By Hearting The Planet on the Table by Wallace Stevens

The Planet On the Table

Ariel was glad he had written his poems.
They were of a remembered time
Or of something seen that he liked.

Other makings of the sun
Were waste and welter
And the ripe shrub writhed.

His self and the sun were one
And his poems, although makings of his self,
Were no less makings of the sun.

It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character,

Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.

What is truly glorious about this late poem from Stevens, who is often landed with the mantle of  difficult or “philosophical” poet, is the intense simplicity and directness with which he interrogates that perennial question “Why Poetry?”.

Why do we continue to write or read poetry?

I ask myself this question on an almost daily basis. Stevens reply here might be: “Don’t bother with too much PoMo theorising, my friend.” Poems are word-snapshots, capturing “a remembered time”, perhaps with a nod to Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquillity”, or Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or that wonderful Milosz memento-mori Encounter:  Equally we might write or read to capture, retain, be reminded of “something seen that [we] liked”.

Ariel was glad he had written his poems.
They were of a remembered time
Or of something seen that he liked.

I wonder if Stevens, writing now, would choose the pronoun “his” for Ariel? I am almost tempted while learning this poem by heart to change the first line “he had written” to the more gender neutral “they”. As a spirit of air, Ariel brings our attention to the shifting nature of gender — triggering anxiety about what counts as masculine/feminine, and what this might mean for our legal and social systems. Poetry is often Othered in this way too, sometimes “enslaved” to a-poem-about a theme, as Prospero does with everyone on the island, imprisoning them in normative discourse.

Yesterday, walking the dog, I saw a young boy, about 10 years old, exiting his Mum’s car, with knitting needles and the beginnings of a yellow scarf carried carefully in his hands. Almost as if he were holding a mobile phone, with the unselfconscious ease and tranquillity which we all have towards those objects now. He didn’t seem in any way ashamed of his knitting as he noticed me noticing it. I was so pleased to see this, while at the same time aching with the understanding that in a few years time or less, all evidence of an interest in knitting, sewing or any other other activity traditionally associated with the other gender, will most likely be hidden away in a bedroom closet.

Does not Ariel and maybe even poetry itself ask us to step outside of these hierarchical structures of race and sex in order to dwell, impossibly-bodiless, in the space of a poem? In the Tempest, there are a scattering of adjectives, but no sexed or gendered markers linked to the “brave”, “delicate”, “fine” spirit that is Ariel. Ariel is also an “actor”, as is Prospero, even though the latter plays Director, commanding others to carry out his desires.

Other makings of the sun
Were waste and welter
And the ripe shrub writhed.

It is here that Stevens, like a wily Prospero starts to play with us. If we file poems under the category Makings of the Sun (the word “other” suggests he does), then who wrote these poems? What is Ariel up to when they’re not serving Prospero? Do they exist, unconsciously, like some of the other makings of the sun – the plants and trees, animals and weather? Or are they more like us, conscious, often painfully self-conscious agents of our own makings?

If poems are also makings of the sun, following universal rules, then they too are “waste and welter”, not the timeless anthologised entities we sometimes refer to, especially in academic discourse. Less Grecian urns, more organic matter, like compost. The Anxiety of Waste and Welter is a state I often experience in my garden. All those hardy annuals I’d nurtured from seed, having had their flowering moment-in-the-sun, now starting to get leggy, blowsy, and soon frayed, desiccated as they turn to seed. As do we.

I also have this sensation when walking around my local park, seeing the scatter of detritus from last night’s picnics left in the grass, or piled up around bins: the half-eaten tubs of coleslaw, the wine bottles with their vinegary dregs, the grease-smeared pizza cartons.

Also when rummaging around old journals housed in those frustrating sliding stacks at the Poetry Library on the Southbank, or browsing shelves filled with the faded and now unread volumes of verse, poems that once held so much hope and ardour, so much pomp and circumstance in their Launch Parties and rah-rah Readings. Waste and welter offers a kind of disillusioned, and for me, comforting perspective on the shiny, just-published volumes appearing on bookshop tables. The hundreds of new poems that get a momentary tweet or two, a few seconds of attention (not even a Warhollian 15 minutes anymore) on a social media feed, and then never for the most part, are heard of again.

Helen Vendler, still the most perspicacious commentator on Stevens, and maybe on poetry in general, reminds us in her book Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire that Stevens is the poet of Desire, although not frequently thought of in this way. Especially when it comes to overmastering and mercilessly renewed desire: “Each moment of reflection, for him, is a rebirth of impulse toward fulfillment, as desire reaches for its object—sexual, religious, epistemological, or (encompassing them all) aesthetic. Hunger, for Stevens, is our eternal condition: famished for fulfillment, we achieve it uncertainly and not for long, but radiantly nonetheless.”

Too:

“No one since Shelley has felt so strongly as Stevens the perpetual vanishing before us of objects of desire and the reformulating energy of the ever-desiring self. To create the new we must first de-create the old; and the reality of decreation (as Stevens called it, borrowing the word from Simone Weil) is as strong as the reality of creation. It is for this reason that Penelope’s web becomes for Stevens the very image of human desire: woven afresh every day, it is unraveled again every evening; and each exhilaration of possession is followed by the despair of disbelief. “The powerful mirror of our wish and will” (Poem with Rhythms) is forever showing us a new illusion. In the end, desire is indistinguishable from despair, once we have understood the endlessness of its quest. Coleridge, who wrote the seminal poem of this theme, which he called Constancy to an Ideal Object, protects his ignorant protagonist, the woodman, from the knowledge that the phantom he pursues is one created in the fog by his own shadow.”

Other makings of the sun
Were waste and welter
And the ripe shrub writhed.

Why is the shrub writhing? Is it the Penelope’s web of this poem? Is it already, at some level, aware of the fact that it is at its peak, and can only descend into decay? My mother, who is 70 complains about having to go on statins for her cholesterol; dreads, having had bad experiences of their side-effects, the awfulness of having to pump one’s body full of drugs to keep going. I wonder somewhat  irritably to myself (though do not say it): “Did you think it would be any different for you? How might sickness, aging, death have manifested if not like this?”

We are here again at the crossroads of so-called Reality and Art, the Eternal Poem versus the Decaying Mortal Body. As if poems existed in this other “hallowed” place apart from everything else given over to decay and ultimate insignificance. In the next stanza, these two seemingly divergent paths meet:

His self and the sun were one
And his poems, although makings of his self,
Were no less makings of the sun.

I love this. It feels like a get-out-jail (if existence is a kind of jail) free card. Poetry, like us, like all organic matter, is that which grows and flowers and then dies in the heat of our own and others’ interest.

It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character,
Some affluence, if only half-perceived,

Why the word lineament? Well, predominantly, we are talking about lines here. Lines of poetry, but also the outline that makes everything exist as it is, that seperates one living form from another. Rivers are lines, trees are lines, we are lines (stick figures!) the whole of existence a series of largely separate, but occasionally intersecting lines.

But it’s the word “affluence” that really gets to the heart of the question what value poetry might have in our lives, or what value anything has when we find ourselves eventually levelled to that all-encompassing category “makings of the sun”? Affluence makes us think here predominantly of physical capital and wealth: money, property, and other material goods. The roots of the word are almost the opposite of this, connected more to shape-shifting Ariel than power-wielding Prospero: from the Latin affluentia, af- + flu- flow + –entia -ence. Affluence is thus flow, as in water or air, not yachts or jets, or waterskis.

Affluence is doing something we love, like learning a poem by heart or writing a poem with heart, autotelic moments of learning, moving, gardening, creativity, conversation, lovemaking; moments that provide us with feelings of focus, inner clarity, serenity, timelessness, even ecstasy. We all understand that this is our true wealth, and often in our accumulation of “things” (in my case: books, films, poems, articles on my laptop to be consumed at a later date) we are really accumulating are future possibilities to experience flow, which then begs the questions, why not just focus on The Affluence of Now instead.

Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.

There’s something almost heartbreaking about that line “in the poverty of their words”. We suddenly see just how insubstantial these things we call poems are: these ramshackle, pasted together bits of wordgauze made out of shape-shifting letters. No less vulnerable than anything else “of the planet”, and maybe even the planet itself, this chunk of rock covered with different kinds of lineament, confluence, affluence in the shape of its organic material.

Big lineaments like blue whales, or giant sequoias, The Great Barrier Reef, or the 80,000 year old Pando aspen grove, its interconnected confluence of root spread out over 106 acres. But also, small stuff: the miniscule lineament-confluence-affluence of microorganisms inhabiting our bodies – outnumbering human cells by 10 to 1. Or individual poems/koans like this The Planet on the Table. Even more so, essays like this one about The Planet on the Table, floating around out here, another speck of microbial matter in the deluge of cybercontent. Space! Cyber, but also all the other forms of emptinesses, such as the expanse existing between celestial bodies, between me who write this one Sunday morning and you reading it now. All of us in the same space, bound to each other, and the planet, but otherwise, completely untethered and disconnected.

Yikes.

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