Archive for April, 2007

Poetry Friday: Wallace Stevens’ The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Posted on April 29, 2007. Filed under: Poetry, Poetry Fridays |

The Emperor of Ice Cream

by Wallace Stevens, from Harmonium

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dwadle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

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On Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man”

Posted on April 7, 2007. Filed under: Children's Literature, Homeschooling, Poetry |

Okay, the much belated entry on Stevens’ “The Snow Man.” If you haven’t had a look at the poem itself yet, find it here in Poetry Friday stack.

This particular poem has been with me since my freshman year of college. And I still find things in it I hadn’t noticed before. Like just now, I was looking at the stanzas (poetry paragraphs)–three lines each. That’s unusual as a form, but I think the evenness of the stanzas suits the coldness of poem’s tone–and the three-point structure almost makes me think of a waltz. One, two, three, one, two, three, he keeps turning us as we dance through the poem.

The evenness of the stanzas says something about the tone as well. We’re being told something in a very level, reasonable voice–flat even. There’s no hurrying to jam extra lines into one stanza, no lingering with a couplet (two-line stanza) here or there. Nor does the poem take up much space on the page–what he’s asserting here is not A BIG IDEA, and trust me, Stevens is a poet capable of asserting big ideas. It’s a small poem, only 15 lines with only a handful of lines more than 10 syllables.

Those numbers may not sound significant, but in poetry they come close to the big magic: 14 lines of 10 metered syllables each is a sonnet. So Stevens is close to the sonnet form here–but choses instead of the sonnet’s more typical four-line stanzas to use his own three-line structure and to use some really short lines, one that’s only 5 syllables long.

In American poetry, the “conversational line”–the dominant line form of the 20th century and still the dominant form today (though there’s great arguments to be made that text messaging and other electronic media are shortening the standard conversational line)–is 8-12 syllables. It’s called the “conversational line” because 8-12 syllables is about how much one speaker in a casual conversation can say at one time:

“Some weather we’re having, huh?”(7)

“Can’t believe it’s this cold in April.”(9)

“I know. I already packed my sweaters away. “(12)

So Stevens is using lines that tend to be a little shorter than the standard conversational line and he’s not using a standard sonnet form, even though he’s close to it. That tells us he’s doing something different from a sonnet (sonnets generally glory in something or sorrow over it) and that he’s probably artificially shortening some of his lines–which speaks of a certain restraint. So what is he doing?

Above all else that Stevens is remembered for–he is remembered as a poet of great imagination. And here, he’s imagining himself as a snow man. He’s trying to imagine what it would be like to be a creature made entirely of snow–but set with eyes, maybe with earmuffs to suggest ears. He’s asking himself, what would a snowman see? What would a snowman hear? What would a snowman feel or think? As poem, it’s an absurd project, but it’s a testament to his immense talent that he can start with such a wacky premise and produce such a beautiful piece.

And I think the success of this pieces lies in the creation of that cold, reasonable tone (none of the emotionality of a sonnet, none of warmth of a casual conversation between strangers), that measured tumbling of the three lines stanzas, those short restrained lines.

He’s got me convinced that’s how a snowman might perceive the world. Has he convinced all of you? Anybody want to post a counter poem? Or perhaps a poem from a different point of view, say one of the spring’s first daffodils? How would the form of that poem be different, how would its outlook change?

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National Poetry Month at Homeschool Kid Lit

Posted on April 1, 2007. Filed under: Children's Literature, Homeschooling, Poetry |

Fitting that our month devoted to poetry begins with a day for fools. I say that in all love–I think it takes being something of a fool to be something as a poet.

Fools take risks. They do tricks. They get away with all manner of outrageous words and deeds. They don’t ask for the attention of the court, by the very nature of what they’re doing, they get it. They exist outside the boundaries that limit everybody else. True, they do so at the king’s whim, but that too is part of being the fool. Knowing that at any moment your life as you know it could be over.

But I digress. Having outed myself as a poet just before National Poetry Month (NPM) and having complained that kids don’t get enough “real poems”–I’ve decided to do my part. Each week I’m going to post on a 20th-century poet whose work includes at least a few relatively accessible pieces that I think parents and children can enjoy together. I’ll post the poems for examination as Poetry Friday pieces, though for the purposes of NPM, any given day counts as a Poetry Friday here at Homeschool Kid Lit.

As for the poets we’ll take up together, I’m going to start with Wallace Stevens. Mainly because I’d never heard of him until college and I wish I hadn’t had to wait that long. Here’s the link to the Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wallace_Stevens

While the Wikipedia entry’s accurate, it’s going to make him sound a lot scarier than he is. If too much information makes your head hurt, then remember just this much: he was a lawyer, then an insurance mogul–very much a man of the world, nothing like the wispy big-eyed poet stereotype; he’s considered a Modernist–he believed it was important to find the meaning of a thing or an event, though he didn’t believe that religion, the traditional route to meaning and understanding, necessarily held the answers. In terms of his willingness to take on the role of fool? He was positively Shakespearean.

The pieces I’m going to post and offer up for discussion are, I think without exception, from his first book Harmonium, published in 1923.

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Poetry Friday: Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man”

Posted on April 1, 2007. Filed under: Poetry Fridays |

The Snow Man

by Wallace Stevens, from Harmonium

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

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