October 2, 2019

Poetry Is Everywhere: Looking and Listening With Wallace Stevens on His Birthday

By Stuart Mitchner

Poetry does not only mean verse; in a way it means painting, it means the theatre and all the rest of it.
—Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), from a 1935 letter

Poetry landed in our mailbox this week spelled out in big capital letters on the cover of a midwinter 2019 fashion catalogue offering “a relaxed and understated collection” that combines “the beauty of natural fabrics with sculptural silhouettes and elegant design details.”

Among the dozens of catalogues that follow my wife through the seasons, this one always gets my attention because, if nothing else, it acknowledges the powerful appeal of poetry as a phenomenon “that does not only mean verse.” Although what Stevens intends by “all the rest of it” may not include the images in  a fashion catalogue, there’s no denying the prevalence of colors and patterns in his work, nor the abstracted expressions on the faces of models who seem to be listening to something interesting that they don’t quite understand, which makes sense if the something is, well, why not poetry? And given the elegantly understated apparel they’re presenting, why not take the notion to the limit and imagine that the photographer putting them through their paces has someone offstage reading passages from the poet who was born on this date 140 years ago?

Consider, for example, the barefoot brunette modeling a pair of dark blue silk satin pajamas who seems to be smiling in spite of herself, as if a particular line had caught her by surprise. She might be responding to “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” with its “white night-gowns” of which “None are green,/Or purple with green rings,/Or green with yellow rings,/Or yellow with blue rings.” And what starts her smiling could be the sudden unlikely appearance of “baboons and periwinkles” and the “old sailor” who “catches tigers/In red weather.” Or maybe it’s the woman in “Sunday Morning,” with her “Complacencies of the peignor,” “oranges in a sunny chair,/And the green freedom of a cockatoo.”

What has me smiling at the moment, however, is the thought of Elsie, the poet’s wife, who sat for the sculptor whose bronze bust of her won the competition for the new Mercury dime minted in 1916. There’s a sort of a sight rhyme in the fact that when Bing Crosby was singing “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” the model for the goddess on the dime in circulation at the time was married to a poet whose day job was evaluating insurance claims.

An Awakening

The peignoir-clad woman in “Sunday Morning,” who feels “content when wakened birds,/Before they fly, test the reality/Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings,” wonders to herself, “But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields/Return no more, where, then, is paradise?”

The wakened birds and the wondering woman remind me of the first time I discovered poetry writ large in the real world. It happened the spring of my senior year in high school when my friends and I were in the habit of making sudden, thoughtless late-night drives all over southern Indiana. As the driver of the favored car (a fire-engine-red Buick Special convertible), I usually managed to get home no later than two or three in the morning, aware that my worried mother would most likely be waiting up for me. On this occasion, around an hour before sunrise, I was blindsided by an immense noise as soon as I turned off the ignition. It was a jagged, shrill forcefield of sheer sonic mayhem unlike anything I’d ever heard. I knew the din was being made by birds in trees, our trees in our backyard, but it was as though I’d never until that moment comprehended the fact that birds in trees were part of our daily lives. In the time it took me to get from the car to the house, the more I heard of the monumental uproar, the more the power of it thrilled me and the closer I was to being inside this strange yet somehow familiar element. I was already punchy at that hour, the sun was rising, and I felt as though the storm of sound had broken through some barrier between ordinary life and the unknown.

No surprise, my mother was sitting at the kitchen table, waiting up for me. We were beyond the small talk of her asking where on earth I’d been and me making excuses. She was smiling when she saw the stunned expression on my face; she knew what I was feeling and thinking. We were about to share something we would never share again. “It’s the dawn chorus!” she said. “Isn’t it wonderful!”

What seemed wonderful to me at that moment besides my mother were those two words. Compared to the taken-for-granted language of daily life, “dawn chorus” was a poem.

Ways of Looking

Thanks to my wife, we now have two bird feeders in the backyard. We’ve lived in this house over 30 years and because of the bird feeders I’m seeing another world out there.

We have a good view of the feeders through the living room windows. The birds seem to favor the more architecturally elaborate of these structures. We’ve enjoyed the comings and goings of goldfinches, black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, various woodpeckers, and amid the poetry of birds the slapstick comedy of squirrels performing frenzied acrobatics of frustration trying to penetrate the swaying pagoda stuffed with sunflower seeds.

I’m sitting in a wicker armchair facing the window with a copy of The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens open to, what else, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” This time of year the most appropriate way of looking is the third one: “The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds./It was a small part of the pantomime.” The ways most in harmony with my situation at the window would seem to be the second (“I was of three minds, Like a tree/In which there are three blackbirds”) and the fifth about not knowing whether to prefer “the beauty of inflections/Or the beauty of innuendoes,/The blackbird whistling,/Or just after.”

Except the only black birds in our backyard are grackles, and they don’t whistle. A month before we put up the bird feeders, I was “of six minds” watching six of them sharing the same swaying branch, like a carnival ride, poetry in motion, but once they discovered the bird feeder, descending on it en masse, it was doggerel in motion, and soon they were “eating us out of house and home.” My wife did some research, consulted friends, and we switched to safflower seeds. It took only a morning for the grackles to figure out that the diet was not to their liking.

For a few days no one was stopping at our restaurant. It reached the point where I was staring at the feeder thinking field-of-dreams thoughts (“If you build it, they will come”). It got worse after we read Carl Zimmer’s September 19 New York Times article (“Birds Are Vanishing from North America”), with this excerpt from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring: “On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices, there was now no sound.”

Several birdless vigils left me feeling like someone living out a parable based on the words of a conservation biologist quoted in the same article: “This is the loss of nature.” Eventually the chickadees and woodpeckers came back but not the grackles. The upside of the change in diet was the arrival of new customers like the blue jays and cardinals, always a presence in our backyard. As hard as it was to fathom the idea that the warbler population has dropped by 617 million, and that there are 440 million fewer blackbirds than there once were, the most troubling thing in the article came at the end, with a bird-watcher saying “It’s nothing like it used to be. If the cardinals and the blue jays and the sparrows aren’t doing well, that’s really scary.”

The Other Cardinals

In the aftermath of the last day of baseball’s regular season, I’m back to Wallace Stevens and the fifth way of looking. But the beauty of inflections and innuendoes in October is on the field called the diamond where cardinals become Cardinals and blue jays Blue Jays. The season ended for Toronto on Sunday but not for St. Louis. Tomorrow the Cardinals I’ve lived and died with since April will fly to Atlanta to play the Braves in the first game of the Division Series.