Make sure you make it to the bottom of this post. There is a delicious candy surprise waiting for you. Or, um, a pile of Brussels sprouts, depending on your opinion of derivative, semi-parodical poetry.
The other day somebody compared some of my work to Wallace Stevens’s. This was hugely flattering to me because, although I don’t really believe in picking favorites when it comes to poetry (or really anything else), if someone held a gun to my head and said, “Name your favorite poet or else,” I would have to say (or rather, probably, shriek in desperation), “Wallace Stevens! Wallace Stevens!”
Like everyone else who knows a fair amount about both Wallace Stevens and haiku, I’d noticed the resemblance between haiku and probably his best-known poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” William J. Higginson and Penny Harter, in The Haiku Handbook (great book! read it!), quote the first stanza as an example of the influence of the haiku on early-2oth-century poetry:
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I could probably go on for a while about what Stevens’s theory of poetics was and why he’s so great and everyone should love him, but you don’t really care and if you do you can go read about him on Wikipedia or even better, pick up a copy of The Palm at the End of the Mind from someplace and just read his poetry until you fall over in a dead faint.
What you are really looking for here is some pseudo-haiku culled from Stevens’s work. And although I have some reservations about this exercise because I don’t think it gives all that accurate an impression of what his highly metaphorical, dense, intellectual poetry is about, I can oblige you, forthwith:
At night, by the fire,
The colors of the bushes
And of the falling leaves
(“Domination of Black”)
the grackles crack
their throats of bone
in the smooth air
The white cock’s tail
Streams to the moon.
Water in the fields.
(“Ploughing on Sunday”)
The skreak and skritter
of evening gone
and grackles gone
A bridge above the … water
And the same bridge
when the river is frozen
(“Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery”)
Long autumn sheens
and pittering sounds like sounds
on pattering leaves
(“Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue”)
The grass in in seed.
The young birds are flying.
Yet the house is not built
(“Ghosts as Cocoons”)
Slowly the ivy
on the stones
becomes the stones
(“The Man with the Blue Guitar”)
A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter
when afternoons return
(“The Poems of Our Climate”)
a bough in the electric light…
so little to indicate
the total leaflessness
(“An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”)
— All selections from Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play
Did you make it all the way through that? Okay…as either a reward or a punishment (you decide), I am now going to inflict on you a rare example of my non-haiku poetry. It is of course haiku-ish (being modeled on a haiku-ish poem), so it’s not too terrible. I don’t think. Oh — be sure you’ve actually read “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” before you read it, or the full effect will be lost on you.
Something else you need to know to fully appreciate this is that Wallace Stevens famously had a day job as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut.
Thirteen Ways of Looking At Wallace Stevens
The view from the window
Of the poet’s office:
Thin clouds spread
Over a hazy sky.
I drive down the avenues of Hartford
Looking for Wallace Stevens
Or for what he has left behind.
Precision, quiddity, and fancy,
The shape of Wallace Stevens’ mind.
A man sits at a mahogany desk
Holding his pen completely still over
An empty ledger book.
The black marks on an actuarial table
Look much like the black marks
On a page of poetry.
Wallace Stevens walks to work
Down streets blackbirds have flown along.
What will you pay me, Wallace Stevens,
Not to finish this poem?
I wake from a strange dream
Through which Wallace Stevens was flying.
The shadowy quality of a day in the mountains
Spent reading Wallace Stevens.
Like the thing and the image of the thing,
Like the two parts of Wallace Stevens’ life:
The doing, and the being.
Wallace Stevens leaves the office,
Carrying an umbrella,
His briefcase swinging
At the end of the arm he writes with.
The two eyes of the poet,
Seeing in two directions.
I sit down to write a poem.
I look up, and there is Wallace Stevens.
He casts his shadow over the paper.