To Settle In The Interior, To Settle In Beauty, In Nature, In Spirit, In Things, In Poetry, In Civilization – The Psychology Of Poetic Settler

Gray Room

Although you sit in a room that is gray,
Except for the silver
Of the straw-paper,
And pick
At your pale white gown;
Or lift one of the green beads
Of your necklace,
To let it fall;
Or gaze at your green fan
Printed with the red branches of a red willow;
Or, with one finger,
Move the leaf in the bowl –
The leaf that has fallen from the branches of the forsythia
Beside you…
What is all this?
I know how furiously your heart is beating.

Wallace Stevens

A rich world surrounds Wallace Stevens – things that are gift of nature, artifacts – presents of civilization, aesthetic effects of colors, his own imagination with its rhythms, secrets and gentle excitements.

Let’s enumerate the objects of his inspirations – a feminine you (not surprising), sitting with a furiously beating heart (quite involving), room, straw paper, gown (interesting), beads and necklace (intriguing), fan, branches (two times), willow, (her) finger (the punctum of the poetic search?), leaf (two times), as touched and as fallen (nature as a gift to human touch, nature becoming part of human bodily experience), a bowl (stirring readers’ attention), forsythia, heart (especially welcomed with combination of “furiously” and “beating”).

Let’s also enumerate the world of colors enveloping the poet’s meditation – gray (to start with, before the poet’s imagination reaches its creative concentration), silver (echo of night moon-light), pale white (juxtaposed with gown it is too close to the symbol of virginity, actual, lost or nostalgically silvery), green (two times), red (two times).

What are the relationships between the poet and his real or imaginary protagonist – feminine “you” with “your” gown, necklace, fan, finger and heart? Thousands upon thousands of poems have been dedicated to their relationships (immediate or through mediation of the subject of annunciated), of poet and his poetic “object” – the woman. We see that in the “Gray Room” these relationships are that of alienated and anonymous contemplation when one side is imagining the object (which doesn’t know that somebody is thinking about or imagining her). Poet and woman, here, are like two monads separated by gray walls and green distances. The impression is that the poet not only doesn’t know his existential muse and doesn’t want to meet her but that he doesn’t need an alive woman for his inspiration, just the one of his imagination in the “gray room”. Put in this gray box – observed from the distance she is softly inspiring and gently satisfying the imagination of the poet. Thank god, no passions involved, no connotations and contradictions, no hunt for hints, no yearnings (everything is under control). For the poet it’s enough to “know” how woman’s heart is beating, no need to feel it with his own heartbeat or come closer to her world with uneven poetic enquiry. We see that the poet’s heart can be tamed by contemplation. We see how poetry can be not activated, but, on the contrary, pacified by contemplating posture. We feel how the less psychologically interesting (more rigid) aspects of contemplating experience can streamline the most interesting (creative) aspects of poetic inspiration.

Let’s enumerate the actions of the poem’s protagonist – sitting (in a room), picking (at gown), lifting (green beads), letting (it fall), gazing (at green fan), moving (the leaf), and heaving heart furiously beating. These actions are as minimalist as the actions of a poet contemplating the life of a woman in “gray room”. There is no universe with its clashing energies; there are no passions frustrated by the poet’s encounter with his object of passion. The universe is like the one we observe in the starry night (anti-Van Gogh’s) – frozen, still, available for our contemplation as soon as it is frozen too. The actions of a protagonist is symbolic representation of the actions of the poet – the girl instead of being the personification of otherness for the man becomes a screen for his projections – a reflection of the poet’s perception of the world. The girl in the poem is “dead“, but not completely, she is resisting death into which the poet puts her inside the gray coffin. That’s why her heart is “furiously beating”. It’s very good that the poet knows what it means when the human heart is furiously beating. But he knows more – how to pacify it with the rhythmic breeze of the very craft and art of poetic inspiration.

The poet is trapped within his poem as his heroine in the “gray room”. But the poet doesn’t feel his entrapment by his poetic ritual because of its efficiency in comparison with the gray interior with all its silver, green and red spots. After enumerating signs of the woman’s (inhibited) frustration (amidst the poet’s beautiful contemplative exercise) the poet tries to get rid of it with his slightly awkward (by being generic), rhetorical question – “What is all this?” We can answer – “all this” is a measure of a discrepancy between poetic beauty according to Wallace Stevens of the “Gray room” and human life’s “furiously beating heart”, when both life and heart are unattended.

The poem “unintentionally” expresses the “specificity” (not to say “incompatibility”) of armchair-contemplative poetry in relation to human, nature’s and universe’s life. The poet takes Ptolemaic position towards the world. He, as if, is trying to imagine and impersonate the mentality of the sun imagining the heartbeat of one of its planets.

Wallace Stevens  (1879-1955)
Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)