I have thought of my son Jonathan in relation to this poem, ever since he picked out this blue Dean guitar at my brother-in-law’s music shop. We were looking for laptops at the time, for a birthday present, but he said he would be happier to upgrade to a better guitar instead. How could I turn down a request like that?
I had some difficulty with the editing, as I wanted to splice in bits of Jonathan’s guitar playing, but the editing software was giving me fits. As it is, the poem is one of the longest in this series, at about five minutes. For the entire poem, you should click here.
For the abridged version that I bring you in the video, just scroll down as usual. The entire thing is 33 Cantos. I bring you Cantos 1 – 6, 12, 20, 32, and 33. I think that keeps enough continuity without taking up all our data. As for meaning? You are kidding me, right? You want me to explicate this monster after the nightmare of editing I had tonight?
Well, okay, just this much. The poem was written in 1937, but they say it was inspired by Stevens’ looking at the painting at the top of this post, Picasso’s “Old Guitarist.” I’m not sure I buy it. I mean, in the image, it’s not the guitar but the guitarist himself who seems blue. But I suppose it’s possible. The poem does seem to deal with the struggle between modernism and realism, presented it seems as a tension between art and reality.
The poem seems to be in at least two voices, but I confess that I get a little lost after a while trying to decide whose voice is whose. But perhaps that is Stevens arguing with himself over these issues? Maybe he is as uncertain as I am.
I apologize to my friends who think I hate difficult poetry. I don’t have a problem with difficulty, but with bullshit—the kind of poetry that is difficult just so that the poet can sit smugly within the impenetrable armor of his or her ego and leave the readers to cipher it out on their own. In my mind, the best art involves some give and take between the artist and the reader, viewer, listener.
Instead of being walled off, I feel drawn into this poem. It’s magical and intriguing in its ambiguity. I like a puzzle when it’s one that also delights and interests me. Often it’s been in vogue in recent times for artists to shit something incomprehensible out and leave the reader to dig through the pile, looking for pearls. But ambiguity is not the same as intentional obfuscation. In fact, I think a bit of ambiguity allows the reader to bring something of their own to the work, and that ought to be embraced.
FROM “THE MAN WITH THE BLUE GUITAR”
by Wallace Stevens
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”
I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.
I sing a hero’d head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,
Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.
If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,
Say that it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.
Ah, but to play man number one,
To drive the dagger in his heart,
To lay his brain upon the board
And pick the acrid colors out,
To nail his thought across the door,
Its wings spread wide to rain and snow,
To strike his living hi and ho,
To tick it, tock it, turn it true,
To bang it from a savage blue,
Jangling the metal of the strings…
So that’s life, then: things are they are?
It picks its way on the blue guitar.
A million people on one string?
And all their manner in the thing,
And all their manner, right and wrong,
And all their manner, weak and strong?
And that’s life, then” things as they are,
This buzzing of the blue guitar.
Do not speak to us of the greatness of poetry,
Of the torches wisping in the underground,
Of the structure of vaults upon a point of light.
There are no shadows in our sun,
Day is desire and night is sleep.
There are no shadows anywhere.
The earth, for us, is flat and bare.
There are no shadows. Poetry
Exceeding music must take the place
Of empty heaven and its hymns,
Ourselves in poetry must take their place,
Even in the chattering of your guitar.
A tune beyond us as we are,
Yet nothing changed by the blue guitar;
Ourselves in the tune as if in space,
Yet nothing changed, except the place
Of things as they are and only the place
As you play them, on the blue guitar,
Placed so, beyond the compass of change,
Perceived in a final atmosphere;
For a moment final, in the way
The thinking of art seems final when
The thinking of god is smoky dew.
The tune is space. The blue guitar
Becomes the place of things as they are,
A composing of senses of the guitar.
Tom-tom, c’est moi. the blue guitar
And I are one. The orchestra
Fills the high hall with shuffling men
High as the hall. The whirling noise
Of a multitude dwindles, all said,
To his breath that lies awake at night.
I know that timid breathing. Where
Do I begin and end? And where,
As I strum the thing, do I pick up
That which momentously declares
Itself not to be I and yet
Must be. It could be nothing else.
What is there in life except one’s ideas.
Good air, good friend, what is there in life?
Is it ideas that I believe?
Good air, my only friend, believe,
Believe would be a brother full
Of love, believe would be a friend
Friendlier than my only friend,
Good air. Poor pale, poor pale guitar…
Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark
That it is this or that it is that,
But do not use the rotted names.
How should you walk in that space and know
Nothing of the madness of space,
Nothing of its jocular procreations?
Throw the lights away. Nothing must stand
Between you and the shapes you take
When the crust of shape has been destroyed.
You as you are? You are yourself.
The blue guitar surprises you.
That generation’s dream, aviled
In the mud, in Monday’s dirty light,
That’s it, the only dream they knew,
Time in its final block, not time
To come, a wrangling of two dreams.
Here is the bread of time to come,
Here is its actual stone. The bread
Will be our bread, the stone will be
Our bed and we shall sleep by night.
We shall forget by day, except
The moments when we choose to play
The imagined pine, the imagined jay.