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Wallace Stevens, 1948

Merely Being Wallace Stevens

Kurt Luchs


he first time I read "Of Mere Being" by Wallace Stevens, I knew I had to memorize it. I could not proceed without this poem as part of my permanent mental furniture. No one but Stevens could have written it. In fact it's a tiny distillation of his lifelong mannerisms and obsessions into one concentrated dose, at twelve lines even shorter and more potent than a sonnet.

The exact date of composition is unknown, but most likely sometime in 1955, the last year of his life. One is therefore tempted, somewhat irrationally yet irresistibly, to view it as a summary or closing argument. Apparently Holly Stevens felt that way. When she edited a volume of her father's selected poetry in 1971, she titled it after the first line of this poem, The Palm at the End of the Mind, and gave it pride of place as the final poem in the book.

The title of the poem could serve as easily for a book of metaphysics or an essay by Francis Bacon, which is typical Wallace Stevens. He puts his philosophical preoccupations front and center. When originally published in Opus Posthumous in 1957, the last word of the first three-line stanza was "distance." Holly Stevens changed it back to the word used in the typescript draft, "décor." And that is a better word, such a Wallace Stevens word! Of course at the end of his mind there would still be something describable as a décor, and of course it would be bronze. Could this be the "bric-a-brac" that Robert Frost supposedly accused him of writing about?

The second stanza introduces the key image: "A gold-feathered bird / Sings in the palm, without human meaning, / Without human feeling, a foreign song." The movement from bronze to gold subtly suggests being ushered into the presence of majesty. There the mind stops in its tracks, transfixed. What lies at the end of the mind, beyond the last thought, is a vision all the more compelling because it simply bypasses the intellect, making itself known only to direct apprehension. Suddenly the "mere being" of the title takes on new weight. Stevens plays on both of the main meanings of "mere," as in "smallest or slightest," and also "pure." In the former sense, ordinary, unexpanded consciousness (a "reducing valve," as Aldous Huxley called it) presents some everyday sensory data to us and reason steps in to analyze and interpret. In the latter sense, though, "mere being," pure being, cannot be interpreted by reason.

Thus the powerful realization that opens stanza three: "You know then that it is not the reason / That makes us happy or unhappy." The first two stanzas consist of a single sentence flowing smoothly like a film. The final two stanzas consist of six sentences, more like a quick succession of still photographs. The last line of stanza three contains two uncharacteristically concise sentences of three words each: "The bird sings. Its feathers shine." We can almost picture the poet's mouth agape with wonder. He's already told us the bird is singing. The reiteration has a bit of a hypnotic effect, or hints that the poet himself is under some kind of spell, perhaps his own.

The fourth and final stanza builds on everything that has come before. In a way it recapitulates the structure of the entire poem. It's a fractal, self-similar to the whole. First we notice the palm, which "stands on the edge of space." What space? Where? Let's leave those questions for the moment. In the second line we perceive something in the palm, but not yet the bird: "The wind moves slowly in the branches." Note that Stevens doesn't focus on the movement of the branches, but rather on what is making them move. He intuits the invisible by means of the visible. Because of this, and because wind is frequently used in religious literature as a metaphor for the spirit, this line is often taken to refer to a movement of the spirit. I believe this reading is correct.

The last line of the poem takes us by surprise, because up until that point Stevens doesn't employ a lot of the usual poetic devices. It's all imagery and plain talk. Only in this line does he overtly use alliteration and internal rhyme: "The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down." Obviously "fire-fangled" is the centerpiece of this line. There are more than 20,000 words in the English language. Like Shakespeare, however, Stevens did not find that to be quite enough for his purposes, so he invented one. The neologism "fire-fangled" conveys the meaning of "decked out," especially in a foppish manner, as well as the more archaic root meaning of "a silly or fantastic contrivance" (see Merriam-Webster). With this melodious line the speech of the poem becomes a song of praise and awe.

Naturally, Stevens being Stevens, and poetry being poetry, there are layers in this thing. The poem implies many questions, giving no answers but itself. Can we ever perceive reality directly? And if we could, what difference would that make in our understanding of it? If we are forever trapped in our own heads, is that internal universe any smaller or less mysterious or complex than the one around us? What if any is the relation between the two?

Like other Stevens poems-about-poetry, "Of Mere Being" both explores and enacts these unspoken yet very present questions. Whether space (external or internal) can have an edge, and whether anything lies beyond that, the poet encompasses all of it, planting a palm with a dazzling unknown bird in its branches to mark the occasion. He transmutes reason's wandering and wondering into primal wonder.

Kurt Luchs

Kurt Luchs