Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock by Wallace Stevens

Fish Magic, 1925 by Paul Klee

I picked up The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens today as I was rummaging through my shelves, looking for something else. The greatest poets–some might say the only kind that deserve to be called poets–are masters of the language and its history. They draw up history through words, and all aspects of human life through their art. There are poets who observe and stitch personal experience and perceptions. Some, like William Carlos Williams, wanted to find new, authentic ways of expressing ordinary things. They pressed vernacular language hard and made it work for them as art. Some, Wendell Berry for example, try to let the morality of language and the goodness within it draw readers back into more responsible and communal ways of life.

Wallace Stevens was a pure, independent artist, always reaching and singing out poems for no purpose other than for the sake of art. He was not interested in reconstructing the past or in making something new out of the past. An insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut, Stevens avoided literary circles. His poems are musical, visual and quizzical. Most of them defy paraphrase. Readers may enter them and listen to their music and experience the color of the language. Stevens named and enjoyed colors. I think of him in a white shirt, black suit, black socks and black shoes, at a big desk in the corner office. White papers covered in black type are stacked all around him. A riot of color and sound fill the great poet’s head.

The Collected Poems Cover

His poems might make us nervous because most of them do not end in resolution. They resolve neither our thoughts nor our ideas. Like some of his modernist peers of the first half of the twentieth century–especially visual artists–Stevens thought the old ways of thinking of things and seeing things had passed away. There was no overarching meaning except that which art and imagination might provide. His favorite painter was Paul Klee. Some of Wallace Steven’s poems sound like Klee’s paintings look.

Disillusionment of Ten O’clock

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches Tigers
In red weather.

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