true which he perceives through truth,
Or thinks he does, as he perceives the present,
Or thinks he does, a carpenter's iridescences,

Wooden, the model for astral apprentices,
A city slapped up like a chest of tools,
The eccentric exterior of which the clocks talk.

The moon rose in the mind and each thing there
Picked up its radial aspect in the night,
Prostrate below the singleness of its will.

He writes very philosophically, of course. The poem is about religion and life and death and Jesus (the carpenter). His conclusion, at the end of canto XXXI:

It is not in the premise that reality
Is a solid. It may be a shade that traverses
A dust, a force that traverses a shade.

Back to Top