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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Wordsmith Wednesday: Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”

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Today’s words come from the chapter “How to Tell a True War Story” from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

The excerpt is:

“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”

When we read The Things They Carried in senior year high school English class, I remembered being struck by the directness and vivid imagery of the book, especially this chapter. O’Brien writes with a blend of austerity and attention to detail that made my teenage self feel as though I could contemplate the human cost of war without ever having experienced the pain for myself. I had lived most of my adolescent life with a vague fear of Vietnam-esque draft being instated for the seemingly unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and this book taught me how to navigate some of those feelings from a distance in case I ever had to confront them for real. I think that is part of the beauty of literature: it can give you insight into an experience vicariously so that you can learn from, or at least look at, situations from a variety of angles without every having to go through them yourself. Sometimes there is not a clear lesson, but simply a human emotion or event to be considered, just a testament to the reality that is humanity.

Love and respect to all the men and women who have survived or become victims to the horrors of war as well as to their family and friends.

-NR

obrien

Cold Fire

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The closing stanza of William Pearson’s poem “Winter Broken” reads,

“We weren’t each other’s audience that night, but, just as the
evenly spaced halogen suggested, and the polystyrene
melting on your big hat, your hair
getting caught in our mouths when kissing, your
wearing too much makeup, your remaining
unaware of how cold it was
outside my car,
under the stars,
with which, from our distance,
whether turning clockwise
or counterclockwise, we made a meaningful axis.
And in these paper-lined boxes, nearly empty
but expanding and loud,
tiled with wrinkles in incredible relief,
uncurling into tiny ellipses, each of them,
filling up with snow.”

With an intellectuality and ease, Pearson presents an atmospheric work that spirals around the reader, cold and clear, creating movement as complex and fluid as falling flakes with only words and commas. Be sure to read the whole piece in our first issue to get the full effect!

willpearson
Photo Credit: Ruairí
(http://pricklygoo.com/2010/11/28/sound-silence-and-snow/)