Decreating reality in “The Man with the Blue Guitar”
For Wallace Stevens, reality is an abstraction with many perspective possibilities. As a poet, Stevens struggles to create original perspectives of reality. Wallace Stevens creates a new, modern reality in his poetry. Actually, Stevens decreates reality in his poetry. In The Necessary Angel, Stevens paraphrases Simone Weil’s coinage of decreation as the change from created to uncreated or from created to nothingness. Stevens then defines modern reality as, “a reality of decreation, in which our revelations are not the revelations of belief, but the precious portents of our own powers”(750). Stevens relates, through poetry, a destruction of traditional reality leading to a realization that the meaning of a poem is not truth, always recognizing that the poem is the poets perception of reality. This perception of reality is based on experience, historical context, and poetic skill, among others. “The Man with the Blue Guitar” is a long poem that allows Stevens to change perspectives and create abstract realities. Parataxis in such a long poem allows for the decreation of reality and the relation of imagination.
In his book, The long poems of Wallace Stevens: An interpretive study, Rajeev S. Patke describes varied progression within “The Man with the Blue Guitar” as “an indefinite improvisatory series. In such a series the unitary sections lose their independent status as poems, and their masks and metaphors become stages in the continual play of metamorphosis which is the true life of Stevens’s poetry”(241). Imbedded in Patke’s description of “the true life of Stevens’s poetry”, is the parataxis that a sectioned poem provides. Each movement from section to section is both continuous and not continuous. Each section could be read separately, but that would ignore the overall theme of presenting the abstraction of reality. Stevens, himself, articulates the goal of poems (and paintings) to be, “sources of our present conception of reality, without asserting that they are the sole sources, and as supports of a kind of life, which it seems to be worth living, with their support, even if doing so is only a stage in the endless study of an existence, which is the heroic subject of all study”(751).
In “The Man with the Blue Guitar”, Stevens metaphorically provides the similarities and differences between musicians and poets. The guitar serves as an instrument for the musician to relate themes. “Things as they are/Are changed upon the blue guitar”, this line in first section of the poem conceptualizes the guitar as an instrument of perception. The guitar does not express reality, but instead creates or decreates a new reality as a perception. In Adagia, Stevens describes the relation of reality and imagination, “The imagination consumes and exhausts some element of reality.” The imagination is not reality, but they do share some qualities. The first section further articulates Stevens’ pressures to recreate reality as, “A tune beyond us, yet ourselves”, and “things exactly as they are”. Clearly, the listeners do not understand the duality of their own request, especially when Stevens felt that his instrument could only allow him to represent reality, not create reality. Amongst other things, this first section provides the metaphor for music and poetry, as well as expose the demands of realism on the musician/poet.
The next section Stevens clarifies the value of his instrument in revelation. The second section is presented as the musician speaking, only without the quotation marks. In typical Stevens fashion, the musician speaking allows for the distinction and realization of similarities and differences between poet and musician. The musician appeared as a shearsman in the first section, which changes slightly to a tailor like comparison, as the musician now must patch the world. The section starts with the struggle of presenting reality, then moves to the conversion of shearsman to tailor, “I cannot bring a world quite round,/Although I patch him as I can./I sing a hero’s head, large eye/And bearded bronze, but not a man”. Reproducing reality is as impossible as drawing a perfect circle. The patchwork falls inevitably short of the actual aesthetic of the hero. The head, eye and beard are all parts of the actual hero, but are not the entire reality. Each section of the poem functions as pieces of reality being patched together. Whether separate from each other or together, the sections of the poem can only present Stevens’s reality. As good as the musician’s patchwork is, he can only “serenade almost to man” and that serenade is the guitarist’s creation. A poem is a poet’s creation based on individual style. In the first two sections there is a shift from perceiving the musician in the third person to the musician as the speaker.
Section VI of “The Man with a Blue Guitar”, addresses “topopoeia” or “the art of constructing an image large enough to enclose its own imager”(Collins 280). Again Stevens notes the blue guitar as an instrument in relating perception, but he shifts the focus between “A tune beyond us as we are” and “Ourselves in the tune as if in space”. Stevens has now forced himself and his readers into the poem with the guitarist. If ourselves are in the space of the tune, then we must view the tune from all perspectives or “in a final atmosphere”. This final atmosphere implies a sort of walking around the space of the tune to realize all perceptions. The perceptive shifts that occur in this section are also significant, for the guitarist simply playing a song in a different place doesn’t change the song. The song doesn’t change and neither does the theme, but this still doesn’t change the fact that the song is a version of reality and not reality itself. The final line of this section is “A composing of senses of the guitar”. The instrument here has senses and the musician’s style relates those senses. Stevens does not have the guitar compose the senses, instead he gives the instrument senses. As Patke wrote, “the canvas and the guitar do not remain instruments or means to an end, they themselves create or, rather, are the space in which the end exists”(86).
The shift between sections six and seven is an example of drastic perception leaps. This section changes from the guitarist’s perspective again (until the final line). Immediately the first line incorporates all artists, “It is the sun that shares our works./The moon shares nothing. It is a sea.” The perceptive shift includes the guitarist, but does not separate his work from “our works”. The mood of this section is disparaging. Patke interprets the Stevens’s use of the sun and moon, “the moon and the sea have nothing to offer by way of warmth. Even the sun seems to have failed humanity”(87). The perception from this section is formed by the cold winter sun; a contrast to section five when, “there are no shadows in our sun”. Summer and winter perspectives are part of reality, and the experience of this cold reality shapes the tone of this section, which includes “creeping men” as “Mechanical beetles never quite warm”. The final sentiment of this section is of cold guitar strings. The dreary winter weather constructs the musician’s perception, which is cold like the guitar strings and the “mechanical beetles”. Here, weather is one example of how experience can shape perception. In fact, the eighth section immediately constructs a storm. The storm leads to “cold chords”, “impassioned choirs”, and “my lazy, leaden twang”. The “lazy, leaden twang” is the response the storm or “like the reason in a storm”. The perception that the experience of the storm provides is “lazy” and “leaden”, “And yet it brings the storm to bear./I twang it out and leave it there.” Stevens recognizes the effect of experience on art, and ends this section leaving the role of the artist/musician/poet to present this reality as it effects him and his art.
In the fifteenth section, Stevens even refers to Picasso. “In this picture of Picasso’s, this “hoard/Of destructions”, a picture of ourselves”. Stevens comments on Picasso’s quote in The Necessary Angel, “Does not the saying of Picasso that a picture is a horde of destructions also say that a poem is a horde of destructions?”(741). Clearly, the opening line of section fifteen compares Picasso’s sentiments on painting to Stevens’s own poetry. Here is one place where “the other” becomes clear in the poem. Stevens acknowledges other artistic representations, but maintains his own style and will. Stevens asks, “Do I sit, deformed, a naked egg,/Catching at Good-bye, harvest moon,/Without seeing the harvest or the moon?” Stevens' poetry leaves him naked to interpretation, as he presents his deformed reality. He attempts to present such concepts as a harvest moon without physically presenting the harvest or moon. This section continues with Stevens’ relation to his thematic representations, “Is my thought a memory, not alive?” Clearly it is the readers of his poetry who breathe life into his thoughts. His will is expressed, but merely as a memory; the enjoyment of his poems by others gives his thoughts a new life. The reference at the end to wine or blood is easily attributed to the idea of transubstantiation, and implies the role of the poet/artist as a saviour. The force behind this section seems to be destruction, not only Picasso’s reference, but also the line, “Things as they are have been destroyed”. Also, as a “naked egg” Stevens opens the idea of Humpty Dumpty; which leads to the patchwork of the fragmented egg and the metamorphosis of Humpty himself.
In section XVIII, Stevens again shifts the perception of the poem. He renames the song as a dream, “A dream (to call it a dream) in which/I can believe, in face of he object,/A dream no longer a dream, a thing,/Of things as they are, as the blue guitar”. The dream is now a thing just as the guitar is a thing. Both are instruments in presenting reality, and again the idea that neither is actual reality is present. This section also relates back to the guitar and the senses, “After long strumming on certain nights/Gives the touch of the senses, not of the hand”. Here the hand and the guitar give way to the formation of senses realized “after long strumming”. His poetry too, must serve as the realization of the senses; his language and style being only a part of the larger dream of senses.
In the twenty second section Stevens shifts the perception of his poem to the subject of poetry:
Poetry is the subject of the poem,
From this the poem issues and
To this returns. Between the two,
Between issue and return, there is
An absence in reality,
Things are as they are. Or so we say.
I think this relates the poem to the song, and poetry is the dream of the poem. Again Stevens ties his theme into reality. The poetry is the subject, but the subject created leaves “an absence in reality”. This section directly relates the formation of a dream to poetry. Poems allow for “sun’s green”, “cloud’s red”, “earth feeling”, and a “sky that thinks”. In poetry Stevens can give reality certain qualities that are otherwise absent, like a thinking sky. These here, are the senses that the artist’s instrument can relate as a dream of reality. In this section Stevens even recognizes that a poem must serve to give and take, “From these it takes. Perhaps it gives”. Poems take reality and form it into a sensual reproduction, and then gives the representation to readers of the poem.
Section XXVI focuses on the imagination. The section begins with, “The world washed in his imagination”. The imagination takes the world and cleans it to allow for the give and take relationship described above. Stevens returns to the artistic effort to create a Utopian picture in the imagination, “Sand heaped in the clouds, giant that fought/Against the murderous alphabet:/The swarm of thoughts, the swarm of dreams/Of inaccessible Utopia.” The comparison first drawn here is that the poet must fight against the “murderous alphabet”, much like Ulysses fought against the one-eyed giant. The alphabet is as much a part of the poet’s arsenal as musical notes are essential to the musician’s song. Stevens’ dependency on the language of poetry, could limit his ability to create Utopia out of “the swarm of dreams”. Patke recognizes that Stevens’s battle is against, “the ‘murderous alphabet’ of outmoded languages and their outmoded ways of conceiving the world, ways which have now become worse than useless because to have recourse to their enticements and traps would be ‘murderous’”(104-105). As magnificent as a poem or song or dream can be it cannot be reality or Utopia. This section concludes with, “A mountainous music always seemed/To be falling and to be passing away”. Stevens seems to resolve this issue in his final section.
In section thirty-three, the final section, Stevens attributes a dream to a specific generation. This gives the dream the fading quality he described in section XXVI. The dreams seem to fade because the generation that produced it will eventually fade. The dreamer is not to be blamed for having limited foresight, because, “That’s it, the only dream they knew,/Time in its final block, not time/To come, a wrangling of two dreams”. The dreamer can only create the dream according to what he/she knows. There can be no “final block”, because the dream is shard throughout time by readers with different perspectives. The “wrangling of two dreams” can be translated as the intermingling of perceptions that forms the give and take relationship of poetry. The poet has his dream and the reader interprets the dream, but the interpretation will be the readers’ own dream, not the poet’s dream, or even a duplication of reality.
Just as Stevens’s poetry is in constant metamorphoses, this paper has shifted between sections of “The Man with the Blue Guitar”. The relation of Stevens’s perceptual/conceptual changes may not have been directly evident at all times. As means of examining this specific poem, leaps in perception and parataxis in this examination are as important as the change between sections of the poem itself. The technique and presentation of Stevens’s concepts may be confusing and/or contradicting, but the overall presentation allows for the full realization of different perceptions and their comparison and contrast all lead back to Stevens’s purpose for poetry. This purpose being to relate experience while recognizing that each experience/perception/reality/dream is unique and insightful. In a long poem with many sections, an overall theme or fiction may not be attainable or seen as contradictory. The value of this poem lies in the realization and acknowledgment of different perspectives, and the acceptance an evolving world.
Patke, Rajeev. The Long Poems of Wallace Stevens: An interpretive study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985.
Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. 1997.