Sunday, July 8, 2012

Wallace Stevens: Anecdote of the Jar

This is one of Wallace Stevens' most familiar and most anthologized poems.  It's also an example of how memory can play tricks on one.  For years I've been remembering  a somewhat different poem, and all because of one misremembered verb.

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

 My problem was the verb in the first line:  I remembered the first line as "I found a jar in Tennessee,"  not "I placed a jar in Tennessee."  For years I had thought that he had stumbled across that jar on a hill in the midst of  wilderness, and, therefore, it was a magical discovery.  When I came across it again a short time ago, I was surprised to find that the poet had placed that jar on the hill.  Now, I must see this as more of an experiment than a bit of magic. The question now changes from how that jar got there to why he put it there. Once I got the verb right, I was able to answer the question of how it got there, but now I'm uncertain as to why he put it there.  As frequently happens, answering one question brings up a second.

I wonder if my substitution of  "placed"  by  "found" can be, perhaps partly, attributed to the poem itself.  The first two stanzas have a strong internal rhyme: the "ound" sound.  "Round" and "surround" appear in the first stanza.  In the second stanza we read "around,"  "round," and "ground."  It may have been this that influenced me to substitute "found" for "placed."

What is it about that jar that causes it to become the dominating element in the scene?  Situated on a hill certainly would draw one's attention to it, for would be the central component, and all around would now be seen in some way as being in subordinate to it. While the plants and trees and bushes have not moved, they would now seem to be ordered by the jar, "no longer wild."

 The power of being on the top of the hill is also a  common theme in art and literature.   I am reminded of castles and lonely mansions that command the surrounding territory because of their position.  Of course, it's also a powerful symbol for Christians--the cross on a hill outside of Jerusalem which features in many paintings and murals.

The jar is unlike anything else in Tennessee (a bit of poetic license here, as there surely are many jars in Tennessee) for it is a manufactured thing and therefore sterile, lifeless.  No bird or bush could ever come from the jar. It might be this quality that helps to give  it "dominion everywhere."   The jar is round, with no beginning and no stopping place,  and if I were to come across it and walk around it, I would come back to where I began, which is also the movement in the poem.  The poem begins with a jar in Tennessee and ends with that same jar in Tennessee.

Like most of Stevens' poetry, I get the feeling that I"m getting only a part of it and much is escaping me.  Or, perhaps I should just read the poem and take it as it is.


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