Three variations on the “ineffable harmony” in Wallace Stevens’s poetry.
On Stevensian Musicality
Wallace Stevens created music within his poetry with a huge number of disparate devices that, when combined in various ways in each poem, fill the words with an ineffable harmony. To define the music of Wallace Stevens, therefore, is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do because, although each poem is musical, there is not a consistent rhythmic theme. It is exactly this refusal to be confined to singular poetic ideas however, that provides the underlying thematic and musical tendencies of Steven’s work; one such being the inconsistency of form and rhyme within a poem. By presenting the reader with variations of musicality, rhythm, and structure constantly, Stevens allows each poem to express and explore its ideas in a more surprising and novel way. This ability to surprise, teamed with frequent musical and auditory imagery, repetition, and movement, create varied works of consistently aural beauty. Although these, and many others, musical techniques exist in unison, it is easiest to explore them separately and how they are differently deployed in three of Stevens’s works, “The Idea of Order at Key West”, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and “To The Roaring Wind”.
The inconsistency of Stevens’ writing, although the word often has negative connotations, is one of the most powerful elements of his work and, too, one that provides some of the most delicate musical movements. Although just as important in the other two poems selected, it is in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” that t most explicitly explores the creative variation of Stevens’s poems. The poem itself, true to its name, consists of thirteen stanzas completely different from each other in form, rhyme, setting, and theme, apart from the fact that they all contain the image of a blackbird. This compositional design immediately forces the reader to focus on the musical quality of the words and pay closer attention to the form of each stanza. While in some ways reducing the ability to surprise by overtly subverting an expected structure, it also creates a sense of anticipation regarding how the poem will move from one form to the next. In the third “way of looking at a blackbird,” Stevens writes, “The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds. / It was a small part of the pantomime.” This couplet, making up the entirety of the stanza, exactly because of its ambiguity and length, forces a slow and deliberate movement through it. This creates consistent stresses and a clear sense of speed, with the repeated plosive ‘p’s at the end create a musical, circular rhythm. The following stanza shares no qualities with the couplet above; instead Stevens writes, “A man and a woman / Are one. / A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one.” This stanza has a far more overt musicality to it, the shortness and repetition of each line creating the sense of a drumbeat, steadily pounding. So when these two stanzas are explored together, a sense of how Stevens’ inconsistency creates musicality comes through. Were the form of the poem consistent, the feeling of musicality would be more obvious and so less pronounced. By varying the structure, Stevens forces the reader to find the music in each stanza and so melodiously moves through musical styles. “It was a small part of the pantomime.” alongside “A man and a woman / are one.” really highlights how the difference forces greater emphasis on the musicality. The softness of “small part of the pantomime” feels infinitely softer against the quick rigidity of “A man and a woman / Are one,” and vice versa.
This same device is employed in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” to a similar end but with different means. In this poem, Stevens writes in iambic pentameter, and so keeps a consistent rhythm of stresses and line length throughout the poem, but uses an indecipherable rhyme scheme. There is one rhyme four lines apart in the first stanza, four rhymes in quick succession in the second, two examples of words rhyming with themselves in the third stanza, and similarly inconsistent patterns through the remaining four. Teaming this with an incredibly consistent pattern of stresses and syllable structure creates a deeper musicality than a consistent rhyme scheme would allow. Essentially, what this rhyming does is cause the music of the poem to mirror the musical images, of the sea and the woman singing, at once making it feel more like a song and like a varied ocean lapping against the sand. In “To the Roaring Wind,” itself an entire poem of only four lines, the inconsistency of each line to the next is what elevates it above being a fragment and allows it to sound, musically and thematically, like a completed poem.
What syllable are you seeking,
In the distances of sleep?
The sound of speech comes through clearer and each line stands alone providing it with more weight than if it were formally similar to those either side of it.
The poetic descriptions of music, sound, and movement that is depicted in Stevens’s poems creates the sense of music in the mind of the reader and so, through this, draw out the implicit musicality of the poems. “The Idea of Order at Key West” is ripe with these sensory images as the poem focuses on the voice and song of an unnamed “She” and the sound and movement of the ocean in relation to the protagonist. In the second stanza, Stevens writes “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 the sea we heard.” These six lines are so rich with musical imagery that combined with the sudden rhyme scheme, when spoken, one almost falls into singing them. Describing the “song and water” together and defining them as sounds, although not “medleyed” ones, causes the reader to hear the sound of water as in the following lines, as well as to associate these sounds with song. This movement appears in relation to her words again when “all her phrases stirred / The grinding water and the gasping wind.” Both the water and the wind are described in terms of the sounds they produce and they seem physically stirred by the words of her song. This activated imagery creates an idea of continuality and circular motion that push the words forward as song, as much as poem. The natural world is described by how it sounds several times again in this poem, as Stevens mentions the “dark voice of the sea,” the “outer voice of sky” and “the heaving speech of air.” These are interspersed with constant descriptions of her singing and the song’s relationship to nature. In a poem so tied up with musical imagery and an audible movement, the reader is confronted directly with sound and cannot help to think of music in relationship to the syllables they read. The repeated ‘s’ sound of these musical images, “song,” “sea,” “sang,” “sky,” “sound,” mean that, when appearing together, they enforce a soft and soothing music tone for the entire poem and the musical association with the images is melodious and gently rhythmic.
“To the Roaring Wind” shares this overtly spoken musicality with half of its lines being descriptions of speakers or commands to speak. The second word in the poem is “syllable,” so Stevens immediately draws attention to the musicality of each singular word. This means that when the second line—“‘Vocalissimus”—is reached, each syllable is deliberately enunciated to both reference the “seeking” of syllables in the first line but also to fulfil the role of the “Vocalissimus.” The ending “-issimus” indicates the superlative, and so suggesting ‘the best’ speaker, the word comes with the weight of its great importance when being spoken. It takes on this innately musical form in order to fulfil its own definition. The final line has a similar effect; its command, “Speak it.” seems—in some ways due to its nature as the final line of the poem—to be in reference to itself. A command to speak a line coming from the line itself has its own metatextual variations but it also forces the reader to find the rhythm within it.
Finally, Stevens’ use of repetition within his poems creates a musicality that is unlike any poet before him. Using both chiasmus and direct repetition of words and phrases in quick succession, Stevens instils decisive and independent musicality to words and phrases and plays with these repeatedly in the structure of the poem. In “The Idea of Order at Key West,” repetition reigns supreme to create some of the most musical lines in the whole poem. One such example employs a chiasmic repetition in the first line with “Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry.” Stevens here is using repeated, but slightly altered lines, to focus the reader on the syllabic length of each word, establishing a rhythm in the first half and then repeating the same words to slow this rhythm down and create a new musicality within it. The change between “constant” and “constantly,” in their syllable number and placement of stresses, is the integral repetition in this line. “Constant cry” is a rhythmically straightforward phrase, with the hard ‘c’ at the start of “constant” deemphasizing the second syllable of the word to allow stronger emphasis on “cry.” Stevens sets up this musical pattern and then varies it with “constantly a cry.” An added syllable after the repeated hard ‘c’ adds another stress in the similar word so that the line slows down, creating a more melodic phrase than the first half of the stanza. Outside of chiasmic repetition, “The Idea of Order at Key West” has multiple examples of direct repetition of phrases and words that create their own sense of melody. “She sang” are not only are the first words of the poem but the phrase is also repeated eight times throughout the poem, including a repetition that occurs within a single line: “In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea.” By opening the poem on a recurring phrase, Stevens uses it to establish the musicality of the poem as a whole; How this phrase is read at the beginning defines the musicality of the whole poem; each time the phrase is repeated, the original musical rhythm is reinforced. Not only do the repetitions of “she sang” reground the poem in its original music state, but they are also often used to mark a change in the poem’s music. Compare the consecutive lines “For she was the maker of the song she sang.” and “Except the one she sang and, singing, made.” They both use the idea of her song as a maker but the placement of the phrase within similar lines completely changes the way they are tonally heard. In the former, “she sang” leaves the line on a drawn-out, soft musical note that seems exceptionally ethereal in its tone, while in the latter, the same phrase seems more definitive and grounded, as it is surrounded either side by stronger, more grounded and open sounds. Stevens effectively uses repetition to foreground the musicality of the poem each time a repetition arises, making us more aware than we would otherwise be of the harmony of the poem.
“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” uses repetition most effectively in its fourth stanza with “A man and a woman / Are one. / A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one.” The first two lines establish the succinct beat of this stanza and the repetition with the added descriptor, extending the length of the line by four syllables. In the following two lines, the words are instinctively read in this same beat because the anticipation for the musicality and the knowledge of the rhythm created in the first two lines. Although in the individual stanzas there are examples of repetition, it is in the form of the poem that we see Steven’s dictate how repeated themes and words create a tonal mood. The word ‘blackbird’ is present in every stanza and so while each function alone, there is a repetition of a specific image that makes poem feel whole. The very title points to this, separate ways of looking but repeated a repeated subject; Stevens explores repetition in the world as whole by showing variation on a single subject matter.
Stevens is a master of musicality, in his words and structure as much as in his ability to manipulate the reader to impose a direct and specific musicality on the words that are read. His poems seem explicitly musical because they are peppered with suggestions of musicality in every element of their being. Repetition forces the reader to remember the musical tone and the metaphorical images of music, sound and movement encapsulate life forms and structures alike. For Wallace Stevens, it seems, music and poetry cannot be separate entities but must exist within each other to create the best version of themselves that each can possibly be.
“Fifteen Children,” and “Turning the Earth by Force,” two poems by Jonah Freud
Stevens, Wallace. “The Idea of Order at Key West,” The Poetry Foundation. Web.
Stevens, Wallace. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” The Poetry Foundation. Web.
Stevens, Wallace. “To the Roaring Wind,” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets. Web.