Wednesday, 5 June 2019

‘Fragrant portals, dimly starred’: Wallace Stevens, poetry and the song of Creation GRAEME GARRETT AND JAN MORGAN


Pencil drawing by Claudia Tann

 In Session Four (Friday 24th of May) of Ways of Seeing, the Carmelite Centre’s three-day spiritual workshop, Jan Morgan and Graeme Garrett read and talked about Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’, using the poem as one access to their work on contemplation, spirituality, and the sea. Here are Jan and Graeme’s words from the workshop.

Jan   1   INTRODUCTION
‘Fragrant portals, dimly starred’:
poetry and the song of Creation
‘Fragrant portals, dimly starred’. An exquisite line from a poem by Wallace Stevens. Portals evoke places where there is that thinning of the veil between worlds, a place where the beyond breaks into the present, the here and now, the coming of the muse, the place where the stars even if dim are visible. Creative energy flows. Creation is.  

In this session we want to take poetry as one of the arts – poetry linked with what we might call, following biblical precedent, ‘the song of creation’. As when God speaks to Job and says, ‘Were you there when I laid the foundation of the earth . . .  when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?’ (Job 38, 1-7). In particular, we want to take a poem by Wallace Stevens, The Idea of Order at Key West. It is a song of the ocean, that immense watery womb from which all life comes to be.

We first stumbled across it in a fat volume entitled, The Penguin Book of the Ocean, which consisted of 46 selected readings taken from a wide range of sources beginning with the book of Genesis and winding up with David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter.[1] When we got to selection 7, we ran full tilt and unsuspecting into Stevens. There on the page was a poem in 7 solid stanzas with the title, ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’. With no idea of what to expect, we plunged into reading the words aloud. At the end we shook our heads. The poem was about the sea – clear. But what about the sea? The words came at us like a force of nature. Chiselled, powerful, incomprehensible, and yet strangely alluring. We hadn’t a clue. But we were hooked. 

We’d like, if we can, to hook you. There is no doubting that this is not an easy poem. But we think it is worth a little trouble to engage with. Let us first listen to the poem. Just let the words wash through you or over you. Listen to your body. Don’t try too hard to understand, or make sense, so much as to feel the effect of words, textures, rhythms. Perhaps like listening to a piece of music.  

After presenting the poem we will offer some reflections, and the last part of the session will be an opportunity for you to respond in a creative way, in whatever medium you choose. We have some suggestions if needed.

Graeme    2   PRESENTATION OF THE POEM

Read the poem        The Idea of Order at Key West

1She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

2The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

3For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

4If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even coloured by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.
                             5It was her voice that made
The sky actutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

6Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

7Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.[2]
Wallace Stevens, 1879-1955

Jan    3   REFLECTION
Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1879 and died in Hartford, Connecticut in 1955, at age 76. For most of his life he worked as an insurance executive for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, writing poetry in his spare time. His mother was a devout member of the Dutch Reformed tradition. But Stevens rejected the faith, agreeing with Nietzsche that ours is a time of the death of gods. He wrote this poem in 1934, at age 55, the year he became Vice President of the Insurance Company, and well before the ecological crisis hit home to the public mind. And yet his work has a prophetic dimension that seems to speak to our situation some 85 years on. We came to the poem with a faith-shaped understanding that Stevens might well disapprove of. So be it. Great art transcends the limits of its origins and the intentions of its maker. 

A way in
(i) The title. The poem is about order and lack of order in the world. The setting is Key West, an island city on the southernmost tip of the Florida Keys, surrounded by sea – the Gulf of Mexico on one side, the Atlantic Ocean on the other. Key West is a place where town meets ocean. Stevens used to holiday there.
(ii) Characters. The most significant figure in the poem is called simply ‘she’. ‘She’ is the first word of the poem. And ‘she’ dominates from that point on. Then there is ‘the spirit’, which makes a brief appearance in stanza 3, but seems somehow to hover over the whole. ‘We’ includes the poet and perhaps a friend alongside him by the shore. But it also invites us, the readers, to identify ourselves with the poet in the drama. ‘Me’ appears once in stanza 6 and refers (presumably) to the poet. ‘The sea’ is a primary character throughout. Along with the wind, the clouds, the sky, the sea has a distinctive (yes, dark) voice to be attended to.  (GBReef ) Lastly there is one called ‘Ramon Fernandez’. He bursts on the scene in stanza 6 (and emerges again in 7). No introduction. No biography. But given a name, as no other participant is.
(iii) Place. The main action of the poem takes place on the sea shore. The poet, his friends, and us (if we so imagine ourselves) are by the sea, surrounded by the great sweep of sky, air, cloud and sand. We see, hear, feel, taste and touch these ‘theatrical distances’ with their ‘bronze shadows heaped on high horizons’. 
(iv) Structure. The poem is constructed in three main sections. The first (stanzas 1-5) is the longest and most complex. It deals with the human/sea encounter. The second (stanza 6) brings a dramatic shift. We turn from the sea to the town. Finally, stanza 7 returns to the mysterious ‘she’ of part one as, through the poet, she makes a final address, first to the sea and then to us.

Graeme    Stanza 1 – listening to the sea 

1She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
It’s empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

Obviously she is central. Opinions vary as to her identity. Some believe Stevens intends the poet’s muse or inspiration; the ‘spirit of poetry’ we might say. Others are more down to earth. She is simply an anonymous busker plying her trade near to where Stevens and his friends are standing. Her song interrupts and shapes his seaside reverie. Both suggestions can make sense of the poem. But for us, coming from our starting point, it is hard to escape the sense that she is rather more than these. There is a brooding sense of deep presence in the poem. She is shaper of worlds, architect of time, and a maker of meanings. Like the creator Spirit, the great feminine ruach, that moved on the face of the waters in the creation story of Genesis 1, she hovers over this water world in all its splendour and mystery. 

 ‘She sang beyond the genius of the sea’. The first line states what the poem is about. She and the sea. And it concerns her voice, what the Spirit is saying, or rather, singing. She sings by the sea. And she sings ‘beyond the genius of the sea’. The idea that places – rivers, rocks, trees, mountains – were inhabited and protected by a local spirit, or ‘genius’, much like a guardian angel, was widespread in medieval times. Places had a spiritual quality that gave them dignity, depth, meaning. Our modern Cartesian view of matter as essentially lifeless has undercut much of that early sensitivity. Stevens reminds us of it with the word ‘genius’. But the song he wants to hear by the sea is not that of a local spirit or angel. It is ‘beyond’ that. 

The word ‘beyond’ is a crucial signal, which Stevens employs time and again in the poem. He wants us to see more than at first meets the eye on the beach; to hear more than first attracts the ear. But he does not think we can meet, or become aware of this ‘beyond’ directly or immediately. We only have access to the song from ‘beyond’ by attending to what is there in front of us; by attending to the sea. And the sea at first sight (at least to western eyes) is water, a great pile of it. And water doesn’t speak. ‘The water never formed to mind or voice,/ Like a body, wholly body,’ meaning only body, body without spirit, Descartes’ res extensa, ‘fluttering its empty sleeves’. The image that springs to mind is one of those blow-up figures at service stations that flutters its arms as if it were a person beckoning us to come in, but really it is no more than heaving air. We often see the ocean just so – empty, meaningless motion. 

But then, another of Stevens’ ‘there is more to it’ signals: ‘And yet …’; it might seem like meaningless motion, ‘and yet’ there is more to it. ‘And yet its mimic motion …’, that endless repetition of waves rolling toward the shore – speaks. It ‘[m]ade constant cry, caused constantly a cry’. The sound of the sea that we know so well is a cry. And Stevens chooses his words carefully. To cry is to weep or lament. To cry is to call out to attract attention urgently. To cry is to express pain or suffering. In the biblical tradition, the word ‘cry’ has strong resonances. The enslaved Israelites in Egypt cry out to God for deliverance. Job in his affliction laments to God, ‘Even when I cry out “violence”, I am not answered; I call aloud, but there is no justice.’ (Job 19.7). John the Baptist is described as ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’. (Matt 3.3). 

The sea ‘caused constantly a cry’. In our times, the sea is staggering under the assault we are making on it. There is a cry, if we can hear it; a cry of abuse, suffering, death. And the sea’s cry, says the poet, is the sea’s cry, not ours; ‘caused constantly a cry,/ That was not ours although we understood,/ Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.’ The sea does not belong to us. It is itself. It is ‘inhuman’, not in the sense of being cruel, but in the sense of being ‘other-than-human’, a being in its own right, with its own integrity. This cry belongs to the ‘veritable ocean’; the ocean in itself and for itself; not the ocean as our possession.

Jan    Stanza 2 – the sea and ‘she’ inseparable
2The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

Having strongly asserted that the ocean has its own integrity, Stevens now reveals how this ‘veritable ocean’ and ‘she’, the Spirit singer, are related. This is complex and takes the next three stanzas to work through. Stanza 2 says essentially that the voice of the sea and the voice of the Spirit are inseparable. For anyone familiar with sacramental thinking, this is recognisable territory. The sacramental imagination requires a receptivity of mind and heart which appropriates the presence of Christ in and through the material elements of bread and wine in the Eucharist, or the water in Baptism. Stevens is working here with something like that imagination.

‘The sea was not a mask.’ That is crucial. Stevens is not pretending that the sea is a disguise for something else, a temporary stand-in for God or the Spirit or what have you. It is the sea. That’s stanza 1. But … ‘No more was she.’ The singing Spirit is not a disguise either. The Spirit is the Spirit. The sea and the Spirit each have their own voice. But – here the sacramental-like imagination kicks in – ‘The song and water were not medleyed sound.’ A medley of songs is a string of stand-alone songs tacked together one after another. That is not what is going on here. We don’t have the song of the Spirit here and the cry of the ocean there, the two voices separate from each other and simply lumped together arbitrarily. 

What then? Well, here’s another of Stevens’ signals of ‘something more’. ‘Even if what she sang was what she heard,/ Since what she sang was uttered word by word,’. And what did she hear? What if not the cry of the ocean set out in verse 1? Even if that is so, Stevens goes on to repeat the point so as to underline it for us. ‘It may be that in all her phrases [all her song, that is] stirred/ The grinding water and the gasping wind’. In short, when we stand by the sea and attend to its presence, the first thing we see and hear is the sea itself, water grinding, wind gasping. We need to attend to and respect it as such. But, though all that is true, if that is all we see and all we hear we are missing something of deep significance about the world. ‘But it was she and not the sea we heard.’ The song of the Spirit sounds in and through the sound of the sea. Their voices are distinct. But they cannot be separated. They are not ‘medleyed sound’. And yet neither can they be collapsed into each other. They are not masks, but real voices. Like the two natures of Christ, divine and human, the voice of the Spirit and the cry of the sea are joined without separation but also without confusion. And this brings us to stanzas 3 and 4.

Graeme    Stanzas 3 and 4 – ‘she’ and the sea distinct 

3For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely the place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

4If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even coloured by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken choral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.

In stanza 2 the inseparability of the Spirit and the ocean is highlighted. In stanzas 3 and 4 the distinction between them is drawn.

‘For she was the maker of the song she sang.’ Not the sea, she was the maker of the song. The word maker is central to the poem. Stevens uses it 5 times in all and each time in reference to the singer. This recalls the words of the creed. ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty maker of heaven and earth.’[3] The singer is the maker of the song she sings. And the song is really distinct from – really other than – the cry of the sea. ‘The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea [extraordinary phrases!]/ Was merely the place by which she walked to sing.’ In the previous verse, the sounds of the sea, the grinding water and gasping wind, are all caught up with her song. But here the distinction between them stretches almost to breaking point. The sea seems now just the backdrop, the stage, upon which the singer produces her glorious music. And the image seems to echo again the story of Genesis, where the Lord God walks in the garden of creation at the very origins of the world. ‘They (Adam and Eve) heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze …’, says the text. The Spirit present in the breath of the wind. ‘And the man and wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord …’ (Gen 3.8). They knew they had transgressed. This has been our experience attending the ocean, aware of the damage that we humans are causing to its life, the voice asks ‘where are you?’ and ‘what have you done?’

Then the central question of the first section of the poem. ‘Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew/ It was the spirit that we sought and knew/ That we should ask this often as she sang.’ Stevens wants us to understand that the Spirit’s song, the song sung as she walks beside the sea, is really the Spirit’s song and not just the sounds of nature. And here comes another one of those ‘there is more’ sentences. ‘If it was only [but, of course, it is not only] the dark voice of the sea/ That rose, or even coloured by many waves;/ If it was only the outer voice of sky/ And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,/ However clear, it would have been deep air,/ The heaving speech of air [remember the fluttering of empty sleeves] a summer sound/ Repeated in a summer without end/ And sound alone.’ It is possible – indeed we do it all the time – to walk, play, swim, sleep on the beach, to see its varied colours and hear its manifold sounds, but to see and hear only that. ‘A summer sound’. Aussies know that sound; the sound of warm and lazy days, of lolling on the sand with a book and the brolly. And it is wonderful. But if that is all it is, says Stevens, ‘it is sound alone’. It mediates no further depth.

‘But it was more than that,/ More even that her voice, and ours, among/ The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,/ Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped/ On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres/ Of sky and sea’. This being in the presence of the sea, really being present to the sea, is more than an appreciation, however deep, of beauty – the water and the wind, the spectacle of huge distances and changing colours, those ‘mountainous atmospheres’ of sky and the water, more even than a personal encounter. ‘More even that her voice and ours’. Not just appreciation of nature’s grandeur, and.not just private devotion. It is something more than either. What? This brings us to stanza 5.

Jan    Stanza 5 – entering the song of creation
        5It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
    That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

This is the climax of section I. Having examined the sea and the Spirit for their separate and distinct integrities, Stevens now fuses them together. ‘It was her voice that made/ The sky acutest at its vanishing.’ The song the Spirit sings does not just celebrate the sky, it makes the sky, and makes it acutest – sharpest – at its vanishing point. On the beach you look out to the horizon, that amazing blue line between water and air, and then your eye is drawn on and on until it can reach no further, and the sky disappears into the infinity of space, filled, as we know, with billions of stars and millions of planets. The song of the Spirit makes all this vastness, the glory of the universe beyond understanding.

And it is not just space that the Spirit sings. It is also time. ‘She measured to the hour its solitude.’ A magnificent line! When we stand on the shore and gaze at the great ocean before us and listen to the sounds of its endless breakers, we are seeing a sight and hearing a sound that has been in play on Earth for 4 billion years. It embodies the whole astonishing process of evolution, unfolding its creative energies across huge tracts of time. All this the Spirit measures, ‘to the hour’. Space and time the Spirit sings into being; sings into the astonishing order we see all around us. The world is the solid music of the Maker, or the Goddess, or the Evolutionary Process. However we see it, ‘She was the single artificer of the world/ In which she sang.’
But now the climax. The song that calls forth the world becomes accessible to us in relation to the sea before which we stand. Here, not in the depths of the vanishing sky. Now, not in the far reaches of evolutionary time. Here and now a sort of miracle occurs. ‘And when she sang, the sea,/ Whatever self it had, became the self/ That was her song, for she was the maker.’ In sacramental terms, this is the parallel to the moment of consecration in the Eucharist. ‘This is my body.’ ‘This is my blood.’ However we understand those mysterious words, they mean to realize, that is, to make real, the presence of Christ in and with the material elements of bread and wine. These become the means by which we encounter the living Christ. Something like that is what Stevens is claiming for the spirit quest by the seaside. If we have the ears to hear and the wit to attend, when the Spirit truly sings, the sea ‘whatever self it had’, that is, whatever else we may say about it in poetry, or know about it in science, or feel about it in our summer haze, whatever ‘dark voice’ it may possess, whatever plungings and grindings it may make, when the Spirit hymns her creation, the sea ‘whatever self it had, became the self/ That was her song, for she was the maker.’ In that moment the maker meets, shapes, enlivens, speaks, sings through the creation, and in so doing reaches out to touch and communicate with our spirits – if we have the imagination to receive it. If that does happen, we see and know the world in a new way. We understand not with our heads but with our hearts that this is a sacred world, and the Spirit sings all of it, the whole world of space and time, ourselves included, into the song of her own making. We hear it and are part of it. ‘Then we,/ As we beheld her striding there alone,/ Knew that there never was a world for her/ Except the one she sang and, singing made.’

Graeme    Stanza 6 –  turning towards the town 

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Stanza 6 rings a dramatic change. The shift is signalled by the first words, ‘Ramon Fernandez’. Where on earth did he come from? Stevens always denied that he had a specific individual in mind here. The name seems to function as a transition from the world of nature –sea, sky, wind – to the human realm. Ramon Fernandez is the beachcomber, the fisherman, the surfer, the swimmer, the sunbaker. Ramon Fernandez is everyone and anyone. Ramon Fernandez is you and me. The poet challenges us. ‘Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know’. Tell what? Tell ‘[w]hy, when the singing ended and we turned/ Toward the town …’. The beach-party is going home; moving away from the sea with its ‘bronzed shadows heaped on high horizons’, and heading for the town. The town is civilization. The town is human technology, industry, buildings, lights. And as the beach-goers turn toward the town, three things happen.

(i) The singing ends. The creative voice of the Spirit stops. In the previous 5 stanzas the creative word is everywhere … voice, singing, speaking, sound … everywhere. The sea, indeed the whole universe, seems to gather into a great choir of communicative intention. That now ceases. The town shuts out the song. Tell me, Ramon Fernandez, why?

(ii) Night falls. Three times in four lines the word ‘night’ is used. ‘As the night descended, tilting in the air,’; ‘Mastered the night and portioned out the sea …’; ‘Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.’ Night. Night. Night. Darkness is descending on the human town; a darkness that, although it is ‘enchanting’ in many ways, is deepening, tumbling over itself, ‘tilting in the air’; which suggests that the night is somehow out of balance, tipping over, spilling out, deepening as it goes. In St John’s narrative of the Last Supper, Judas is dramatically revealed at the table as intending to betray Jesus to his enemies. And John writes, ‘after receiving the piece of bread, he [Judas] immediately went out. And it was night.’ (John 13.30) Darkness descends, ‘tilting in the air’. Jesus, the ‘light that shone in the darkness’, is about to be engulfed in night. 

The oceans are under serious threat. And Ramon Fernandez is largely to blame. Rising temperatures, acidification, mining, melting polar ice sheets, over fishing, destruction of habitats, and plastic waste. The sea is sick. Night is tilting in the air. Tell me, Ramon Fernandez, why?

(iii) Control. The town is the place where humans are in control, in contrast to the wide ocean where the singer walks and sings. In the town we ‘master the night’ with our ‘glassy lights’ and ‘fiery poles’. We ‘portion out the sea’ with our ‘fishing boats at anchor there,’ ready to ply the waves with our radars and our sonars. Stevens isn’t suggesting that technology and industry are bad things. He knows we need our fishing boats and our glassy lights. But he sees danger in our incessant drive to ‘master’ things, ‘fixing’ them for our own purposes alone. It is harder to hear the song of the Spirit in our technologically ordered cities. Most of us get fish from the supermarket. But we don’t ask how it was caught or whether the catch is sustainable. We turn on the glassy lights. But don’t ask how the electricity was generated and whether it is renewable. We jump in the car. But don’t think about how the oil that powers it was extracted. We throw out plastic bags, bottles and toothbrushes. But don’t ask will they wind up poisoning another albatross on King Island, or sticking in the gullet of a penguin waddling up the beach at Phillip Island.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know … why? To attend to the sea is to begin to feel in our bodies the urgency of this question. It is to begin to realize that there is no Planet B; that ‘there never was a world for her/ Except the one she sang and, singing made.’ This world.

Jan    Stanza 7 – blessed rage for order 

7Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Now to the final section of the poem. Stevens returns to themes of the first section (1-5). He doesn’t refer to ‘she’ or to the ‘spirit’, but picks up the other title, ‘maker’. He also links together the second section of the poem, the section dealing with the town, by referring to Ramon (Fernandez) again in the first line of this final verse. ‘Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,/ The maker’s rage to order…’. The poet confronts Ramon Fernandez – the town dweller, the light producer, the fishing boat owner – with the maker’s passion, even anger – her ‘rage to order’. But this is a rage that arises from and intends in its utterance a blessing. In the famous words of beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus recounts a series of blessings for those who order their lives in a way that aligns with the just and peaceable order of God’s kingdom. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart …’ i.e., those who order their hearts towards justice and truth and away from the chaos of injustice and the lie; ‘for they shall see God.’ ‘Blessed are the peacemakers …’ i.e., those who order their lives according to peace and away from violence and revenge; ‘for they shall be called children of God.’ Jesus calls for an order of blessing, which is the order of the divine kingdom. In the poem, the maker calls for an order of life in the world, the maker’s world, upon which real blessedness or fulfilment depends. 

The call is addressed to ‘pale Ramon’, the same Ramon to whom the question was put, ‘Do you know why the singing ended?’, and for which he had no reply. This silent Ramon is pale; he is not in good health. He needs to get out into the sun, away from the glassy lights and fiery poles of his own mastery, and reconnect, revisit, re-immerse himself in the living world of nature’s song and nature’s singer, ‘striding there alone.’ 

In our time, even more than Stevens’, pale Ramon may well encounter an angry voice, ‘a rage to order words of the sea’. In 2007, James Lovelock wrote a book called ‘The Revenge of Gaia’, by which he meant to refer to the gathering backlash of the dynamic systems of the Planet against the pressure, pollution and plundering of their bounty being applied by our consumer societies. Heat, wild weather, dwindling food and water resources, dying forests, polluted air, rising sea levels, and so on. The singing Spirit cares about her order of creation, about the harmonies of her song and the harmonies of her world,  the harmonies of the Great Barrier Reef. And she cares about the callous disregard of these beautiful things which pale Ramon is currently displaying.

In the poem the maker’s passion for the world begins with the sea, but extends to other ‘doorways’ to her music, those ‘fragrant portals, dimly starred’. The sky, the clouds, the ‘sunken coral water walled’, the air. And her passion expands to include us directly. The song of the sea and the sky is intrinsically and inseparably a song ‘of ourselves and of our origins’. Everything is connected. The passion of the Spirit aims to re-order our lives so as to bring them into better harmony with the order of our origins; ‘that harmony without which we cannot live’.[4]
This order in nature and in human life will find expression, says Stevens in a remarkable phrase, ‘In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.’ One can’t imagine Stevens advocating that, by seriously engaging with the more-than-human-world, by attending the maker’s song, we somehow become otherworldly (‘spooky’) in our disposition and our action. The whole drift of the poem tells against such a reading. In 1934 it was much more common than it is today to refer to the Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, as ‘the Holy Ghost’. In stanza 3 Stevens asserts that in our dealings with the ocean we need to ask – and ‘ask this often as she sang’ – ‘Whose spirit is this?’ That question permeates the poem, and is recalled here at its conclusion. In our reconnection with the world beyond the glassy lights of town, we face the need to have our lives ordered (‘demarcated’) afresh in dialogue with the spiritual (ghostly) depths that sing the world into life and form. And we need to bring that demarcation to expression (as indeed this poem brilliantly does) by joining in her ‘visible voice’ with sharper (‘keener’) sounds. That is, with words and gestures of our own that bear a clearer witness to the ‘blessed rage for order’ that we now dimly see/hear ‘beyond the genius of the sea’.

Jan    4   RESPONSE

We now make a transition to our own responses, words and gestures that bear our own witness. To introduce this, I would like to read a very short poem by Mary Oliver called ‘Praying’.

Praying

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make the elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.[5]

The poem is an articulation of what we have in mind now for our responses.

‘Just pay attention’.

We suggest that you first pay attention to your body. Trish Graham, sadly, is not able to be here to lead us as we originally planned.

Listen to your bodily responses to the poem by Wallace Stevens.
Listen to your feelings. Listen for a word or phrase that sings, or calls, and stays with you.
Listen for places of resistance.

You may have brought your own art materials. We have some paper and oil pastels you are welcome to use.
Or you may want to respond in words.
Write a short prayer. A haiku; we have some slips with guidelines. Or a lament.
You may simply need to be silent (or have a cuppa).
Whatever it is you need to do. Listen, and do it.

Graeme and I are here if you want to talk over something.


[1] James Bradley ed. The Penguin Book of the Ocean (Camberwell, Vic.: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin, 2010).
[2] Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), pp. 128-130; reproduced in Bradley, The Penguin Book of the Ocean, pp. 43-45.
[3] The Creed was formulated in an historical period in which a mythology of She as Maker had been almost completely obliterated.
[4]  von Wiezsäcker
[5] Mary Oliver, Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), p. 37.

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