June 2023


David Alpaugh

Anecdote of The Jar ........ by Wallace Stevens

Description: pasted-image.pdfI 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 disappoint.

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 art professionals.

"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.

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David Alpaugh 's newest collection of poetry is Seeing the There There  (Word Galaxy Press, 2023). Alpaugh's visual poems have been appearing monthly in Scene4 since February 2019. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he has been a finalist for Poet Laureate of California. For more of his poetry, plays, and articles , check the Archives.

©2023 David Alpaugh
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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