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Detuning the Blue Guitar

The poem is the poem, not its paraphrase.

-- Stevens, in a letter to Hi Simons

One of Wallace Stevens' most famous longer poems, The Man with the Blue Guitar, is very opaque. Here are some notes I took while trying to make sense of it.

On the dust jacket of the 1937 edition of TMWTBG, Stevens wrote:

[I]f we are entering a period in which poetry may be of first importance to the spirit, I have been making notes on the subject in the form of short poems during the past winter. These short poems, some thirty of them, form the other group, The Man with the Blue Guitar, from which the book takes its title. This group deals with the incessant conjunctions between things as they are and things imagined. Although the blue guitar is a symbol of the imagination, it is used most often simply as reference to the individuality of the poet, meaning by the poet any man of imagination.

Some say TMWTBG was inspired by Picasso's painting The Old Guitarist, and it's true that there does seem to be a reference to Picasso in part XV.

Helen Vendler has a great essay on the poem, titled "A Duet with the Undertaker," published in On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens' Longer Poems. Needless to say, it is so much better than this one that I would urge you to turn off the computer, step outside, walk to your local bookstore, and put in an order for the book.

Anyway. . . among other things I have appropriated Vendler's use of the word "canto" to describe the numbered sections of the poem. It may not be quite fair to do this since as you can see above, Stevens called this a "group" of "short poems", not a unified work or even a poem cycle. Also, several of the short poems that were written were excised from publication, not revised or replaced, leading me to doubt that there's any sort of exact Dantean calculus underlying this numbering system.

(I've transcribed the excised poems, later published in Opus Posthumous, here as Outtakes from the Blue Guitar.)

This poem has an unusually constrained vocabulary even for Stevens. It's my belief that the restricted vocabulary is meant to illustrate the limitations of the poet's craft, and Vendler has pointed out that the guitar is similarly a restricted instrument (compared to, say, a harmonium).

Motifs:


(Some of these appear in Stevens' other poems as well)
green - the color of nature/indescribable chaos/"venereal soil" blue - the color of thought and intellect
sun - involved, life-giving, taking part in human labor and pain (correlates with green) moon - remote, indifferent (blue)
things as they are things beyond us, yet ourselves

Cast of characters:

the man with the blue guitar - The poet/minstrel. Also the speaker.

the blue guitar - The poet's instrument, i.e. his imagination, about whose limitations the poet spends most of the poem complaining about.

the monster

the antagonist

the sea

Canto-by-canto paraphrase

I

The audience challenges the poet to conceive of reality exactly while simultaneously transfiguring it to be "beyond us, yet ourselves."

II

The poet speaks. Trying to describe a hero in his totality, he finds he can describe only details which must be pieced together to create something that's almost the entire man. But these limitations are inevitable when one plays the blue guitar.

III

But how nice it would be to violently disassemble the subject and throw the nerves in patterns on a screen, forging it into a pure idea (signified by blue).

IV

A guitar only has six strings, it's simply not enough to contain the entirety of the world's million people. Guitars buzz when they are faulty or out of tune.

V

Poetry is overhyped, yet without it there's only sterile perfection. God and religion have failed us, so the poet and his imperfect instrument must step in.

This is the first incidental mention of the antagonist, whom I think lurks in the excluded shadows.

VI

Describes the dream/the goal: a poetic representation of the world that simultaneously transcends and represents the world itself, thus preserving a snapshot of the world outside of time and "beyond the compass of change." Poetry becomes a haven for the actual.

VII

The moon's remoteness is simultaneously desirable (due to its purity and cleanliness) and sterile (because lack of engagement and lack of change is synonymous with the triumph of entropy/heat death). Stevens paraphrased this canto in a letter to Hi Simons: "I have a sense of isloation in the presence of the moon as in the presence of the sea. If I could experience the same sense in the presence of the sun, would I speak to the sun as I so often speak to the moon, calling it mercy and goodness? But if I could experience the same sense in the presence of the sun, my imagination grows cold at the thought of such complete detachment."

VIII

In contrast with the previous canto, this one is about life and passion, amidst which the poet's role may be overlooked but is still essential. But who are the "gold antagonists in air"? I wonder if that is a reference to Sailing to Byzantium.

IX

If canto VII is the thesis and canto VIII the antithesis, this canto is the synthesis: "The thought that grows out of a mood," describing the perfect fusion of the detached and the engaged.

X

This is a bravado that recalls Bantams in Pine-Woods

XI

Vendler summarizes this as "They kill each other": the living and the inorganic, man and nature, where the only constant thing and the only hope is time. I don't know. Basically what this canto says to me is that the organic hopes to fuse with the inorganic while still alive but is rejected by it -- the hope for fusion is a false or premature one. The reason this is relevant is that the poem overall is about the effort to boiling down things as they are to a still-living thought or abstraction, and this canto is a caution against reducing them to lifelessness.

XII-XIV

TO BE CONTINUED. . .

XV

RE the "hoard of destructions": Picasso is quoted as having said that in the past, pictures were completed in stages and were a sum of additions, whereas in his work, "a picture is a sum of destructions. I make a picture -- then I destroy it. In the end, though, nothing is lost: the red I removed from one place turns up somewhere else."

XVI-

TO BE CONTINUED. . .

April 8, 2004 in Original writing | Permalink