September 12, 2006

Another poem analysis

ANECDOTE OF THE JAR - a discussion

This poem I found very difficult at first. It made not a bit of sense to me, though for some reason I rather liked it, I cannot for the life of me say why, since it struck me as supremely clunky, especially at the end. I discussed it with a friend, but we came to no conclusions and in the end, had no idea what it was "about." So I was still in the dark. This strange little poem kept bothering me and bothering me (this was before the internet could have helped me figure it out) until one night I had a dream about it. In the dream, somehow, it came to me that the jar (you'll see) stood for man and man's civilization, and when I woke, suddenly the poem made sense. Now I cannot tell you that the analysis that follows is "canonical" -- it may be that it is or would be considered completely wrong. But it was the one I came up with that best fit the words as I read them. I do not know how others interpret the poem, except for one person, who totally disagreed with me and said the jar represents nature! So much for certainty...But with that caveat, here is the poem and my analysis.

Wallace Stevens

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 every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

You'll note that the poem begins with "I", and this "I" placed a round jar upon a hill in Tennessee. It -- presumably the jar -- made the slovenly wilderness surround the hill.
Now what does this tell us? Well, first of all, "I" is single, a single man and if he placed a jar on a hill in Tennessee, and the jar represents, as my dream implied, civilization, than the "I" could have started a community there, a family, a town, something, some group of people or some form of civilization, even a farm or a house. It is round because nature is rarely perfectly round, and so this is an unnatural shape (except for the planets) ie something man creates. But even more unnatural is the fact that it "made the slovenly wilderness" -- wilderness being slovenly says a lot about the attitude of this narrator towards nature, though I think he is being ironic, or taking on the attitude of those who think that way -- "surround that hill" -- that is, it forced nature to do something against its will, surrounding the hill but not climbing it, perhaps by tilling the soil or putting in a lawn or building on it.

Then, he explains this: the wilderness -- that is, what is slovenly and wild -- rose up to it, but not past it, and sprawled around, but was "no longer wild" -- the jar had tamed the wildness of the wilderness, just as farming tames nature and as civilization tames the land.

The jar was round ie artifical, we are told again, and tall "and of a port in air" suggesting tall buildings, even skyscrapers. Wallace Stevens lived in the city of Hartford where there were technically few skyscrapers in his day but some very tall buildings and surely knew NYC.

Then finally, we are told, the jar "took dominion every where" not just that hill, just as man does, especially Americans. The jar is now "gray and bare" ie sterile and barren, dead. It harbors neither bird or bush. This means that it too is dead, that by killing nature it has killed some part of itself. "like nothing else in Tennessee." I could take the last line to mean that Tennessee for the most part is still wild, except for this hill, but this is phrased so strangely that this is hard to say for sure. I vacillate between that and, my preference, saying that he means that ALL of Tennessee is as sterile and dead as that hill. But does he mean Tennessee, or the whole country, even the world? I leave that to you.

So is this a poem about man defeating nature, about civilization killing nature and killing the wilderness within itself at the same time? I think so, and I think I have proved why. But what Wallace Stevens meant by it, I can't say for sure. I know that at least one person had a completely opposite interpretation, so I know I might be mistaken in this one. I'll have to check out the "received", or accepted one on the internet, if I can find it. Or perhaps ET will tell me. (Please, Paula?) I will let you know what I learn, as I do not want you to have gotten something from me that is outlandishly wrong!

If any of you have other ideas about this poem, do share them. I am not overly attached to my interpretation and would love to hear what you guys think. Don't be shy! I am new at this sort of thing, myself. Truly. I did none of this in college and am just fudging it now, doing my best simply from reading and thinking about the poem's words and how it reads out loud and so forth.

Posted by pamwagg at September 12, 2006 08:09 PM


Dear Pam,

Yes, I do agree with you that it's a poem about civilization overtaking nature and leaving things barren.
I think it's interesting to note that the poem begins so innocently, just a man (I'm assuming it's the poet), a jar, a hill and the wilderness. But right away the jar, and not the man, confronts the wilderness and tames it. But why the word "slovenly" to describe the wilderness. Is the "I" of the poem finding the wilderness willfully lazy and messy? Yet,in contrast to the "slovenly" wilderness, the jar, in place of a man, becomes monstrous: "It took dominion everywhere." Civilization takes dominion everywhere the way the wilderness once did, but where wilderness spawned more life (including mankind), man spawns barrenness. The jar begins as a simple tool for drinking and morphs into something huge and dangerous. The poet seems to divert the attention from the "I" of the poem to the anthropomorphic jar and I wonder why. The poet's criticism seems to be more with the product of civilization than with the producers. And yet the destruction of nature in Tenessee at the end of the poem must be a form of caution and criticism. Still the "I" seems to be ambivalent, he avoids personal responsibility and hides from any recriminations and yet he poetically expresses a problem that could be averted elsewhere. I think the poem is an interesting but unsettling mixture of detachment and passion. It sort of pulls in different directions. It's deceptively simple,yet a challenge. Thanks again Pam.

Kate :)

Posted by: Kate K. at September 13, 2006 06:24 PM

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