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Poetic Thinking 2016 | January 26, 2020

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Heidegger –> Stevens

Heidegger –> Stevens
Harry Desmond

Apropos of Heidegger’s claim that art is the origin of the (“meaninged”) universe in which we operate, the following by Wallace Stevens (Anecdote of the Jar):

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

It seems that we have something similar here to Heidegger’s take on the significance of the Greek temple: neither the temple nor the jar have representative power — they are not products of their natural or cultural context — but rather act on their surroundings and bend them to human needs, intuitions or desires. The jar as the symbol of art is the source of the unconcealed world in which we qua cultured beings exist.


  1. Audrey Moyce

    Thanks for this, Harry; I really enjoyed this Stevens poem. It’s interesting; though–the most memorable line in it for me is “The wilderness rose up to it,/And sprawled around, no longer wild.” As you say, the jar “bends” its surroundings to human byproducts (I’m probably interpreting your “needs, intuitions, or desires” more pejoratively than you meant it). But the tone of the poem feels cautionary, as opposed to celebratory: “It took dominion everywhere.” I feel a little bit of King Midas’ golden touch here–perhaps the jar is beautiful, but violent and an overpowering presence: “gray,” “bare,” unyielding and barren. Although, there seems to be a bit of odd Romanticization of Tennessee happening in the last two lines, which perhaps indicates that there’s more to this poem than I’m seeing currently. Regardless, I think it still holds true for Heidegger’s “art as the origin of the meaninged universe”: his definition (as I understand it) seems to hold open the possibility of meaning-ing a universe that takes “dominion everywhere,” that perhaps is meaninged in a way we do not want. I don’t know who this “we” is; just that I quite inarticulately use it to mean “the good guys.” Clearly I’m still thinking this through.

  2. Vivian Lam

    Wonderful manifestation of Heidegger’s temple–your note that the jar and the temple *act on* their surroundings, rather than serving as static products of human creation, brings another dimension to the “unveiling” of the world. This jar literally takes up space, takes “dominion everywhere” by dint of engaging with its presence. It is in participating in this new space–to enter the temple, or perhaps to lay down on the grass and gaze into the distorted world of the jar–that we find something new in what would otherwise be litter on a nondescript hill in Tennessee, bathroom decor tableux, tasteful distraction.

  3. Thanks for sharing this Stevens poem, which I find is pretty much relevant at any time when thinking about the effect of art upon the world around it. The jar, as art, makes the world around it. I love your reading that it is not representative — this is a big misconception when approaching art that it REPRESENTS something, when in fact, it is and constitutes its own universe, not beholden to things in other universes. This idea that art makes the world is a theme in Stevens’ poetry, as in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” which I think I mentioned in class before, too. Here it is:

    She 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.

    The 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.

    For 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.

    If it was only the dark voice of the sea
    That rose, or even colored 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.

    It 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.

    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.

    Oh! 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.

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