I still remember the first time I read Wallace Stevens’s “The Man on The Dump.”
I was an undergraduate taking an advanced poetry workshop from a fairly recent Yale Younger Poet Awardee. And I was nervous. We were supposed to bring a published poem we admired to every class and explain why we liked it. I had recently discovered Stevens and the famous poems from Harmonium. To me, these poems were fun but flashy. I knew I wanted to pimp a Stevens poem, but I didn’t want “The Emperor of Ice Cream” or “A High Toned Old Christian Woman.” So, I started scanning the titles of individual poems from The Collected Poems in hopes of finding something that would . . . surprise.
My first reaction was minor disbelief. I couldn’t believe the range of subjects. The titles ran the spectrum from intense earnestness (“Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”) to the goofy (“No Possum, No Sop, No Taters”) to the inscrutable (“Add This To Rhetoric”). Ultimately, I landed on “The Man on the Dump,” whose title reminded me of Eliot’s Wasteland. I thought it might be a similarly studied meditation on modern society as junkyard, which to an undergraduate English major is as dreamy as it gets.
To this day, I don’t think I’ve had an experience quite like reading that poem. It was similar to the first time I saw Raising Arizona—I just didn’t quite know what I was seeing. Drama? Farce? Something else? I was utterly confused but even more intrigued. I couldn’t stop reading, and I recognized instantly a virtuoso performance.
Reading Stevens is unlike any other project, and yet, it is a project so many of us take on. As the 2009 anthology of Stevens-inspired poems, Visiting Wallace, suggests, Stevens’s presence is thoroughly present in contemporary poetry. According to the preface, “no other poet has been more influential upon American poets during the past 30 years. . . .in the recent Poet’s Bookshelf anthologies more poets cited work by Wallace Stevens for shaping their poetic art than work by any other writer.” In my mind, and I think in the mind of most contemporary poets, it is Stevens who has established the lyric aesthetic for this century and the last. To interact with him, to co-Stevens as I like to call it, is to pledge a commitment to the lyric and all of its glorious ambiguities. We admire Eliot and Williams and Pound and Crane but contemporary poets wrestle with them less. It’s easy to mimic Williams or to jettison Pound, but Stevens is more complex. Despite the perceived abstraction of his poetry and the ongoing disagreements among his scholars, contemporary American poetry is saturated with the Stevensian echo. Even in the work of people as diverse as Rachel Loden, Adrienne Rich, Charles Wright, Susan Howe, or Terrance Hayes (see his fantastic “Snow for Wallace Stevens”), you hear Stevens’s voice.
It is that notion of voice that captivated me in “The Man on the Dump.” There is no opening in modern poetry like the first stanza:
Day creeps down. The moon is creeping up.
The sun is a corbeil of flowers the moon Blanche
Places there, a bouquet. Ho-ho … The dump is full
Of images. Days pass like papers from a press.
The bouquets come here in the papers. So the sun,
And so the moon, both come, and the janitor’s poems
Of every day, the wrapper on the can of pears,
The cat in the paper-bag, the corset, the box
From Esthonia: the tiger chest, for tea.
The funky repetition in line one bleeds into the cool sun metaphor in line two, which, amazingly, flows into one of the most unexpected interjections in all of poetry: “Ho-ho.” The reader stops right there, uncertain if the goofiness is intended or accidental. But then, that astonishing simile, “Days pass like papers from a press” drops the hammer, and we are nailed to the poem.
The juxtaposition of the bouquets in paper and dead cats in paper along with the janitor’s poems, also made of paper—which Stevens rhythmically reminds us are our days—is so smart and so perfectly rendered and so odd, we feel both lost and found.
The rest of the poem plays with this tension between the refined and the ridiculous, the sublime and the shitty. Greatness, garbage. It asks what we want, what we need of this thing we are all calling “poetry.”
Beyond that, “The Man on the Dump” is also a tour-de-force from a sonic perspective. Stevens may have the best ear of any modern poet, and he is certainly one of the masters of the one-syllable word. For a heroic performance, check out the final stanza of “Esthétique du Mal,” in which Stevens lines up close to 30 monosyllables in a row. He comes close in “The Man on The Dump,” but here, it’s less about number and more about effect:
One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.
One beats and beats for that which one believes.
That’s what one wants to get near.
In three lines, only one two-syllable word: believes. That difference lends the word (and its associations) unusual emphasis, and all of those single syllables rhythmically reinforce the beating of the tin can.
Stevens demonstrates here what I call a modulation of tone. The poem makes astonishing leaps from one line to the next—mini-volta after mini-volta—that swerve the poem and the reader’s experience in unexpected directions. By the time you get to the final list of questions, you think the poem can’t take you any new place, but it does:
Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon, one finds
On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve:
Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say
Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull
The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?
Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.
Where was it, actually, you first heard of the truth? It’s such a great question, you almost forget the various poetic turns that have delivered you here.
But, writer, here is where we sit:
On the dump, beating our lard pail for that which we believe.
It is that incessant beautiful beating of Stevens’s entire body of poetry that is at once both untranslatable and unforgettable; that I did and still do (perhaps more than ever) want to get near.
For poetry, fiction, interviews, and art song, visit our magazine at http://www.memorious.org