I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The Jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
Wallace Stevens is America's holiday poet. Poetry provided this busy,
corporate attorney with an avenue of much needed escape from his
mundane existence as vice president and attorney for the Hartford
Accident and Indemnity Company. The first thing I did when I bought
his selected poetry was thumb through it, savoring zany, intriguing
titles that included "The Emperor of Ice Cream," "Thirteen Ways of
Looking at a Blackbird," "The Worms at Heaven's Gate," and "The
Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man." Such titles promised that their
poems would be unlike any I had experienced before, and they didn't
When I first encountered "Anecdote of The Jar" in a high school
English textbook, I was mostly seduced by its sound. Composed in
iambic tetrameter and seasoned with rhyme (round, surround, around,
round, ground; hill, hill, sprawled, wild; air, everywhere, bare) it felt
not unlike a nursery rhyme or song. Songwriters know that their first
mission is to make the listener want to hear their song again and again.
Stevens verbal music made me want to read "Anecdote of The Jar" a
second time, and a third, and I have revisited it with increasing delight
for many years.
But what about the sense? An "anecdote," my dictionary says, "is a
short, usually amusing account of an incident, especially a personal or
autobiographical one." I began by reading the poem as if it were a
realistic story. While visiting Tennessee, the speaker put a jar on a hill
and noticed that it riveted his attention and that it transformed his
perception of the landscape. The previously "slovenly" wilderness
organized itself around the jar and became beautiful. As a child, I spent
lots of time exploring a lovely wood near my home and occasionally
came across cans, bottles, even automobile tires that had been
discarded there. Such litter appeared out of place and riveted my
attention. Though my experience was negative, I could identify with the
speaker and his experience in the wilderness.
Still, the story didn't seem literal, didn't feel quite "real." The speaker
wasn't a litterbug. He intentionally placed, not a beer bottle or soda can,
but a "jar," not in the woods off Clinton Avenue, near my home, in
Plainfield, New Jersey, but in "Tennessee." The object could be any sort
of container; the hand that placed it could be anyone's hand; and the
spot it was placed in could be anywhere, as long as it was in Tennessee.
Nor did the act of placing the jar seem careless or casual, but designed
to produce the significant effects the speaker went on to describe.
In college I learned that Stevens loved abstract art and suddenly saw a
different way to approach his poem. The speaker was acting very much
like an artist in the process of creating a landscape painting.
Perspective," Marion Boddy-Evans notes, "is what makes a painting
seem to have form, distance, and look 'real.' Viewpoint is the spot
(point) from which you, the artist, is looking at (viewing) the scene.
There's no right or wrong choice of viewpoint, it's simply the first
decision you make when beginning to plan your composition and figure
out the perspective."
Our speaker certainly established a viewpoint when he "placed" his jar
on that hill. The word "placed" suggests that his act was carefully
designed to create an effect upon him and the reader. The speaker is, in
effect, an artist, and we are his viewers. Reading Stevens poem again I
almost felt as if I were watching an artist create a landscape painting
with his words.
Later I became aware of a probable third dimension to Stevens' poem,
nurtured by his relationship with the avant garde artist Marcel
Duchamp, who came to New York for an extended visit in 1917. Wallace
and Marcel became friends, and both took part in a group that met
frequently to discuss art and poetry.
While in New York, Duchamp bought a urinal, entitled it "Fountain,"
signed it "R. Mutt," dated it "1917" and tried to place it in an art exhibit.
The organizers refused to display it, ruling that a urinal is "by no
definition a work of art." Undaunted, Duchamp had Arthur Stieglitz
photograph "Fountain." The photo was published in a literary journal
soon afterwards with the observation that the artist "took an ordinary
article of life" and "placed it so that its useful significance disappeared
under the new title and point of view," thereby creating "a new thought
for that object." Over time, copies of "Fountain" were replicated and
"placed" in galleries worldwide and in 2004 it was voted the most
influential artwork of the twentieth century by a panel of 500 British
"Anecdote of The Jar" was first published in Poetry in 1919. Stevens
would have been aware of the "Fountain" controversy, and the parallels
between his poem and Duchamp's art are striking. Duchamp tried to
place a modified plumbing fixture in an exhibit where many would
perceive it as disturbing and out of place. Stevens placed an empty jar
on a hill in the wilderness where it appeared to be "like nothing else" in
the otherwise natural setting.
Duchamp's "Fountain" raised the question "What is a work of art?"
Viewers squared off pro and con as to whether it deserved to be
exhibited. Steven's "Anecdote of The Jar" raised the questions "How do
human beings, manufacturers, artists affect nature?" Is man's intrusion
wholly positive? Most critics think the introduction of the jar improved
the wilderness, but Yvor Winters argues that being "gray and bare" and
incapable of nurturing "bird or bush" suggests that human intervention
destroys the natural environment.
Like Erwin Schrödinger (with his yet to be conceived cat) Stevens and
Duchamp, were conducting thought experiments designed to raise
questions about mankind's effects upon art and nature. Schrödinger's
cat is both dead and alive. Duchamp's urinal is both a receptacle for
human refuse and a work of art. Stevens' jar has both positive and
negative effects upon nature.
The word "Jar" can be a noun or a verb. As a noun it's the object the
speaker is offering for contemplation. But thought experiments can be
disruptive. As a verb it jars our expectations. It might be a beautiful
piece of pottery or a common jar that once held Tennessee moonshine.
When Stevens was writing his poem, one of the most popular jars was
manufactured by the Dominion company.
One should not miss Stevens' humorous personifications. First, the
wilderness is a "slovenly" oaf; then an enemy combatant (who "rose up"
to "surround that hill"); and finally, a tamed cat or dog who, "no longer
wild," "sprawled around" the jar. As for the jar, Stevens personifies it as
a tyrannical monarch or dictator who "took dominion everywhere,"
exercising complete control over his subjects. Robert Frost says that if a
poem is written "with outer seriousness" it must have "inner humor."
"Anecdote of The Jar" has both.
Stevens believed that the poet should "abstract himself" and "reality"
from the poem "which he does by placing it in the imagination." He
does not bring a bottle of Guinness stout or a Dominion jar directly into
his poem, as a novelist would do to create the illusion of realistic
fiction. He strips reality away and just brings in any "jar," allowing
readers to fill in its possible realities. "Poetry," Stevens says "is
abstraction bloodied (italics mine). The personifications noted above
are his way of bloodying his "jar" and "wilderness" to give them imaginative reality.
"The purpose of poetry," Stevens says," is to contribute to man's
happiness." Stevens accomplishes that by transporting us into verbal
vacationlands, providing multiple stories, ideas, and wordplay for us to
enjoy. Paul Mariani reminds us that Stevens believed people should
enjoy poetry as naturally as "a child likes snow."
We play in the snow. We build snowmen; we enjoy snowball fights; the
thrill of skiing downhill; enjoying an ever-changing landscape on cross
-country treks; looking out the window as many snowflakes—no two
alike—descend upon us through this poet's imaginative moonlight.