His aloofness notwithstanding, modern tenets such as meditations on reality, debates about culture, and experimentation with music occur In Stevens poetry. Critics often, and rightly, align the musical qualities of Stevens verse with classical motifs. This article places the musicality of Stevens poetry in a jazz context, and contends that poems from throughout his career -? especially In Harmonium (1923) and Ideas of Order (1936) -? contain jazz elements and can be read as jazz texts.
Stevens employs linguistic repetitions, thematic variations, improvisatory flourishes, illusions, and wordplay that Indicate the Influence and presence of Jazz. Without ever mentioning the music by name. Ultimately, Stevens can be considered a poet who experimented with Jazz, giving his work additional sonic and contextual resonance. Keywords: Wallace Stevens / modernism / Jazz poetry I improvisation n 1900, a degree from Harvard in hand, Wallace Stevens lived in Lower Manhattan and worked the graveyard shift at the New York Tribune.
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He enrolled in New York Law School In 1901, graduated in 1903, Joined the New York bar In 1904, and traded awe for the insurance business in 1908 (Corrode and Richardson 960-61 Despite his formal education and employment, Stevens lived like a bohemian during these years. He attended and wrote plays, Immersed himself In politics, and drank a good deal. In the sass, he established friendships with modernist artists and critics including William Carols Williams, Marcel Decamp, Carl Van Bechtel, and Walter Conrad Arrangers.
These and other Individuals first exposed Stevens to cubism and surrealism, movements which Glen McLeod claims profoundly impacted Stevens development as a poet (58). Thus began one of twentieth-century literature’s double Ironically, when he was in his twenties, Stevens wrote little of anything and published no poetry. He did, however, develop an affinity for one of the early twentieth century’s most popular musical styles. According to Linda Duress, 101 after leaving Harvard “the young Stevens … As struck by the playful tempos and irregular rhythms of a new style of music played by African Americans” (7). Duress refers to ragtime, the immediate predecessor of Jazz, which is perhaps the quintessential American (and modernist) art form. Living and working in New York City provided Stevens with several opportunities to listen to ragtime and early Jazz, and to establish connections with musicians and other artists. Indeed, both ragtime and Jazz would have a definite effect on Stevens poetry.
It must be said, though, that associating Stevens and his work with ragtime, Jazz, or any facet of African American culture presents certain problems. Even though his first collection, Harmonium, appeared in 1923 -? the same year as Jean Toner’s Cane unofficially initiated the Harlem Renaissance -? little evidence exists that Stevens felt any interest in or marauders with young African American artists. C. Barry Cabot wonders how Stevens could remain detached from authors and socio-aesthetic movements that resided in such close proximity to him (142).
Rachel Blab Duplicities echoes Sabot’s sentiment, noting that in his personal and public writings Stevens rarely contemplated contemporary artistic, social, and political movements involving African Americans (195 n. 12). Nevertheless, references to race and Jazz occur in Stevens poetry. A consideration of Stevens uses of African American music affords a unique opportunity to reassess his work. Stevens name does not often arise during discussions about Jazz poetry. Given his personal taste in music, this seems understandable. He was not a predetermination’s musician, but Stevens sang and played piano, harmonium, and guitar.
Stevens also cultivated a refined musical ear. He admired classical European composers, often attending recitals and symphonies and, according to Michael Hertz, sometimes altering his business itineraries to do so (231). 2 He also accumulated a music library of works by notable nineteenth-century composers, supplemented by only a few twentieth-century musicians (Stigmas 79- 0). Avian-garden music and especially Jazz are conspicuously absent from Stevens record collection. We can safely assume that Stevens knew of Jazz, especially if, as Duress mentions, he listened to ragtime.
Stevens concerting schedule and record collection help explain Jazz’s understated, yet vital, presence in his poetry. He listened to classical music, but acknowledged the import of ragtime without ever overtly saying so; indeed, it is not difficult to imagine Stevens listening to Scott Joplin or W. C. Handy in social settings, even if he owned none of their records and attended none of their concerts. His predilection for classical music aside, Stevens exhibited what Barbara Holmes calls “an aesthetic based at once on mobility, changeableness, and apposition,” and “an improvisatory and generally varying ragtime and Jazz.
By and large, in the sass Jazz was considered a “IoW’ style of music that connoted decadence and depravity; not until the advent of bebop in the middle of the twentieth century was it considered a serious (“high”) art form, as classical music once was. During the modernist era, some composers defended Jazz against spurious charges, including James Weldon Johnson and Antonio DoveГk. Similarly, Igor Stravinsky 102 Journal of Modern Literature Volume 32, Number 2 and George Gershwin caused outrage when they incorporated Jazz elements in their symphonic works. Improvisation, variation, and repetition -? all hallmarks of Jazz -? occupy central positions in Stevens musical taste and are keys to understanding his jazz experiments. Recent criticism has emphasized the influence of African American music and culture on Stevens work, but stops short of naming him a Jazz poet. Michael Sotto, for instance, counts Stevens among the modernist authors who worked n a Jazz idiom, alongside contemporaries ranging from Gertrude Stein and Richard Wright (176).
He also acknowledges the difficulty faced by Stevens and other modernists in treating Jazz music, culture, and performers without making dubious assumptions. Jazz, Sotto claims, “provides U. S. Writers with an illustration of what is assumed to be a racial connection between American identity and American cultural expression” (167). Stevens oblique references to and employment of Jazz can be read as establishing a genuinely American type of poetic expression, as DoveГk wanted to do with slave spirituals and American music (Horopito 818).
But what of the racial implications of such an establishment? Duplicities explores a similar question, finding Stevens use of black cultural forms ambivalent at best. In letters, Stevens both identified himself with and used racial epithets against African Americans; in poems such as “Two Figures in Dense Violet Night,” Stevens created vivid, earthy, and mystical African American characters that provide poetic inspiration, even as his poetry contains problematic instances of racial language (Duplicities 3, 119).
Stevens, like several of his contemporaries, proved incapable of establishing a poetic Jazz discourse that did not rely somewhat on primitivism, annalistic, or even racist vocabulary. 4 Nevertheless, readers cannot ignore his subtle adaptations of African American music. We are thus left with a vexing situation when analyzing Stevens Jazz experiments: On the one hand, readers can hear Jazz in his poetry; on the other, racial insensitivity and an ostensible favoring of classical music also crop up consistently. How, then, can we take seriously the presence of Jazz in Stevens?
What does this paradox do to our conception of Stevens as a “high” modernist poet? Answers to these questions may be found through a cursory examination of Stevens conception of a “modern” poet. When he won the 1951 National Book Award for The Auroras of Autumn (1950), Stevens announced that Sir Walter Scott was no longer relevant to the mid-twentieth century. Coot’s work resembles “the scenery of a play that has come to an end…. In short, the world of the poet of a century ago. It is not a question of comparative goodness” (Collected Poetry and Prose 835). While the speech seemingly endorses modernism, Stevens deflates modernism’s importance shortly thereafter. He defines a “modern poet” as “nothing more than a poet of the present time,” and argues that a modern poet must “find, by means of his own thought and feeling, what seems to be to him the poetry of his time as differentiated from the poetry of the time of Sir Walter Scott, or the poetry of any other time, and to state it in a manner that effectively discloses it to his readers” (CAP 835). Stevens acknowledges modern poets, and yet delineates their 103 function in a simple manner.
He also succinctly defines the task of modern poets in “Mozart, 1935”: “Poet, be seated at the piano. / Play the present” (CAP 107). He does so again in “Of Modern Poetry,” referring to the poet as “A metaphysical in the dark, twanging / An instrument, twanging a wiry string” (CAP 219). Both of these passages contain musical references that allude to both classical and Jazz, and perhaps even the blues (“the piano,” “twanging a wiry string”). The exclusions from Stevens definition of “modern poetry’-? fragmentation, disillusionment, and Jazz, among other things -? prove Just as telling as his inclusions.
Stevens comments and elisions demonstrate his distance from traditional modernist devices, and that he fashioned myself peripheral to modernism as an overall movement. Stevens remained content to write and publish poetry without Joining political parties or aesthetic movements (Cabot 193). He conferred in person with and wrote letters to radical modernists, he knew of and employed modernist artistic practices, but Lee Margaret Jenkins points out that Stevens himself was never an avian-garden in terms of politics or art (18). He borrowed, too, from Jazz musicians, Just as he did from the painters he met through the Arrangers Circle.
Stevens simultaneous engagement with and distance from theorist practices helps explain why African American music in his work remains largely unnoticed. Hence the phrase “Jazz experiments,” as if Stevens were unsure of how to approach Jazz poetically. The aloof Stevens produced poetry without an obvious larger context. Generally, when his poems utilize Jazz techniques, they do so surreptitiously; when his poems tackle larger issues, they do so abstractly. As such, he cultivated an indirect relationship with African Americans and with the poetic use of African American materials.
The presence of Jazz techniques in Stevens work also speaks to the matter of cultural ownership. Stevens was not the first or only white author to employ African American music, or to rely on primitivism discourse. Critical interpretations of Stevens references to race run from Duress’s claim that his poems show him “applying blackjack” in the guise of a minstrel (8), to Michael North’s assessment that Stevens performed “rebellion through racial ventriloquism” (9). These terms and their connotations are borne out in several poems. Moreover, poems in which Stevens uses racial slurs could be criticized in much harsher terms.
It is too simple, though, to dismiss Stevens as a minstrel, a puppeteer, or a racist. To, Stevens pays homage to black music when he rags or Jazzes his lines. 6 Stevens partial alignment with modernism allowed him to adopt an improvisatory stance, commingling contradictory musical elements in his poetry to create something new and different. Throughout his poetic career, Stevens relied on linguistic repetitions, thematic variations, improvisational flourishes, allusions, and wording that indicate jazz’s presence, even if it is not explicitly named. Furthermore, Stevens Jazz experiments suggest -? in modernist fashion -? an alternative ordering principle, a means by which people can make sense of the tumultuous world. I call Stevens principle a “blue order,” with a nod to the African American musical techniques with which he experiments. Jazz, concurrently flaunted and 104 obscured, functions as a philosophical (rather than a social or a political) ordering principle, meaning that music can fundamentally change how people engage with “reality. When Stevens employs repetition, variation, and other techniques, he indicates Jazz’s ability to provide listeners with a means to understand their existence. In the following discussion, I will explore seven poems that demonstrate Stevens unique Jazz poetry. Two are taken from Harmonium, three come from Ideas of Order, and the two final examples are little-known poems, “Banjo Boomer” and “The Sick Man. ” While these are not the only Jazz poems in Stevens canon, I choose to discuss them because they seem to best demonstrate Jazz’s pervasiveness in his poetry as a whole.
In Harmonium, Stevens plays with musical ideas and themes that would recur in his work. His musical poetry, which includes poems that sound musical and poems that concern music, constitute a series of variations on a theme, lending his poetic output a Jazz shape. The expanded editions of Harmonium (1931 ND 1936) underscore the prevalence of repetition and variation, as do his rejected suggestions that Harmonium be called The Grand Poem: Preliminary Minutiae and that his Collected Poems be called The Whole of “Harmonium” (Blessing 3). Even the title suggests his overarching poetic and musical intentions.
As Inca Ross writes, Stevens title carries a dual meaning, “through its reference, on the one hand, and through its sound, on the other, and the difficulty is that the two are inextricable” (xx). Harmony puns on “harmonium” and acquires added significance in poems that deal with musical subjects or that exhibit musical language. The harmony between the musical language and subjects of “Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz” and “Banjo Boomer,” for instance, renders the poems doubly musical. The principle of harmony also provides a means for classical and Jazz elements to cross-pollinate.
Considering the resonances of “harmonium”-? the sign that signifies a keyboard instrument and the sound of the sign -? allows for the treatment of Stevens poems as songs. But how do a harmonium and Harmonium operate in a Jazz context? Explications of Stevens poetic idiosyncrasies and techniques -? repetitions and variations, whether linguistic r thematic -? should elucidate his Jazz experiments. While not every repetition or techniques in conjunction with or in close proximity to musical references. Repetition and variation hold significant places in African American music. James A.
Sneak argues that “[w]thou an organizing principle of repetition, true improvisation would be impossible, since an improviser relies upon the ongoing recurrence of the beat” (70). That repetitions and variations could help organize a poem -? or a musical composition, or one’s perception of reality -? was not lost on Stevens. Even words that jack a denotative meaning contribute to Stevens Jazz experiments. Irvin Reentries contends that “nonsense” language connotes folk music, Jazz dancing, avian-garden poetry, and the music of nature, all of which involve some level of spontaneity (224- 25). Linguistic approximations of sounds and instruments could prove significant, if fraught with racial tension. A seemingly meaningless word could be an attempt by Stevens to obtain African American cultural material, or even to adopt a black identity (Duplicities 81-82). 105 Problems aside, repetitions, variations, and “nonsense” in Stevens work all signal the residence of Jazz. These techniques resemble riffs on preexisting melodies and chord sequences, which provide the backseat to Stevens improvisations.
Harmonium utilizes Jazz overtly and covertly, fusing music and metaphysics, evoking music through variation and repetition, and exploring the abstract relationship between reality and the imagination. In “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman,” Stevens considers the clash of old (classical) and new ( Jazz) music, favoring the latter. The speaker explains to the eponymous woman that poetry, “the supreme fiction,” can Take the moral law and make a nave of it / And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus, / The conscience is converted into palms” (CAP 47).
Human minds, to which the speaker refers as “conscience,” and the information that they process can be ordered (“converted”) by poetry, music, and other art forms. However, art can also subvert, or even undo, the power of traditional religious and social mores. When poetry considers “[t]he opposing law,” meaning anything secular, a transformation occurs: “Thus, our bawdiness, / … Is equally converted into palms, / Squiggling like saxophones” (CAP 47). Squiggling” does not ring negative, but instead connotes both playfulness and seriousness.
Indeed, one could describe the instrument’s sounds or the performances of some Jazz saxophonists as “squiggling. ” Stevens describes the musical and extra-musical effects that art, no matter the genre, has on the listener. Art that treats secular subjects, which oppose the Christian Woman’s standpoint, can “project a masque / Beyond the planets” and sanctify the universe (CAP 47). Here, Stevens may be performing a task similar to one undertaken by blues and Jazz musicians -? playing the sacred and secular realms off of each other.
Many blueness and blossomed could play spirituals as easily as songs about lost love and bad whiskey. Several Saturday-night Juke Joint patrons and cabaret dwellers could be found at church on Sunday. 9 Stevens likely never spent time in a Juke Joint, sacred, with Jazz over classical music. The mention of a saxophone marks the poem’s first instance of Jazz. With tongue in cheek, the speaker equates “saxophones” with “bawdiness,” but deflates that charge by endowing saxophone music with the “fictive” power to entertain, enlighten, and shape the surrounding world into a form that makes sense (CAP 47).
The poem does not equate Jazz with the false charges levied against it during the sass, such as its association with bootlegged liquor during Prohibition and the decline of morality (Crawford 349). Instead, the narrator rebukes jazz’s perceived hedonism by embracing its imaginative and reality-ordering qualities. Religion, the system espoused by the poem’s addressee, no longer seems useful to the speaker. The narrator wants to substitute music in its place, since it performs a similar function, which would horrify the woman: “This will make widows wince. But fictive things / Wink as they will.
Wink most when widows wince” (CAP 47). The “widows” might listen to classical music and hymns, but certainly not to Jazz. The “fictive things” likely refer to art in general, although it could mean Jazz in particular. 10 Bizarre imagery, improvisational flourishes, and syncopated rhythms are features of Jazz that older generations and the faithful would not understand 106 and thus brand as evil, designed to beguile American youths into drinking, dancing, and fornicating. Such a standpoint denied Jazz’s imaginative and “fictive” qualities. Jazz can “Wink most when widows wince,” one of its greatest powers (CAP 47).
The memo’s alliterative, nonsensical closing lines -? “tint and tank and tune-a-tune tune” (CAP 47) -? solidifies the music’s ability to transmute the secular (profane) into the sacred. “Two Figures in Dense Violet Night” also considers Jazz in unique and different ways. The poem addresses a woman, but not as “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” does. In “Two Figures,” the woman (especially her voice) vacillates between muse and siren. It is a wooing poem, although Stevens recasts the genre to fit his purpose: “Speak, even, as if I did not hear you speaking, / But spoke for you perfectly in my thoughts, / Conceiving words” (CAP 69).
The woman’s voice pleases the speaker so much that it seems to originate in his mind rather than in the physical world. Stevens syntax suggests the possibility that the woman may be imaginary, or that the poem’s persona speaks for her. But the tone of the line, “Speak, even, as if I did not hear you speaking,” sounds more akin to a plea than a command. The female voice acts freely and has a sonorous, musical tone, even though Stevens describes it indirectly. He compares the woman’s voice to his thoughts, “as if” he did not hear her. It is almost as if the speaker mistakes his companion’s voice for his own.
Stevens draws a thin line between real and imagined in “Two Figures. ” Ironically, the very thing that at first confounds the speaker ultimately gives him solace. The narrator likens the effect of the woman’s voice to “the [way] night conceives the sea-sounds in silence, / And out of their droning sibilants makes / A serenade” (CAP 69). Nature orchestrates its own music and arranges its own reality, but sometimes the human yet audible, and orders the speaker’s reality at that moment. While on the surface “Two Figures” appears unrelated to Jazz, an element of the music manifests itself in a pacific subtext: call and response.
The sea’s disordered sounds, mediated by the woman’s voice and the narrator’s imagination, behave in a call and response manner. The overlapping voices order a confusing reality, a phenomenon witnessed again in “The Idea of Order at Key West. ” Voices, styles, and instruments speak back and forth to each other in blues and Jazz songs; call and response can occur between a blues singer and his guitar, between the rhythm section and soloists in a Jazz orchestra, between the lines of a stanza, and even between a human voice and the sound of the ocean.
Different shades of blue, patterns of light and dark, and the image of palm trees create a rich visual palette in “Two Figures” that matches its sonic qualities. Colors also contribute to the poem’s musicality. The night is dark, but its scant moonlight and violet hues are enough to illuminate the two (technically, three) personae. The woman’s voice makes “the palms clear in a total blue, / [both] clear and obscure” (CAP 70). Palm trees allude to the imagination, as in “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman. ” Here in “Two Figures,” the woman’s voice allows the speaker to view palm trees in both a “clear and obscure” manner.
While the woman does not sing, the 107 musicality of her voice simultaneously elucidates and clouds the speaker’s perception, rendering the nighttime scene “in a total blue. ” Blue in Stevens poems, claims George McFadden, often alludes to the imagination’s power to order the natural world, to reconfigure reality (192). The palm trees may be distinct or indistinct, Key West may be near or far, and there may or may not be “buzzards crouch[inning] on the ridge-pole”-? these all depend on the woman’s voice (CAP 69-70). Imagery and language in “Two Figures” are thus created by the competing instruments of the woman and the ocean.
The repetition of “blue” makes it difficult not to think of the blues, even though the poem uses few repetitions and variations. When Stevens mentions blue, it is the closest he would come to mentioning the blues; even in “The Sick Man,” as we will see, he does not mention African American music by name. The ocean’s music could remind the speaker of blue notes, the musical foundation for the blues and Jazz described by Richard Crawford as “third and seventh scale degrees in major mode, shaded or flattened for expression” (344). Perhaps the most troubling and UN-musical facets of “Two Figures” occur in stanzas en and two.
Stevens writes, “l had as life be embraced by the porter at the hotel / As to get no more from the moonlight / Than your moist hand” (CAP 69). Irony and playfulness do not register here. The speaker conveys romantic sentiments towards the woman, but his attitude regarding “the porter at the hotel” carries classicist overtones and perhaps racist implications. The porter is the third figure in violet night, insubstantial in that Stevens describes him only by his Job, but substantial in the speaker to flights of fancy; conversely, he functions as the negation of the speaker’s desire for the woman.
In the next stanza, the speaker requests to the woman, “Use dusky words and dusky images, / Darken your speech” (CAP 69). “Darken” and “dusky,” occurring in close proximity to “porter” and considering the poem’s southern setting, problematic the poem’s racial and musical content. The request seems puzzling: Does the speaker want his companion to speak as if she were black? What would that do to the effects of her voice on his mind? “Two Figures” demonstrates what Duplicities identifies as Stevens “ideological contradiction around black speech -? [it is] evoked and necessary, but absent” (116). 1 Thirteen years eased between the first edition of Harmonium and the publication of Stevens second collection, Ideas of Order, in 1936. By then, the Jazz Age had passed and World War II began looming in the distance. Stevens, far removed from his bohemian lifestyle, mourned the loss of that era. In those days, he wrote, “People said that if the war continued it would end civilization, Just as they say now that another will end civilization…. We have a sense of upheaval. We feel threatened. We look from an uncertain present toward a more uncertain future” (CAP 788). 2 Ideas of Order reflects the complexity and uneasiness of the time. It considers contemporary issues in the same abstract fashion that characterizes Stevens stance on modernism and jazz aesthetics. Ironically, Ideas of Order contains fewer Jazz-influenced poems than Harmonium, and yet music plays a more prevalent role. Specifically, Stevens explores more thoroughly the confluence of “new’ music 108 ( Jazz) and “old” music (classical), and how their melding affects human perception. Again, Stevens sides with Jazz.
A poet, claimed Stevens, should vocalizes social and cultural concerns in turbulent times, but as a poet and not as a politician. The dust jacket statement for Ideas of Order read, in part: We think of changes occurring today as economic changes, involving social and political changes…. While it is inevitable that the poet should be concerned with such [changes], this book … Is primarily concerned with ideas of order of a different nature, as, for example, . .. The idea of order arising from the practice of any art[. … Ideas of Order attempts to illustrate the role of the imagination in life, and particularly life at the present. (Opus posthumous 222-23) Stevens reticence to name specific social and political “changes” reaffirms his attachment from contemporary American life, even though unrest permeates the book. He concerns himself with “different” types of order, those artistic products that rely on imagination instead of political dogma. Stevens holds more confidence in music and poetry than in politics to explain the world.
Perhaps he was drawn to music, especially Jazz, as a metaphor and as a poetic form because it captures a paradoxical sense of order and disorder: A particularly up-tempo Jazz song can classical music could speak to the modern condition and his ultimate endorsement of modern music emerge in “Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz. The poem opens with a declaration of music’s decreased importance in contemporary society: “The truth is that there comes a time / When we can mourn over music / That is so much motionless sound” (CAP 100).
The only specific musical reference in the poem is the waltz, a dance and a style of music (like Jazz), but with high-culture associations (unlike Jazz). While the poem could argue that modern society is poorer for believing classical music to be “motionless sound,” without value or meaning, “Sad Strains” suggests more strongly that waltz dancing and music cannot represent the modern notation. Just as Sir Walter Coot’s poetry has lost its relevance, the waltz and other classical styles of music and dance do not exist under the same extramarital conditions, and thus have no more power.
Stanza two furthers the conflict between classical music and modern times, and opens with a variation on an earlier line: “There comes a time when the waltz / Is no longer a mode of desire, a mode / Of revealing desire and is empty of shadows” (CAP 100). The waltz has become historical, out of step with the present age. “Sad Strains” considers this question: Now that lassie styles of dance seem pass, what will fill the empty space? While the speaker remains obscure on this point, the implication is that a replacement style could be the cakewalk, the Charleston, or another type of Jazz dancing.
The waltz’s loss of meaning shares an explicit link with the general loss of meaning in the natural and human worlds. “There is order in neither sea nor sun. / The shapes have lost their glistening,” and things fare worse on the streets: “There are these sudden mobs of men, / These sudden clouds of faces and arms, / An immense suppression, freed” (CAP 100). Humans cannot look to nature for 109 order; “neither sea nor sun” can pacify “these sudden mobs of men,” which materialize from nothing. The “mobs” see only “shapes,” not distinct objects.
Nature holds no sway over fast-moving swarms of humans in cities. Stevens represents mob mentality through synecdoche, reducing crowds of people to “clouds of faces and arms” and “voices crying without knowing for what” (CAP 100). Confusion, helplessness, chaos: Human voices can only make noise, not music, since they no longer know what they require. The poem implies that the loss of order signals the demise of established societal order, not Just in America, but throughout the world. Something must fill the void left by waltzing.