Wallace Stevens's Use of Narrative Markers in Harmonium/Wallace Stevens Se Gebruik Van Narratiewe Merkers in Harmonium

Article excerpt


In this article Wallace Stevens's first published volume of poetry, "Harmonium" is examined in order to demonstrate that by his deployment of narrative markers in key poems of the collection his quintessentially modernist lyrics challenge the restrictive figurative range of hegemonic enlightenment cultural theory and practice. In so doing I advance the argument of my article on Sidney's sonnet sequence which suggests that awareness of strategic rhetorical figuration leads to a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between lyric and narrative.


In hierdie artikel word Wallace Stevens se eerste gepubliseerde poesiebundel, "Harmonium" ondersoek, om aan te toon hoe sy hoofsaaklik modernistiese lirieke, die beperkende figuurlike reikwydte van die hegemoniese kulturele teorie, en praktyk van die Verligting deur sy gebruik van narratiewe merkers in sleutelgedigte in die bundel uitgedaag word. Deur dit aan te toon versterk ek die argument in my artikel oor Sidney se sonnetreeks, wat aantoon dat 'n bewustheid van strategiese retoriese vormbepaling tot 'n meer genuanseerde begrip van die verhouding tussen die liriek en narratief lei.

I. Harmonium and Modernism

Wallace Stevens's first published collection, Harmonium (1923) is regarded by many as a quintessential instance of modernist lyric poetry. It appeared at almost the same time as other great modernist works: Joyce's Ulysses (1922), Eliot's The waste land (1922) and Rilke's Duino elegies (1923). Like so many of his American contemporaries, Stevens had visited the watershed 1913 Armory show in New York, when post-impressionist works of Duchamp, Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Kandinsky, Munch and Brancusi, among others, were seen for the first time on that side of the Atlantic, and experienced the exhilarating liberation from what was thought of as the stifling complacencies of bourgeois culture.

Perkins (1976:293-297) quite rightly points out that poetic Modernism is varied and complex and cannot be understood as the reaction to any particular event at any one time. Its immediate roots lie in the late nineteenth century and its discontents. Even more significantly, perhaps, it can be traced back to the Romantic poets who resorted to the subjective in the face of what was seen as the increasingly oppressive headnotes positivism of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but who largely still owed allegiance to assumptions about art as representational and the need to adhere to post-Enlightenment canons of sequential coherence. (1) But whatever its origins, the cultural elitism of the intelligentsia could no longer accommodate itself to the exhausted paradigms of a materialistic world seemingly bereft of coherence, which led to radical confrontations and challenges of artistic norms. Central to the project which we call Modernism was the perception and representation of fragmentation and alienation that often went hand in hand with an exuberance and elan at living unhindered in the technologically liberated twentieth century.

A poem such as "Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird", bears witness to an exuberant celebration of fragmentation. The sequence of thirteen haiku-like poems is centripetally connected by the motif of the blackbird (or should we understand this as the black bird, the melodious songbird that can also be thought of as a disturbing figuration of death and mortality?). Even though there is a clear liaison between the individual sections in terms of ideas of stasis and change, the beautiful and the sinister, and singularity, unity and multiplicity, for example, the evocative moments of each haiku wilfully refuse outright connections with the others. In that sense, the poem as a whole has much in common with the cubist fragmentation of Braque and Picasso, and most especially with the jeu d'esprit so characteristic of Duchamp. (2)

   Among twenty snowy mountains,
   The only moving thing
   Was the eye of the black bird. … 


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