Sunday Poem: Imposing poses on nature

A poem on the difficulty of seeing and comprehending the world without metaphor or without “posing” its parts in our mental constructs, Wallace Stevens’ “Add This To Rhetoric”:

It is posed and it is posed
But in nature it merely grows.
Stones pose in the falling night;
And beggars dropping to sleep,
They pose themselves and their rags.
Shucks...lavender moonlight falls.
The building pose in the sky
And, as you paint, the clouds,
Grisaille, impearled, profound,
Pfft... In the way you speak
You arrange, the thing is posed,
What in nature merely grows.

To-morrow when the sun,
For all your images,
Comes up as the sun, bull fire,
Your images will have left
No shadow of themselves.
The poses of speech, of paint, 
Of music - Her body lies
Worn out, her arm falls down,
Her fingers touch the ground.
Above her, to the left,
A brush of white, the obscure,
The moon without a shape,
A fringed eye in a crypt.
The sense creates the pose.
In this it moves and speaks.
This is the figure and not
An evading metaphor.

Add this. It is to add.

The first two sentences of this poem lay out the theme, our struggle to understand what “merely grows” using the only tools we have available, mental constructs, within which we pose and pose again the parts of nature. It should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), that this applies to scientists as much as it applies to the poet.

As is typical of Wallace Stevens, this poem is enigmatic and relies on metaphors that can be difficult to parse. Also typical of Stevens is the struggle to get away from metaphors and other figures of speech, to get at a reality and truth that is hidden behind our mental categories. A few suggestions for reading this poem:

Like most poetry, figures of speech are important, but in this case the poem is about the figures of speech and metaphors we use to describe the world, and thus this poem is packed with them. ‘Falling’ moonlight, ‘dropping’ to sleep, ‘impearled’ clouds, shucks, we just can’t describe something without making reference to something else. And the second stanza is about the elimination of figures and metaphors, as ironically described through an elaborate metaphor of a dead or worn out body in the moonlight.

Finally, a quote by Stephen J. Gould on the connection between metaphor and science, which is quoted very appropriately by Eleanor Cook in her excellent Reader’s Guide to Wallace Stevens, p. 340:

We often think, naively, that missing data are the primary impediments to intellectual progress – just find the right facts and all the problems will dissipate. But barriers are often deeper and more abstract in thought. We must have access to the right metaphor, not only to the requisite information. Revolutionary thinkers are not, primarily, gatherers of fact, but weavers of new intellectual structures. (“For Want of a Metaphor, The Flamingo’s Smile [1985], 151)

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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