Capricious Harmonies

Capricious Harmonies

Woodcut in which a dark-blue river winds across a white bank; a flock of gray birds cross the river in a curved line, and there are grey reeds at the bottom-right corner
Flying Birds (c. 1909-1910) by Sekka Kamisaka, New York Public Library.

The poetry of Wallace Stevens does not rely on explicit mentions of noise or sound, or particularly sensory images, or particularly perfumed words, and yet his poems create an overwhelming sense of musicality. Stevens’s musicality is expressed in reverence for silence, the intangible gaps between feeling and expression and knowing and not knowing. It is Stevens’s short, unadorned lines, abrupt beginnings and endings, and inconsistent rhythms  that together establish  instability throughout each line of his poems, which are yet connected and grounded by a yearning for the line that may follow, the gap that may follow. This string of yearning or trailing born out of uncertainty quietly produces what winds up becoming Stevens’s moving harmonies.  Because Stevens’s mode of musicality is exceptionally—and beautifully—fine, it will be most illuminating to trace his harmonies in three poems that each provides a variation on this facet of his style: “To The Roaring Wind,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and “Tea at The Palaz of Hoon.”

To The Roaring Wind” is a poem composed of only four lines, yet a distinct musicality arises. It follows an irregular syllabic meter, and almost as if anticipating the reader’s reaction about the dissonant syllabic beats, the speaker asks in the first line: “What syllable are you seeking.”1 He directs this question in the second line to “Vocalissimus,” a five-syllable word on its own stand-alone line that consequently suggests there’s a great majesty to Vocalissimus. The term  refers to an individual who can sing, but in the superlative, thanks to Stevens’s addition of “-issimus.” The suffix indicates that this person is a muse to the speaker, that their song is the most exceptional. In this poem, this muse is the wind. The wind that we cannot touch and is therefore empty, and that we can only hear whenever it is thrown into gusts by unseeable forces. The wind, like the poem’s starkness, represents an airy vacancy that slowly starts to fill in with something, slowly starts to produce a soft sound that we, nor the speaker, can find the syllable for.

Similarly, the sibilance in “Vocalissimus” gives a soft connotation to a word that is otherwise weighty with its harsh beginning V-sound and five-syllable meter, mirroring the sometimes harsh though inherently delicate nature of the wind. The sibilance leads to the realization that the speaker has actually been gently lulling us with this technique since the first line: “What syllable are you seeking, / Vocalissimus,” and continues into the third line, “In the distances of sleep?” While the slant rhyme is unpredictable, the expected s-sound gives this irregularly structured poem a cadence and a melody. The repetitive s-sound narrowly escapes through the joining of teeth when spoken aloud, teeming with a sort of pressure that either suggests a building pressure about to explode or an explosion in its final moments of waning. It’s not quite clear which it is, but the final fourth line does offer something definite: “Speak it.” This entire poem has been one question that culminates in a command that, in a return to the unclear, is a mystery to whom it’s directed. The wind? The reader? The poem itself? Under the interpretation of the wind, it almost feels like the speaker knows there is something the wind is trying to communicate and is asking what that final syllable is, commanding that it finally just speaks it. It’s as if the speaker is daring the wind to sing louder into a roar, to announce the syllable or note that he is seeking in order to understand it.

Whereas “To The Roaring Wind” is a one-stanza poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is composed, naturally, of thirteen. However, both poems maintain the poignancy of brevity, for although “Thirteen Ways” outnumbers “To the Roaring Wind” in stanza-count, the length of each stanza is equally as short, at minimum two lines and at maximum six. The first way of looking at a blackbird:

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

The second:

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

And in the third stanza,

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.2

In these first three stanzas, Stevens’s rhythmic fluctuation arises again, changing from stanza to stanza; the speaker never allows the reader a full grasp on how the poem asks to be spoken. Given the poem’s title, one could also initially expect the poem to follow an imperative format, but instead the speaker describes scenes that zoom in and out of past and present tense. For example, the first three stanzas describe scenes that are situated in the past, a sense of time that is broken in the fourth stanza with a shift to the present:

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

What the speaker is actually saying shifts throughout the poem as well, especially in the third stanza where the speaker simply states how the blackbird whirls in the autumn wind, then ends as quickly as he began, saying that this image he has just described was only a small part of larger dramatic event. And he leaves the poem there, suspending the reader in their lingering and leaving the reader to wonder, What was that pantomime? But it goes unexplained; there is only the silence of the page and another gap in comprehension. Similarly, in the eighth stanza:

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

This  stanza is ripe with ambiguity, and it places the reader outside what the speaker and the blackbird both “know” inwardly. Thus, it’s as if the reader is watching the speaker and the blackbird exchanging a whispered secret on the opposite side of a soundproof window. The reader may not know what they’re saying, but by the quietness of the exchange and the barriers that exist in between the reader and accessing this knowledge, the reader knows that whatever it is the two know, it must be sacred. Finally, in the poem’s stirring last stanza:

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing.
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar limbs.

Again, the simple sentences, or rather, statements continue here, but they are expressed with temporal incongruities. “It was evening all afternoon. / It was snowing. / And it was going to snow.” The contradictions in these lines are so prominent and so destabilizing that they become thrilling. One can start to enjoy the unevenness, finding a way to hum along with the melody despite its absence of consistent flow. This allows the surface-level incongruities to softly ascend into sonorous melodies.

This question of stability and knowing is explored even more deeply in “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon.” It’s a vivid poem that begins with the speaker having

. . . descended
The western day through what you called
The loneliest air
The speaker is alone and wonders,
What was that ointment sprinkled on my beard?
What were the hymns that buzzed beside my ears?
What was the sea whose tide swept through me there?3

The repetition of “What was/were” to begin each question creates an uncharacteristically consistent rhythm in the poem, which Stevens ironically and brilliantly employs to create yet another discord in the melody of inconsistency that the reader may have come to, mistakenly, expect from his poems. Similar to the sense of pressure Stevens creates through sibilance in “To The Roaring Wind,” Stevens brings us back to the pressure with this series of questions that, due to their succession, can feel like an interrogation. In this instance, it is clear the pressure is mounting, putting the reader on edge—but again, a tantalizing one—for what may come next to absolve the pressure, offer a sense of stability. And it is in the third stanza, where these questions become answered, the pressure dies off, and the poem returns to inconsistency, that by this point has come to define our notion of Stevensian consistency. At the same time the poem makes this return, the speaker returns to himself:

Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.
I was myself the compass of that sea:

The speaker himself is the answer to his previous questions; he is the beholder of his own knowing. He realizes, in the final stanza, that he alone is responsible for shaping the world he sees around him.

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

This final realization could lead one to assume a sense of closure to the poem, but the speaker denies us this by ending with the feeling that though he has found himself more truly, he has also found himself more strange. More paradox, more lingering, more mystery that the reader is able to settle into—which is at the very heart of Steven’s masterful craft of creating melody out of discontinuities.

What’s so moving about these three poems, and emblematic of Stevens’s poetry in general, is their capacity to  give off the illusion that something is missing. When we are unable to obtain a full, firm grasp on something, we often presume that something in it is missing and not in us. This recalls the attitude one of Stevens’s contemporaries, American poet Gertrude Stein, toward her own poetry: If we enjoy her poetry, then we understand it. The same can be said about Stevens’s poetry, except it can be altered to say if you enjoy his poetry, then you hear it. Stevens’s poetry is music that doesn’t have to sing. For it is actually the very instability and absence missingness, the gaps; the thudding, drum-like cadences of the simple sentences and jilting breaks that collapse any sense of stable rhythm, that rise together into a strange harmony that infuses his poetry with rapturous musicality.

  1. Wallace Stevens, “To the Roaring Wind,” Academy of American Poets,
  2. Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” Academy of American Poets.
  3. Wallace Stevens, “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” Academy of American Poets,
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