This week I will try to make you fall in love with a poem about a jar. A plain glass jar. But wait – the jar is magic!
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.
I agree, on first glance it may seem a bit dry. Why would you care about a stupid glass jar? But if you look closer, you will see that this jar changes the wilderness. The word ‘surround’ is key. The wilderness surrounds the hill because it now has something to center round: the jar on top.
In the second stanza the jar’s power increases even further. The wilderness is described to be ‘sprawling around’: it starts adhering to order. In a way, the jar tames the wilderness. However, what really brings this about is not the glass jar itself, but the change it causes in the speaker’s perspective. The grass and bushes do not actively start surrounding the jar, it only looks this way because it gives the speaker something to focus on. This breaking open of reality makes this poem a prime example of Cubism.
Beware: here comes the theoretical part.
Cubism is a 20th century avant-garde art movement that originated in painting and sculpture. Its focus lay on the act of seeing, rather than the object that was being seen. Cubist artists tried to include different perspectives in one work of art. For example, in Picasso’s painting, he has combined a side and a front (mainly the eye) view of the girl. They also experimented with different ways to portray time, volume and mass on a flat canvas.
It is mainly this distortion of reality that was adopted in the literary movement of Cubism. You can see in Stevens’ poem that he plays with perspective and perception. The jar does not really disrupt the wilderness, it only looks that way because it changes our perception of it. Stevens ‘breaks open’ reality because he shows us how we look at it, and this is, in my opinion, what makes the poem so remarkable.
What do you think? Do you like the way this poem plays with reality and perception or does it not appeal to you at all? Have you read any other Cubist poetry? Please leave a comment below!
Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955)
Stevens was an American Modernist poet, who spent most of his life working for an insurance company in Connecticut. His canonical works were written well after he turned 50, which is extraordinary for a poet. Most of his poems are highly philosophical and deal with the relationship between imagination and reality.