Wallace Stevens’s War Poem
Wallace Stevens does not fit the traditional mold of a political poet. Contrarily, he advocated that the ideal poet should maintain a certain degree of ignorance. However, this does not imply utter seclusion, or complete disinterest in the world. Stevens’s perspective differs from his peers, or even the prescribed notion of a poet, and that difference only increases the excitement when exploring his poetic world. Rather than an academic or a kind of classical philosopher figure, Stevens was an ordinary citizen in an ordinary world of Hartford, Connecticut. And he reveled in this identity—he was not set on communicating his views through poetry, preferring to focus on meditative subjects. He cared to explore sensations and scenes of beauty and life, and that was enough. One can debate endlessly (and many have) if this is the proper use of poetry, though the premise of such a debate implies that there is such a thing as the “right” function of poetry. But Stevens was still a citizen of the world; he could not run or hide from reality, even if he cared to. In “Martial Cadenza,” Stevens creates his own sort of political poetry. It is unavoidable that the world would force itself into his work—one cannot live in the world and not be a part of it.
Certain poems of Stevens’s stand out as exceptions to his characteristic disengagement. “Martial Cadenza” (1942) is surprisingly explicit concerning the subject of war, especially for a Stevens poem. From the very title one can see a marked difference. Compared to the feverish poems of W. H. Auden, such as “Spain” (1937) or “September 1, 1939” (1939), Stevens’s title offers nowhere near such a degree of transparency. But upon further consideration, it betrays a uniquely clear idea. “Martial,” obviously, is an adjective relating to war; a “cadenza,” on the other hand, is a musical term referring to a solo passage of a larger concerto. The two seem at odds with each other, but in bringing these disparate ideas together, Stevens introduces an alternative approach to the so-called “war poem.” He is always concerned with music and the musicality of a poem, such as the jazz-inspired variations in “The Man with the Blue Guitar” (1937). But in “Martial Cadenza,” which is itself split in four sections (or “verses”), the poetry of song must confront the reality of war. Military songs hold a purpose of their own. They generally inhabit the same frame of mind as propaganda and other politically motivated, state-sanctioned “art,” if one could dare to even call it such. Stevens was an adamant believer in poetry as a purposeful statement, but he despised the idea that a poet had some kind of necessary responsibility. He writes in the essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” “I might be expected to speak of the social, that is to say sociological or political, obligation of the poet. He has none” (27). In fact, Stevens’s distaste for this expectation led him to the opposite side of the spectrum, perhaps too far for many of his critic’s liking. Stevens often ran the risk of being perceived as a poet of the senses: superficial, sensory, unwilling to engage in the discourse of the times. But his work stands as a masterful example that one can be firmly rooted in the physical world without sacrificing the ephemeral—and that perhaps these two spheres overlap more than one may think. It is not necessary to speak of bloodshed and chaos to represent the aftershocks of war and the trauma of modernity. “Martial Cadenza” is one example of the way these grand ideas creep into a singular lived existence.
“Martial Cadenza” centers on the image of a star in the sky, a reminder of the cyclical patterns of the physical world. Stevens thrusts the reader into the landscape of the poem, beginning in medias res. The opening line reads, “Only this evening I saw again.” The first word of the poem is “only”: The poetic speaker places us in the present time, while also returning to the past with the word “again.” It is both a singular event and a reminder of a previous time; creating a false nostalgia for some collective us. It constructs a blank slate, one to build a we upon. Though we were never there, the speaker’s sense of a repeated experience includes the reader, and the poem will eventually culminate in this notion of a shared experience.
Stevens continues in the second stanza to consider the idea of the present, and the question of how to construct a present moment in “a world without time” (8). By fixating on an external object, the previously introduced “evening star,” (2) fixed in the sky, the speaker is able to recognize the physical place they occupy: “This world, this place, the street in which I was,” (9) which previously was “without time” (8). The world seemed to be transfixed in timelessness because it could only be defined through absence, such as the “silence” of the armies. (12). The sudden emergence of a definitive image reminds the speaker of the actual world, the larger picture, all that is so easily forgotten in times of crisis. It is a burst of life in a dead world.
However, Stevens introduces a complication to the imagery, questioning the relevance or worthwhile power of the star, which stands traditionally as a beacon of hope:
What had this star to do with the world it lit,
With the blank skies over England, over France,
And above the German camps? It looked apart. (15 – 17)
The star is separate from the troubled world it inhabits, but it also cannot be completely removed from the setting. It is undeniably present, but still belongs to the realm of the heavens. The significance is rather that it is eternal, “ever-living and being / . . . ever-breathing and moving, the constant fire” (20 – 21). The star “Itself / is time” (18 – 19)—the certainty of an object being in time is enough, perhaps, to combat the incomprehensible world as a whole.
The final stanza feels like the completion of a cycle, enacting what the subject matter itself suggests. One of Stevens’s favorite stylistic strategies is copious repetition, and here it is found in full force. The word “again” is repeated throughout the entire poem a total of nine times, with seven of those mentions in the final four lines. It overwhelms, an endless resurgence of “again . . . again . . . again.” The use is staggeringly effective. It reanimates the silent scene of the second stanza, instead painting a living, breathing world of movement and action. But it is not chaos; it is the world of the human. The re-emergence of the star is a constant; it “never changes, / Though the air change” (24 – 25). The world may always be developing, receding, creating and destroying, but a portent of hope remains fixed. As the first stanza proclaims, it is “as if life came back” (4). “At the beginning of winter” (2), rather than traditional malaise and portents of death, the stage is set to begin again. The speaker comes back to life, thanks to the insistent reminder of the ever-turning world. And this turning world is not only symbolic, but literal—the earth is of course always spinning, in a literal, physical sense; constellations appear to move because of the earth’s actual movement. It is characteristic Stevens, this stressing of the physical world. It is a mantra, this again, again, again, akin to a heartbeat, or the beating of a drum. The (perhaps singular) importance of wartime songs is the use of a distinct rhythm, a beat one can march to in a sort of solidarity. But this is also precisely what Stevens wishes for his poetry—for it to be a unifying force between readers, a recognition of what they cannot articulate for themselves.
Even though war is an unusual topic for Stevens’s poetry, he is able to approach the subject without sacrificing any of his distinguishing style. With an almost imperceptible mentioning of setting or scene (the references to Germany, France, and England), Stevens is able to mask the nature of the poem. It is still not quite political; there is no stance taken, no message communicated, for or against anything. Stevens is concerned ultimately with the world itself, both in spite of and in conversation with the humans that populate it. He was interested in how the poet can “help people to live their lives,” (“The Noble Rider,” 29) and reaffirming the usually condemned value of so-called “escapism” (30). The two are intrinsically connected for Stevens: in his mind, it is not a crime to turn to the poetic world and “the supreme fictions without which we are unable to conceive of [life].” (31). At times, it can seem completely implausible that something even as simple as a star could recur every night. And yet it does. Untainted by the armies, trumpets, or drums of war, the star persists, a reminder of hope, an emblem of goodness and truth. It is in this seasonal reminder that Stevens’s poetic speaker is able to live “again,” breathe and move “again,” and reconcile his or herself to the ever-changing world—for all the turmoil and dread, the star, and poetry itself, shines as a reminder that human traumas are ephemeral, no match for the wonders of the world, and that this too shall pass.
Stevens, Wallace. “Martial Cadenza.” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Vintage, 1982. 252-253. Print.
Stevens, Wallace. “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words.” The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination. New York: Vintage, 1951. 3-36. Print.