In the opening years of the Twenty-First Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the Starbucks coffee-houses one pudgy, well-fed paunch named Gary Witt, more lethargic than confused, and yet more confused than talented, who, unlike most of his boyhood friends who had received solid, pragmatic training at Northeastern A&M or Tri-County Diesel Academy, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with guns and gangstahs, aclang with jarring raps and bling, and string-taut with hoes and rakes and other such faux pas similes stretched to the snapping point. –Ebenezer Cooke, with apologies to John Barth
Poetry is a Destructive Force
By Wallace Stevens
That's what misery is,
Nothing to have at heart,
It is to have or nothing.
It is a thing to have,
A lion, an ox in his breast,
To feel it breathing there.
Corazon, stout dog,
Young ox, bow-legged bear,
He tastes its blood, not spit.
He is like a man
In the body of a violent beast.
Its muscles are his own...
The lion sleeps in the sun.
Its nose is on its paws.
It can kill a man.
I’ve wondered why this one by Stevens didn’t make it onto this site. Here are my thoughts on the poem. I would be most interested in others’ thoughts as well.
First off, there is a certain irony when the sentence, “Poetry is a destructive force” is uttered by a VP and General Counsel of the Hartford Insurance Co. I can only imagine what was going on in his life when WS first thought of this sentence on his way to the office one morning.
What I love about this poem is the series of reversals in meanings that occurs. I believe it is in this constant shifting and reversal that we discover the Truth behind the title. By reversing meaning, but using the same words to express that reversal, Stevens uses the poem itself as a destructive force. Let me try to show you what I mean.
The sentence structure of the first stanza produces a nice double entendre. Misery is (both) to have nothing at heart, and nothing to have at heart. But then (in the first reversal) it becomes imperative to have misery (it is to have or nothing) . Without misery we have nothing—and there is some truth to that in the sense that without misery there can be no concept of happiness. Yin and yang.
So then Stevens starts in with the metaphors. Misery is more than something we need. It is a lion or an ox breathing inside “him.” (I take it that “he” is “Corazon, ” but then Stevens could be referring simply to the Spanish word for heart.) Well, there’s a big difference between a lion and an ox. Both are strong, yes, but one is strong like a predator, and the other is strong yet passive. And again, there is truth here: misery can be a predator or it can have the kind of stubborn presence that just weighs down the soul.
Stevens doesn’t stop here, though. The conflict between the person and misery is further described as taking place within one's very gut, and marked by the reversal between blood and spit. Corazon tastes the animal’s (misery's) blood instead of his own spit. A confusion of identity begins. The animal “inside” is mixing its elements with the man, Corazon.
But then Corazon, again by metaphor, becomes the beast. Stout dog, bow-legged bear. The passage reads like a morphing of sorts. But the reversal (reversal number two) comes in the notion that the beast is no longer just “inside” Corazon. Corazon has taken on other attributes of the beast. Misery, which was once contained in him, now does more than consume him, it actually merges its identity with him. Misery, which started out as something not to have, becomes something we need, and then something inside us, and then something we are.
Then, in a third reversal, “he” (Corazon) is no longer strictly a man, “he is like a man/ In the body of a violent beast.” The animal, which was once within, is now containing the man. We are, at last, seen as being consumed by misery. But the identity between ourselves and misery is still there: “Its muscles are his own.”
And then (I may have lost count but I think this is reversal number four) the man is gone and all that remains is the lion sleeping with its nose on its paws. Tranquility at last. Misery can kill a man.
So, bottom line, Stevens here is not telling us how poetry is a destructive force, he is showing us.
Of course, this is just my opinion. I could be wrong.
Read more Stevens. Tell me what you think.