Friday, May 29, 2009

Poetry Friday: Wallace Stevens and a "Thinking Stone"

"I wish that I might be a thinking stone." 

That's what it says on the back of this

Whatever could it mean? Let's look at the line in context:

Le Monocle de Mon Oncle
by Wallace Stevens

"Mother of heaven, regina of the clouds,
O sceptre of the sun, crown of the moon,
There is not nothing, no, no, never nothing,
Like the clashed edges of two words that kill."
And so I mocked her in magnificent measure.
Or was it that I mocked myself alone?
I wish that I might be a thinking stone.
The sea of spuming thought foists up again
The radiant bubble that she was. And then
A deep up-pouring from some saltier well
Within me, bursts its watery syllable.

Is he crying over lost love, his tears welling as salty syllables? Or is he railing against Mother Nature herself? What are the "two words that kill"?


I give him points for lines like these:

Alas! Have all the barbers lived in vain
That not one curl in nature has survived

and these:

...I pursued,
And still pursue, the origin and course
Of love, but until now I never knew
That fluttering things have so distinct a shade

The entire poem seems a lament to encroaching age. Really, not my favorite subject.  If we are to end up like this...

Our bloom is gone. We are the fruit thereof.
Two golden gourds distended on our vines,
Into the autumn weather, splashed with frost,
Distorted by hale fatness, turned grotesque.
We hang like warty squashes, streaked and rayed,
The laughing sky will see the two of us
Washed into rinds by rotting winter winds.

. . . then perhaps I should just order the t-shirt and hope to be a thinking stone instead of a warty squash.  

I love Wallace Stevens; believe me, I do.  This poem of his challenges me, though. 

Should we always post poems we love on Poetry Friday? Or go a little mad and share something confounding every once in a while?  You know my answer. 

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Irene Latham at Live. Love. Explore!  I will be hosting next week!

P.S.  I couldn't end this without sharing a marvelous comment by Karen Edmisten, who responded to my initial post analyzing Wallace Stevens's  "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird":

Billy Collins is like the pal you love and go out with for coffee ... the friend with whom you never have a conflict, because you always know exactly what he means. And he gets you, too, and you love him for that. And then you order more coffee and sigh and think, "If only everything could be this easy."

Wallace Stevens is like your inscrutable uncle, who isn't always kind, and sometimes doesn't seem to want you around, but who's so complex and interesting that you keep having him over. And when you pin him down on something, and whisper to your mother, who's sitting next to you, that now you know why he's like this, he smiles cryptically, and looks away.

Your coffee friend would, of course, be insulted at being analyzed, but your uncle practically begs for it. :-)


  1. what a brilliant comment by Karen!! I always liked Wallace Stevens even though I haven't a clue what he is talking about. He is just that fascinating and sounds so crunchy-delicious.

    I don't get this poem at all but I wouldn't mind sometimes being a thinking stone. No one expects anything from one, and it sounds peaceful. *sigh* I guess it's the end of the school year and I am tired.

  2. Hee. Crunchy-delicious. Yes.

    Maybe we "thinking stones" could sit in a circle somewhere together, like a campfire ring....

  3. Monocle has puzzled me for years, and like you, parts of it resonate -- sometimes for the sheer "crunchiness" of those words alone. But I always go back to it, and try again, to wrestle and solve parts of the puzzle as I can. He's turned all of us into thinking stones :).

  4. Oh fine crunchy thinking uncle...

  5. Seems to me that if you're a thinking stone, you have all the dry pleasures of the mind, and none of the moist obligations or agonies of the heart. And that Stevens understands he is now writing his poems (mocking Mother Nature "in magnificent measure") as an intellectual exercise, minus the deep feeling (the up-pouring from "the saltier well.") He senses that his own true engagement with emotion is past - he's the "introspective exile" who has grown bald. He's a little angel riding a mule, tinkling bell attached - what a great line that is - while the "bravura" is left to poets under forty.

    Of course, poems about growing older seem a little banal, but the fact is, Stevens was right - he grew old & died, the poem outlives him - he has been "washed into rinds," literally. Maybe because I'm a bit older, too, and feeling the intellectual impulse beginning to outweigh the emotional impulse, the poem strikes a chord.

  6. I love that uncle. As long as he kept producing deep, complex things to make me think, he could be as cryptic as he liked, since he really does practically beg you to unpeel his meanings, by being difficult.

  7. This might be a serious character flaw, but if I have to work that hard to understand a poem, I don't enjoy it... accessibility is so important or you lose readers!

  8. Here's my take on the thinking stone -- that's what I feel like when I let slip words I didn't think through or that unintentionally hurt someone ("Like the clashed edges of two words that kill"). I want to just curl up into a stone and give myself a time out to think about being more careful or thoughtful with my words.

    Happened this week. I was very stupid. Every time I think about it, I go back into thinking stone mode. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Think before you speak, self.
    ("The sea of spuming thought foists up again
    The radiant bubble that she was. And then
    A deep up-pouring from some saltier well
    Within me, bursts its watery syllable.")

  9. Oh, Sara, so many funny dovetails and delicious ironies here -- I posted about Billy Collins yesterday, after confessing that I had *thought* about being penetrating and insightful, but, alas, I was NOT up to it. :) So, I turned to beloved Billy.

    This is the first time I have read Monocle in its entirety (or maybe the first time in a long time -- I don't remember it well, at any rate.) My first impression is that it's about doubt and loss of faith, and a kind of mourning over that loss -- The opening lines are such strong allusions to lines about Mary in the Book of Revelation, and it sounds almost like a lament at the loss of a love, lamenting that he no longer accepts what once seemed to him a glorious vision, even if only in his childhood. I think what he's mocking in magnificent measure is his former beliefs about the Virgin Mary (as representative of his faith) and perhaps the two words that kill are his perceived conflict between "faith" and "reason."

    And, wishing he were a thinking stone says to me that he wishes he could accept his rational worldview without the feelings of loss that accompany it. It's all shrouded in very sensual imagery, too, but I think it's about more than sex, though Atticus just skimmed over a Harold Bloom commentary, and for Bloom, it's completely about sex. No, wait, that's not fair -- for Bloom, it also appears to be about the lamenting the loss of the creative, fertile muse, and I can certainly see that, too.

    But, I keep going back to the fact that the piece is dripping with religious imagery. The last two stanzas seem to me to be about the always ongoing search for "the origin and course of love" -- does it originate in a purely material world, or is there something to the worldview he abandoned? He doubts, and he is steadfast in his doubt, but the doubt brings him no peace. If man proved a gobbet in the world he was studying "like a dark rabbi", then he seems to have had trouble reconciling the earthly with the spiritual.

    And the fact that he's looking through a monacle says to me that he feels he has to see the world through one lens, either the faith lens or the reason lens, and though he desires a more clearcut final answer, the answer is a fluttering, shaded thing for him. He cannot be a mere thinking stone, for there is also the anguish and the "unconscionable treachery of fate,
    That makes us weep, laugh, grunt and groan, and shout
    Doleful heroics"

    So it seems to me that he's still trying to reconcile the stone and the weeping.

    Or maybe it's about sex. :)

    Anyway, I do love spending time with this inscrutable uncle, since I just had coffee with Billy yesterday.

  10. All of you left such great responses. I've decided all of YOU are my thinking stones....


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