Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Wednesday Poetry: "A Postcard from the Volcano," by Wallace Stevens

I've recently started getting into Wallace Stevens's poetry. The interest stems, partially, from the fact that Stevens was a Pennsylvanian who departed from that state (I'm learning that PA has some serious issues with retaining its artists), but I'm more interested in the philosophy of his poems.

"A Postcard from the Volcano" builds together a variety of images that open us up to a wide range of readings. We can see, from the "[c]hildren picking up our bones," a reading that focuses on the older generation lamenting its death and what little it has left to its successors, but there are also intimations that the development of culture is beyond our control: Stevens places spring clouds above a shuttered mansion house in the middle of the poem, which suggests that even new seasons arrive over our closed-off institutions. There are lots of different ways to read this poem.

This poem contains lots of complicated imagery, so don't rely on my gloss alone.

"A Postcard from the Volcano" (1936)
Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill;

And that in autumn, when the grapes
Made sharp air sharper by their smell
These had a being, breathing frost;

And least will guess that with our bones
We left much more, left what still is
The look of things, left what we felt

At what we saw. The spring clouds blow
Above the shuttered mansion-house,
Beyond our gate and the windy sky

Cries out a literate despair.
We knew for long the mansion's look
And what we said of it became

A part of what it is...Children,
Still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know,

Will say of the mansion that it seems
As if he that lived there left behind
A spirit storming in blank walls,

A dirty house in a gutted world,
A tatter of shadows peaked to white,
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.


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