Wordsmith Wednesday: Wallace Stevens’ “Gubbinal”

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We are proud to have our words this week come from friend and Issue 4 contributor, Raul Clement.

“Gubbinal” by Wallace Stevens, is exactly the sort of poem I love – one whose surface simplicity gives way, on closer examination, to a great complexity of content and possible interpretations. Here is the poem in full:

“That strange flower, the sun,
 Is just what you say.
 Have it your way.
The world is ugly,
 And the people are sad.
That tuft of jungle feathers,
 That animal eye,
 Is just what you say.
That savage of fire,
 That seed,
 Have it your way.

The world is ugly, 
And the people are sad.”

I read this as a poem about how a certain pessimistic and unimaginative outlook fails to see the wonder of the world—and in doing so, actually diminishes that wonder.

The speaker of the poem sees the sun poetically, as a “strange flower.” But at the same time, with a bitter and sarcastic resignation, he tells the unnamed “you” to “have it your way.” In other words, according to the “you,” the sun is just the sun and nothing more.

The famous second stanza, repeated at the end of the poem, should not be interpreted literally—or at least not with a singular meaning. It does not represent the attitude of the speaker, but the attitude of the “you” he addresses. Stevens might have punctuated the poem like this:

That strange flower, the sun,
Is just what you say.
Have it your way:

“The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.”

To do so, however, would have reduced the secondary meaning. The world is indeed ugly, and the people are sad—but only because of people claiming this is the case. By leaving out quotation marks, Stevens allows for this double meaning.

There is so much more to analyze—the title, the rhyme and meter, etc.—but that could turn into a ten-page essay. That Stevens manages to pack so much into so few words, and with such simplicity, is a reminder of the great power of poetic compression.

– RC

Profile of Wallace Stevens Smiling

This is a portrait of the American poet Wallace Stevens, (1879-1955). He was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for his in 1954. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

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Submissions for Issue 5

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Submissions for Issue 5 are open until October 16th!

Send us your poetry, prose, and creative nonfiction!

Find full submission guidelines here!

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Nas’ “One Love”

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Our words this week come from Nas’ track “One Love” off of his 1994 classic, Illmatic.

The lines are:

“But, yo, guess who got shot in the dome piece?
Jerome’s niece on her way home from Jones Beach
It’s bugged, plus Little Rob is selling drugs on the dime
Hanging out with young thugs that all carry 9s
And night time is more trife than ever
What up with Cormega? Did you see him? Are y’all together?”

The textual cadence of these words is only a shadow of the spoken delivery, but the internal rhymes and crisp colloquiality of Nas’ lyrics are undeniable. Illmatic is full of dense, image intensive verses but the stylized envisioning of letters to jailed friends found on “One Love” has always stood out to me. The conversational relation of urban tragedy/reality is presented with such familiarity and frankness that I instantly relate to the unnamed recipient of Nas’ news. I feel the sadness of a little girl from the neighborhood being shot dead while walking home. I feel the anger of knowing another young kid from the block is getting involved in the same nonsense that killed that innocent child. I feel the guarded closeness between separated male friends, the commrodary of shared struggle. The clear-eyed bitterness and empathetic realism in Nas’ lyrics on Illmatic is part of the reason the record is a masterpiece, but the unique creative vision and flawless execution on “One Love” make it a touchstone for urban storytelling in my eyes/ears/mind.

– NR

Nas

Wordsmith Wednesday: Marina Tsvetaeva “Verses About Moscow”

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On the heels of his wonderful story “Barabanchik” in Issue 4, we are proud to have our words this week provided by Darius Jones.

Today’s words come from “Verses about Moscow” by Marina Tsvetaeva.

The excerpt is:

В колокольный я, во червонный день
Иоанна родилась Богослова.
Дом — пряник, а вокруг плетень
И церковки златоголовые.

И любила же, любила же я первый звон,
Как монашки потекут к обедне,
Вой в печке, и жаркий сон,
И знахарку с двора соседнего.

Провожай же меня весь московский сброд,
Юродивый, воровской, хлыстовский!
Поп, крепче позаткни мне рот
Колокольной землей московскою!

Москва! — Какой огромный
Странноприимный дом!
Всяк на Руси — бездомный.
Мы все к тебе придем.

“On a day of bells I was born,
the golden day of John the Divine.
The house was gingerbread surrounded by
wattle-fence and small churches with gold heads.

And I loved it, I loved the first sound,
the nuns flowing towards Mass, and
the wailing in the oven, the heat of sleeping—
the sorceress in the neighboring house.

Come with me, people of Moscow, all of you,
imbecile, thieving, flagellant mob!
And priest: Stop my mouth up firmly
with Moscow—land of bells!

Moscow! Such a vast
hostelry is your house.
Everyone in Russia is—homeless.
We shall all make our way towards you.”

As a prose writer, I’m stingy with my love for poets. There is only a handful I really love and Tsvetaeva is one of them. With Tsvetaeva, it really comes down to a simple thing: sheer power. I can’t think of a poet with more emotion in her words. Even in translation, they leap off the page and grab you by the throat or slap you upside the head. It’s like she’s right there sitting across from you, telling you her deepest secrets. You want to know what “voice” is in writing? Pick up some Tsvetaeva and you’ll find out.

This selection shows why. It’s simple enough. A girl’s recollection of old Moscow. A Moscow of churches and bells that is long gone. That was probably even dying in her day. But it’s all preserved there in the details: the howling stove, the nuns “flowing” to Mass, the bells ringing. And the gingerbread house with the “sorceress” in the neighboring yard. All things that have long disappeared from Moscow. (You’ll have to go a long way down a side street in a provincial town to see that sort of thing in Russia these days).

And we end with a premonition of harder times to come. This poem was written a hundred years ago, 1916. Russia had entered World War I and the Revolution was just a year away. New, dark forces were just over the horizon. Enter the “thieving, flagellant mob” which Marina gets swept up in. In her poem they’re already homeless, dispossessed. It’s up to her, the poet, to lead them on. And she does. To find out where, you’ll just have to check out the rest of the poem. I highly recommend it.

– DJ

For more on Marina check these out:

Marina T

Wordsmith Wednesday: Beat Happening “The This Many Boyfriends Club”

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This week’s words come from the Beat Happening track “The This Many Boyfriends Club” off their 1988 album Jamboree on K Records/Rough Trade Records.

The lines are:

“It makes me mad
When I see them make you sad
Sometimes I wanna be real bad
And shove those words back down their throat”

Calvin Johnson’s raw and thoroughly Calvin Johnson-ish delivery of lyrics so simple over dissonant guitar seems to distill emotions down to their pure/childish/truthful cores. Anyone who’s ever loved someone, be it a friend/family member/romantic interest, has likely felt this immature but nonetheless very real impulse to cause harm, physical or otherwise, to people causing pain to the one they love. These words are devoid of decorum or self-consciousness or pretense. They are aggressive in their vulnerability, complex in their plainness. This is someone clenching their fists in the bar’s gravel parking lot. This is a parent wiping tears from a bullied child’s face. This is “I LOVE YOU” written in kiddish scrawl on a folded sheet of classroom loose leaf. And we love you a lot, Lori.

– NR

beat happening