The Enhancement of Static to Dynamic Images in Wallace Stevens
“Description restores vitality to the plain visual object” (Altieri, 250). Take for example when Horatio, after having seen the ghost the first act of Hamlet, notices the beginning of the new day: “But, look, the morn in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.” (Shakespeare, 347). He doesn’t say “Sun’s coming up!” and we do not read Shakespeare in hopes that he would. Instead we are given a description of the sun and it’s movement. This two part description is vital to the beginning of the entire play, and closes the scene succinctly. It provides first a visual image for the reader or listener to imagine, and then gives motion, in this case to indicate that the play has been set into motion by something outside the control of the characters. Transition from a static image to that of a dynamic one gives vitality to several of Wallace Stevens’ poems, furthering their motion and directing their impression.
Before addressing any of Stevens’ poems, it must be made clear that this argument is narrowly focusing itself on the visual images within several of Stevens’ poems. To fully examine the sidelines and tangents of a single poem would be impossible, as the poems themselves grow with discovered philosophies, and appeal to innumerable viewpoints and interpretations. Furthermore, because the word image can have a multiplicity of meanings and derivatives, depending on the school of thought the reader has absorbed, I will constrain the definition of image, within this paper, to the stoic “To describe; especially to describe as to call up a mental picture of” (Morris, 657).
In “Study of Two Pears” (Stevens 180) we find 13 sentences within a 24 line poem, and each line composed of only 4 words, on average, per line. It would seems odd for such short sentences to be so descriptive. However, “A catalogue of vivid effects would pall pretty quickly, and Stevens’ sensuous particulars do not pall. He keeps them simple, often short, and sometimes achieves a remarkable sense of presence” (Cook 154). This presence builds throughout the poem. It begins with the scientific terms for the two pears in question, “Opusculum paedagogum” and states that they are pears and “resemble nothing.” The five passive sentences that following describe the pears in terms of shape and primary colors. The pears have no action and nothing acts upon them. “They are yellow forms...They are touched red…They are not flat…They are round…There are bits of blue.” The first change from this clinical description comes in a simple active verb when a “hard leaf hangs / from the stem.” This dramatic shift in verb choice forces the study of the two pears to suddenly have an activity, and therefore a life within them.
Just as the flight of an arrow, from the perspective of the arrow and not the archer or target, would begin with the description “The arrow was notched. The bowstring was pulled back. The taut bowstring was let go. The arrow flew forward.” It is an inanimate object that assumes an action, the changing of potential to kinetic energy and becoming an animate object, dependent upon the verb choice. (Also worth noting is the loss of immediacy through the use of past tense versus present.)
So to is there a dramatic shift in Study of Two Pears when the leaf hangs from the stem. It is followed with those innate colors suddenly coming to life, “The yellow glistens.” No longer is the color a description, but it has become a subject of a transitive verb. It “Glistens with various yellows, / Citrons, oranges and greens / Flowering over the skin.” The flat affect of the painting has become alive through colors. Citrons and oranges, while colors, are also fruits, living fruits, as well as the use of greens as use of colors and names for various vegetables. Underscoring this burst of life in colors is the gerund phrase Flowering over the skin. At this stage in the poem we have moved from the scientific Latin names of the fruit through a geometrical description and have blossomed into vibrant living colors. Using contrast with vibrancy, the next line reflects on the background, “The shadows of the pears / Are blobs on the green cloth.” The dramatic slip back into a passive verb form, with the shapeless colorless shadows as blobs on a once vibrant color of green, enhances the skin colors of the pears.
Another technique of Stevens’ is to utilize motion within a poem as in “Six Significant Landscapes” (Stevens, 58). The poem begins with “An old man sits”. (Whereas ‘sits’ is an active verb, as is the verb ‘waiting’, I will refer to these as inactive verbs to delineate whether the subject is actively engaged in motion.) Everything surrounding the subject of the first line of this poem invokes inactivity. Old men are generally more sedate than young boys, and the inactive verb sits furthers this inertia. He sits “In the shadow of a pine tree” and “sees larkspur, / Blue and white, / At the edge of the shadow”. Up to this point static images predominate. There is an old man sitting in the shadow of a tree. He sees, he doesn’t look at which, although minimal, would constitute an activity, the blue and white flowers at the edge of the dark shadow. Again working with contrasts, Steven’s strengthens the image through use of bland shadow with colorful flowers. But the dynamics of this image begin to shift when the direct object of his vision begins to move in the wind. And this same wind causes the pine tree which he sits below to move as well, causing the shadow which he sits within to shift. And the shift is further enhanced with the final two lines, “Thus water flows / Over weeds.” The fluid of a river or stream going over weeds is equated to the fluid of air shifting the tree and flowers around the man. The image of him sitting in the shadow of the pine tree with flowers at the edge of the shadow is turned into a dynamic image when his surrounding are set into motion.
The second stanza follows this same shift of image. It begins with subject, passive verb, object, adjective phrase, “The night is the color / Of a woman’s arm”, albeit more characteristic of Stevens abstract nature in regards to the exact color of night. The third through sixth lines, “Night…Obscure…Conceals herself,” show an interesting verb choice: conceals. Just as in the preceding stanza where the pine tree and flowers moved not on their own volition, but rather on the reaction to an outside force: the wind. Had there been no wind there would have been no movement. Here in the second stanza the night conceals herself not out of volition, but rather because of lack of light. This stanza ends with a strong dynamic visual image. “A pool shines, / Like a bracelet / Shaken in a dance.” “A pool shines” lacks any definitive image. Why and how it shines is not addressed until the use of simile (Baldick 206). Here the relation of the pool takes on a rapidly shimmering affect, recalling the wind from the first stanza as well as the negation of light in the shadow. The shift from the blanket of darkness to the dazzling image of a bracelet shaken in a dance strengthens the obscurity of the night. Through this use of parataxis, a static image with a dynamic image, each visual image of benefits from the other.
The first sentence in the “Mud Master” utilizes this transition of static and dynamic images with striking effects. “The muddy rivers of spring” (Stevens, 119) instills an ominous tone, as spring water levels are generally at the highest throughout the year, and muddy river water denotes a higher than average water level. Although it remains a static image by syntax in the first line, it readily accepts the change invoked by the second line, “Are snarling”. The passive verb form stresses a continuation of the rivers’ condition. The rivers are a contained force not acting against anything, yet. The following adverb phrase serves at once as a peaceful image and furthering destructive force, “Under muddy skies.” Thus, “The muddy rivers of spring / are snarling / under muddy skies” serves as a flux between static, dynamic, and static images. The muddy rivers of spring serve on their own as a visual image, but are further enhanced with menace with their present, ongoing, condition. The heightening of the sentence by denoting the water laden clouds overhead gives a continuation and portent of the swollen river. The rivers’ motion is detracted with the inclusion of the muddy skies, as the skies themselves are not snarling. The skies, or their predecessors, have contributed to the condition of the river, yet they remain a static image of dark skies overhead.
Transitioning from static to dynamic to static images gives the poem force within its opening lines. If the lines were rearranged to give static-static-dynamic images, they lose this force: “Under muddy skies / The muddy rivers of spring / are snarling.” The parallel nature of the sentence is lost. The adjective ‘muddy’ becomes redundant and calls for a different word, losing the direct correlation between the overhead skies and the river’s condition. “If resemblance is described as a partial similarity between two dissimilar things, it completes and reinforces that which the two dissimilar things have in common.” (Rae, 10)
Description of an object can instill a strong image, however to maximize the effect of the image it must not remain static. The image must assume activity to ensure it’s survival. In this course of change from inactive to active, the image assumes a vitality. Manipulated correctly, as in “Study of Two Pears”, a clinical detachment of painterly precision can be transformed into a sudden burst of vivid animation within the image through the use of a simple change in verb voice. But verb choice alone cannot propel the image into a dynamic change. Something must continue that momentum, and in “Study of Two Pears” the momentum rests on the choice of nouns having varying interpretations. Verbs and nouns cannot always carry the weight of transformation from a static image to a dynamic one, and the use of simile (Baldick 206) assumes the weight of responsibility when the pool’s surface is equated to a bracelet shaken in a dance. Without this transformation from static to dynamic, the image is either lost in the blandness of clinical description, or moving too quickly to appreciate the object in motion. Stevens combines these two with technical grace to enhance one from the other. Finally, the oscillation between static and dynamic images offers a blend of interpretation. Using parallels of adjectives in “Mud Master”, combined with a transitive verb and adverb phrase, the present and future danger of an image is cast in an ominous light. Without the transitioning between static and dynamic images, these images would loose power in representation.
Altieri, Charles. Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry. Cambridge University Press, 1989
Shakespeare, William. The Library Shakespeare. William McKenzie, 1999
Morris, William. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976
Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose. The Library of America, 1997
Cook, Eleanor. Poetry, Word-Play and World War in Wallace Stevens. Princeton University Press, 1988
Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford University Press, 1990
Rae, Patricia. Bloody Battle-Flags and Cloudy Days: The experience of Metaphor in Pound and Stevens.