Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself


At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow...
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mâché ...
The sun was coming from outside.

That scrawny cry--It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.


          A short while ago I had lunch with an attorney friend, and we started talking about Wallace Stevens, the poet we are going to look at, who was likewise a lawyer.   A very good lawyer.  I mention at the outset because the two of us agreed that, for Stevens, no matter what he thought or wrote at any moment, there was always yet another new perspective on one of the most basic of questions: Is reality is real or is it imagined?  Is what we take to be ‘real’ the world as it is – the ‘Ding an sich’ as my  attorney friend reminded me, referring to the name Kant gave to it, to ‘the thing itslf’; or is reality what we encounter and know as the world, an encountering which is created in and through the ordering powers of the mind?  Kant thought the ‘Ding an sich’ was unknowable, and all we could know was what the mind perceived, and in the perceiving, ordered through its processes.  I am not sure that Stevens ever decided on one or the other.  It was the interplay between the two possibilities that fascinated him.

          But the poem we will be examining has a particular importance, since it was the last poem in Stevens’ Collected Poems, a placement he himself selected.  It may be that this poem is his last word?   On the other hand, he ended another poem wonderfully, “It can never be satisfied the mind, never.”   Final statement or part of a never-ceasing dialogue?  I cannot say, although the following essay assumes the ‘fiction’ (a favorite word of Stevens, and one of his core beliefs of what we live with) that there was, for him, a final word:  That reality exists outside of us and our imaginings.

              I recently wrote about Rainer Maria Rilke.  Even though his ‘personality’ was opposite to everything I value and am attracted by, I marvel that nonetheless I love his poems.  I could say the same about the poems of Wallace Stevens.

          Born in Pennsylvania, Stevens went off to Harvard for his college education.  He wanted to be a dramatist, but his father told him since there was no money in drama, he should study law in order to support himself.  He did:  study law.  And although he wrote a few early (unperformable) dramas, to earn a decent living he practiced law as an attorney for an insurance company, eventually moving to a larger insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut. 

          He was good at what he did and seemed to love it.  Nothing, for Stevens, thrilled him like a 400-page contract (well, he did love poetry also!).  He rose to the position of General Counsel for one of the world’s largest insurance companies, the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company.  Put baldly, he became an upper-level corporate executive.  He was a staunch Republican.  He was prejudiced against blacks and Jews.  His politics were decidedly conservative.  He carried himself like a wealthy banker, which in many senses he was. 

          And yet he wrote magnificent poems.  He was attuned to the complexities of our thought, and of our being in the world.  He could be honest in his poems in a fashion I do not think he could be in his daily life or in his social sphere.

           Many of his poems are about loneliness and depression, about his unrequited longings for happiness.  In a poem I am greatly attracted to, and which I do not fully understand, he utters lines which resound deeply in me, and I imagine will resound deeply in you.  He expresses what our hearts yearn for, a yearning we are all too often loath to express (because of cowardice, not only before others but before our own selves?) save in superficial and sentimental ways.  This is from the weirdly ampersanded Of Bright & Blue Birds & The Gala Sun:”

For a moment they are gay and are a part
Of an element, the exactest element for us,
In which we pronounce joy like a word of our own.

It is there, being imperfect, and with these things
And erudite in happiness, with nothing learned,
That we are joyously ourselves and we think

Without the labor of thought
, in that element,
And we feel, in a way apart, for a moment, as if
There was a bright scienza outside of ourselves,

A gaiety that is being, not merely knowing [boldness added]

          I have added emphases to draw your attention to these remarkable statements.  I would ask, in all seriousness: Isn’t he expressing our hearts’ deepest wish?   To be “joyously ourselves” and able to say ‘joy’ as if it is a word that is deeply connected to us, so that it is the essential to what we are: “to pronounce joy like a word of our own”?   Don’t we all just want to be, “without the labor of thought” so that we comprehend “a gaiety that is being, not merely knowing”?   To be “erudite in happiness”?  I marvel at Stevens and what he tells us about not only himself, but ourselves, in this poem.

          Wow.  This buttoned up executive who lived in an upper-crust small mansion in Connecticut, I believe has articulated what we long for and never accomplish.  Well, he never accomplished it, the ‘it’ being to live in and with joy, to embrace joy as if it is the air we breathe and the core of our being.  There may have been moments when he ate ripe fruit or was in the midst of writing poems, when he knew joy.  But was he “erudite in happiness”?  I don’t think so.  Hence the marvelous poems he wrote about being depressed.

         I’ve already said that I don’t understand all of “Of Bright & Blue Birds & The Gala Sun.”  Stevens knows why.  I have difficulty with the next poem I am going to cite here, but then I have difficulty with a lot of poems.  This one is a doozy.  Nonetheless, difficult as the poem is, Stevens reveals he really did understand a lot.  

          He begins this late poem, “Man Carrying Thing,” with this extraordinary line, “The poem must resist the intelligence almost/Successfully.”  After this opening the poem is to me, resistant to my intelligence.  And yet the last line stands clear, especially as it is about clarity, “When the bright obvious stands motionless in cold.”  I guess the poem is about wandering, clueless, through a white-out snowstorm which falls all night, and waking to a world after the blizzard has passed.  All of a sudden everything is bright and cold and clear. He compares reading poems to wandering all night in a white-out snowstorm, and waking tothe dawn which reveals, in sudden clarity, a landscape which is overwhelmingly white. 

          The poem we are going to concentrate on is also about a dawn, and the clarity of dawn.  It is, as I said when I wrote of Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” an aubade, a poem of and about early morning.  As with Wilbur, the poem begins with the poet somewhere between sleep and waking, in a place where he is consciously awakening from the dreamworld.

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.


How do we know he is waking from sleep?  The second stanza will make this clear.  Here, in the first stanza, the poet tells us it is the ending of things – winter, night -- and the beginning of new things.  Spring, the day, and, as the last line will say emphatically, “a new knowledge of reality.”

          What is he talking about?  “Reality”?  Really?   He is hearing, and we can all hear this in early morning wherever there are trees for birds to roost on (so: maybe not in the most concrete of concrete canyons in the midst of some cities), the songs of birds awakened by the brightening skies and the advent of day succeeding the receding night.  He wakes to sounds which are external to him, not figments of a dream but actual notes which come from actual birds.  I imagine these birds cheep and sing outside the window of his bedroom.  

          (Let me cite Walt Whitman here in what will not be the only time I draw links between Stevens, the conservative buttoned-down banker, and the wild, bearded, vagabond Whitman; that pillar of the establishment and that rebel; that meticulously careful poet and that inventor of sprawling free verse.  Yet Walt Whitman also wrote of dawn and the retreat from dreaming.  Whitman, though, exhibits a deep affection for the healing power of night and sleep, which he calls “invigorating:”

I too pass from the night,
I stay a while away O night, but I return to you again and love you.

Why should I be afraid to trust myself to you?
I am not afraid, I have been well brought forward by you,

I love the rich running day, but I do not desert her in whom I lay so long.

For Whitman, this passage in the last section of “The Sleepers” which refers to  “rich running day” also involves loss of that which invigorates, and in terms of the whole poem, that which unites all human beings.  To Whitman it is of paramount importance that we all sleep and are all democratically the same – dreamers. While sleeping we dream; dreams unite us in wholeness and health.  For Stevens, though, as for Wilbur and the aubade of Philip Larkin which I wrote about some time ago, waking means encountering the world and leaving the ‘dreamworld’ behind.]

          What Stevens encounters as he emerges from sleep are the birds singing outside his window.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

As the first light beckons, the birds begin to sing.  They sing in the face of the cold harsh wind of “early March.”  I suppose, if we were reading symbolically, song persists, life persists, even though cold envelops the land.  Both song and life have endured the travails of winter.  (I ceaselessly quote the climactic lines of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” to people here in Vermont, where often, even in spring, the winter seems endless: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”)

          Emerging from sleep, halfway out of his dreams, Stevens is nonetheless not uncertain: “He knew that he heard it,/ A bird’s cry.” 

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow...
It would have been outside.

          It is early morning, just before six.  The sun is rising above the horizon: more on this shortly.  But the sun is real, not a “battered panache” above the snow.  “Battered panache?”   One of the things we encounter, often, in Stevens is an immense vocabulary.   It can be off-putting, the verbal pyrotechnics of a man who went to Harvard and regards himself as upper-crust.  I can’t argue with that.  But it is also a delight, this reveling in the fecundity of our language, which has words whose sounds are strange and whose meanings seem obscure.  But what words! 

          “Panache:” “flamboyant confidence of style or manner,” from a historical word meaning “a plume of feathers, especially used as a headdress.”  So the lines  mean, the sun comes up at six, from outside – not just as some figment of our imagination.  “From outside.”

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mâché...
The sun was coming from outside.

Stevens will repeat himself: this is not the sun of poets or myth, but the real, actual sun.  It is not part of our dreams, “the vast ventriloquism/ Of sleep’s faded papier-mâché.”  What alliteration and assonance!  That “vast ventriloquism” and in the next line “faded...papier-mâché.” ) not to mention the ‘f’s’ in the first line, picked  up by the second, and echoed in the repetition of ‘from’ in the third; or the “s” of “vast’ and ‘sleep’ and “’sun’ and ‘side;” and the other “s” sounded as a ‘z’ in ‘was’ (in lines 1 and 3 of this stanza) and ‘ventriloquism”.

          But, back to the stanza.  When we sleep, we dream, and the dreams which preoccupy our minds mimic the world they issued from.  That is why the dream world is a “vast ventriloquism.”  And dreams, despite what other writers claim, including Whitman, are not as real as the real world to which we awake.  That sun is not from an artificial world – a world of papier-mâché, of artifice, the world of dreams —but something real, something “outside” the imagining self.

          Let me step back a moment.  For many readers, this is the core of Stevens, his constant meditation on the relations between reality and the imagination, on the ‘real’ world’ and the world as perceived through our imagination and ordered by the human mind.  (That is what my attorney friend and I discussed over lunch.) 

          One can get lost in this back and forth between reality and imagination, between the world around us and that world as we imagine it to be.  I think this is something that very much attracted Stevens, this complex and ongoing dialectic between things real and things imagined.  His magnificent “The Idea of Order at Key West,” for instance, foregrounds this dialectic.  It is one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century, I think, concerned not just with the beauty of song, but with how the world as imagined in song transforms the ‘actual’ world, “arranging, deepening, enchanting” it. 

              But I have come to think that this ‘philosophical subject matter’ that so many perceive as the domain of Stevens comes between us and our experience of reading his poems.  One of the great readers of Stevens, Helen Vendler, wrote a short book on him that says, as I recall, that he is preeminently a poet of emotion, and not of the complexities of thought.  (She wrote an earlier, much longer book, on Stevens as a philosophical poet.)  For Vendler, after many years of reading Stevens, the complexity of thought is there, but what his poems preeminently confront is “The look of things, left what we felt//At what we saw” as he wrote in “A Postcard from the Volcano.”

              “Not Ideas About the Thing” is about reality and the imagination, and the claims of each, yes; but it is even more about the joy of waking in the morning and hearing the birds sing.  And the source of that joy is the world we live in: he say of both the birds’ song and the rising sun, they were “coming from outside.

              The sound he hears is at once both the “scrawny cry” of the birds at first dawn and, as the succeeding lines indicate, the ‘sound’ in the mind’s ear of the sun arising over the horizon.   Synesthesia rules: what can be seen is here described as something that can be heard.  Birds, sun: as we hear the birds, so too we can ‘hear’ the sun rising.  Both are “outside.” 

That scrawny cry--It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun

          Let’s look at the metaphor, which I think is brilliant.  The song of the bird he hears is like the sound of a note which anchors the choir, giving it a precise tone to which all choir members will refer when they sing.   In practice, this is sometimes given by a choir member with perfect pitch, or by a pitch pipe; for an orchestra, which likewise must play ‘in tune,’ the oboe plays an A and then hands the note over to the first violin.  In this stanza of the poem, it is a member of the choir who sounds a tone which will be the fulcrum on which the entire choir will pitch its massed voices.  The bird gives the ‘key’ in which the whole choir – the rising sun—will resound.  The “colossal sun”

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

is the massed choir singing the arrival of the day.  The “sun//surrounded by its choral rings.”  

          Let’s return to the poem and what it presents to us.  The speaker of the poem awakes to birds singing in the early morning.  Their song is an augury of the day.  In fact, the birds’ song is an augury of the sun rising above the horizon, of the brightness which is about to suffuse the world.  Let me turn again to Whitman, to the climactic section 24 of “Song of Myself.”  The section occurs in the very middle of that long poem, and is significant because for the first time the poet announces himself, identifies himself, names himself [this text is from the first, 1855 edition]: “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos.”  Late in the section, having celebrated first his self and then his body, Whitman considers the burgeoning day [here the text is from the final edition of Leaves of Grass]:

To behold the day-break!

The little light fades the immense and diaphanous shadows,

The air tastes good to my palate.


Something I cannot see puts upward libidinous prongs

Seas of bright juice suffuse heaven.


Whitman as I said has been praising his body, his immanence in the world.  For him it is but a short step from proclaiming “I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious” to seeing the external world rising before him in all its libidinous glory.  The sun rises, and all the wonders of the external world are before and around him.

          For Stevens, there is not as much sex in the sunrise.  But the rising sun, its massive choir of celebration both of itself and the physical world, is the nexus of awakening.  Both of himself, from sleep, and of the consciousness of who and what we are.  He awakes to birds singing, to the first “libidinous prongs” of the sunrise, to the appearance of the sun and daylight.  He is astonished to live in this physical world that is lit up by the sun, with all its glories. Stevens once wrote, brilliantly, in the final section of his long poem “Esthétique Du Mal,” “The greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world.”

          Bird song, first light, the sun rising.  That is the poem. “It was like/ A new knowledge of reality.”

          We wake into the glories of the world every day.  Each and every day. 

          This poem is, to me, a magnificent statement of that fact.  Stevens, in some ways the most philosophical of poets, seems to be saying ‘You can take all your complexities of thought and lump them.  Every day we awaken into and recognize the reality of the physical world which is right before our senses.’  (I will complicate this reading: he says this in a poem.  In order to convey his sense of the world “outside” he resorts to the imagination with its metaphors of the first rays of the sun as a choir and the bird song as the choir-sun’s pitch pipe.  Not so “outside” the mind, is it?)

          But let me return to my main argument.  Stevens chose to have this poem, “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing” Itself” conclude his Collected Poems.  It was his final statement.  There is a world outside the self and the shaping powers of the mind. 

          Yet I wonder if the poem doesn’t have another dimension.  Pardon me here if I go beyond the poem into something which preoccupies me and perhaps takes me away from what I have written and into something else.  You can stop reading here if you want to, if you want to stick to ‘the poem itself.’

          Several times a week I have coffee in downtown Burlington with my friend Fred and work on these ‘essays’ about poems.  Today, in the midst of writing, we had a brief discussion of the rains and flooding in the Midwest, of the drought in India, of the high temperatures in Greenland, of the unseasonably high temperatures in Paris and all across Europe.  Climate change, or as it was called before scientific nomenclature normalized and defanged it, ‘global warming.’

          Why, as temperatures rise and our planet inexorably moves toward the destruction of life, don’t we all recognize what is before us?  That pumping ever more carbon dioxide into our atmosphere is bleaching coral reefs, disrupting our food chains, flooding both the interior of our continents and our coastlines?  Why is there no ‘dawning’ of this realization?

          Why, as the poem so poignantly reminds us, do we, collectively as a species, not have “a new knowledge of reality?”  Why is the light “still far away” even as the auguries of its presence surround us?

          I don’t know.  I don’t know.  Stevens’ poem seems, from this perspective, ae model of how we can awake to what is before us.  Why does it not happen?  Why do we not recognize what is on our horizon? 

          I could write about corporations and their influence over how we argue and think; about profiteers whose wealth is dependent on our not changing anything; about masses of people who live with the fruits of the advances of science but seem all too ready to reject what science shows us. 

          All true: we live in a time of managed denial.  Managed, and by special interests which see profitability as more significant than survival.

          And yet, and yet, it is a failure of will, this failure to see “a new knowledge of reality” that is increasingly before us, as the sun rising was once before Stevens.  The poem, so wondrous to me in its stunning recognition that there is a world outside of us and our laborious mental imaginings, a world of song and brightness and the light by which we can see: this poem also has come to stand, for me, as a counter-balance to an unfortunate refusal to see what is really before us. 

          Thoreau ended Walden with the image of a sunrise: sun rises everywhere, and every day!  For him, it was a symbol that we can recognize reality, yet he expressed it with a simultaneous fear that we may choose to live in blindness to the light.

But such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

          Wallace Stevens wrote this poem about awakening to the glory of the sun, about being open to the world in such a way as to comprehend “a new knowledge of reality.”  There really is, as he understood, a sun “coming from outside.”  For him, as for Thoreau, a new day dawns.

          For us?   I am not so sure.


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