Music In Wallace Stevens’ Poetry

by Thomas Brett

Rationalists, wearing square hats,
Think, in square rooms,
Looking at the floor,
Looking at the ceiling.
They confine themselves
To right-angled triangles.
If they tried rhomboids,
Cones, waving lines, ellipses –
As, for example, the ellipse of the half-moon –
Rationalists would wear sombreros.

- Wallace Stevens, Six Significant Landscapes, VI (1916)

The great modernist American poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) was a writer of ideas expressed in philosophical and meditative guise, articulate at articulating the relations among how we perceive reality, our imaginations, and consciousness.  Stevens was quite interested in musical experience, writing about the power of music to encapsulate the unseen and unsaid.  For Stevens, meaning is never a given, but rather something created, and he used music–that presence between body and spirit–as a figure for a desire of spectral power.  Here, then, are a few brief excerpts from Stevens’ poems that touch on music:

Peter Quince at the Clavier (1923)

“Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you . . .”

[Musical sound has a deep effect on our consciousness; thus, music is feeling, while sound is only its conduit.  This helps explain why when we hear a great musician play, we say they play “with feeling.“]

To The One Of Fictive Music (1923)

“…That music is intensest which proclaim,
The near, the clear, and vaunts the clearest bloom . . .”

[Effective (and affective) music is sound that is intensely local, voicing “the near, the clear” of our here and now.]

The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937)

“The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts.  The day was green.

They said, ‘You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.’

The man replied, ‘Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.’

And they said then, ‘But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are’ . . . “

[Listener: Hey you, guitarist: ‘You’re not representing our local experience!  Your music abstracts it!’]

[Guitarist: ‘Yes, that’s what music does: it abstracts our experiences, condensing, compressing, and even expanding them into sound.’]

[Listener: ‘Well, give us some transcendence through music–a tune that’s “beyond us”–but also give us music that expresses exactly who we are, right here, right now.  Is this too much to ask of you?]

[Guitarist to Himself: ‘This the impossible task they ask of music!’]