The Catholic Thing
An Aside on Guavas Print E-mail
By David Warren   
Saturday, 09 August 2014

Wallace Stevens, famously, set a jar in Tennessee. (See his Collected Poems.)  It was round, and on a hill, and it made the slovenly wilderness surround that hill.

Just now I looked up his “Anecdote of the Jar” in “the Wicked Paedia” as I call it, and discovered to my shock and horror that there are numerous interpretations of this poem. These include a “new critical” perspective, which makes it a text about producing texts; a “poststructural” perspective, about temporal and linguistic disjunction; a feminist perspective, about male dominance; a “cultural critique,” about industrial imperialism; and an old-fashioned, literate observation by the esteemed Helen Vendler, which notes allusion to Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but then wanders into speculation about what Stevens might mean by it.

None of these interpretations is correct, incidentally. But I will conceal the correct interpretation for fear of exciting further controversy.

Suffice to say, the poet Stevens was telling the truth. Moreover, it is a demonstrable truth, just as he asserted; indeed, an easily demonstrable truth. Change the terms slightly, and everyone should see this.

Place a 100-storey banking tower in the middle of a town in which the highest thing was a church steeple, and it will change the nature of that town. The town will begin to surround it. It will appear to exist in a relation to that tower; and not just any relation, but a dependent relation. Stevens’ jar was a more subtle and elegant gesture.

Note that he did not specify what kind of jar. The scholars now presenting a Dominion-brand canning jar (apparently common in Tennessee in 1918), should be told that if he meant a canning jar he would have said a canning jar. Round, and on a hill, was all he said. And, “tall and of a port in air.” His use of the word “dominion” would have been a (typically Stevensian) irony.

Wallace Stevens

Perhaps it is a good thing that “English Lit” faculties are wandering into extinction. They were fun, back when the scholars were in awe of the poets, and never sure they understood them, and would spend years seeking a better understanding by tiny, cumulative increments of learning. But now that they know better than the poet, they may all go to heck.

Which is why I put “esteemed” before the name of Helen Vendler, as well as mentioning that her work is “old-fashioned.” I have read little of her, but benefited from what I have read, even (perhaps especially) where I disagreed with her. She invariably supplies some little fact, or calls attention to some little twist, that enhances one’s appreciation, and therefore understanding.

She is not the aesthetic and intellectual equivalent of a thug, in other words. Whereas, our English faculties seem all to be, currently, under the direction of ideological thugs, seeking to reduce poetry to the (radically) unpoetic.

My title, however, promised an aside on guavas, and I would not wish to disappoint patient reader. Too, this is a Catholic website, and I must not overlook the theological angle.

Two days ago, in Toronto’s Kensington mixed ethnic street market, I encountered a considerable number of guavas, set out in a barrow and very cheap. Let me specify that they were bright green, unripened guavas. I was riveted by the sight of them, and also by the scent. The reader who has never smelled a guava should go out immediately and find one.

Later, she may consider eating it. They soften like pears: the skin is edible, and the flesh one may tell by touch. Too, the skin fades to a paler green, drifting into yellowness, with an undertone of pink. Verily, should the reader paint in watercolors, she will take endless pleasure in the study of guavas, which, in turn, will test her utmost skills as a mixer of pigments.

For God, as I am reminded daily, puts casually all watercolorists to shame. He paints the kind of beauty that is hidden in plain sight, and the task of the human artist is to discover, and expound it – to pull it out of the air, as it were. It takes extraordinary genius to see what is right in front of your eyes, and extraordinary skill to reveal it to others.

And color is just the beginning of it: for God also draws.

But let me “cut to the chase,” as we say in North America. I bought about a dozen of these guavas, and on returning to my flat, set them in a bowl on my kitchen counter, there to remain for several days as they ripened.

My flat smells currently of guavas. This is especially true of the kitchen. It takes me back to paradise, by way of childhood memories of Asia. (Although the guava was originally a New World fruit.) It reinterprets the heat of a continental summer, in an almost salaciously tropical way.

A good Catholic friend, who had never tasted a guava, asked somewhat whimsically if Saint Paul had included them in his list of things of good report – true, beautiful, and so forth.

Yes, I reflected, Saint Paul was very strong on guavas; though truth be told, the Arawak Indians had not shown the courtesy of delivering any to Tarsus, or by Paul’s time to anywhere else in the Old World – so that Paul's “preferential option for guavas” had to be expressed in the most abstract and philosophical Greek terms.

I’m sure he must have blessed the Portuguese and Spanish fleets that later sailed to the western Indies, in order to fetch some guavas.

There are other ways to look at guavas, at jars, at Arawaks in their time and place (disappeared now like the Christians and Yazidis of Iraq), at sailing ships and many other things. I cannot go more deeply into the theological ramifications; I leave that to others.

But let me say that the scent of my guavas comes into all of this.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at:
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (16)Add Comment
written by schm0e, August 09, 2014
This the sort of sublime piece that forbids ordinary people from commenting, lest they find themselves having been made unwitting participants in some ironic trick.
written by Randall, August 09, 2014
Lovely, Mr. Warren.
written by Carlos, August 09, 2014
Cut them and eat them with thin slices of white cheese.
written by Randall, August 09, 2014
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

from Stevens' 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird'
written by frkloster, August 09, 2014
I was saddened to see the use of the universal masculine pronoun abandoned in this article. It is very distracting to see that facet of the English language abandoned for such an arbitrary reason as feminism.
written by Lawrence Hall, August 09, 2014
Well said, Mr. Warren! Thank you!

Jay Parini, in WHY POETRY MATTERS, writes that poetry must be political (pp. 21-22, 121). I fear that he means that poetry must always serve the propaganda wants of the dominant power structure.

To argue that poetry is not always or even often political is to make a political statement, so Professor Parini does seem to have the argument both ways.

Professor Parini's work is read by thousands, and deservedly so (he is good), and my work is read by hundreds, and, again, deservedly so; still, I will not be a good comrade. I hope Professor Parini and others will withdraw from obedience to fashion and power, and write of (it sounds cliche'-sodden when I say it; you could do it better) truth and beauty.
written by Brad Miner, August 09, 2014
I think of the last stanza of "Ars Poetica" by Archibald MacLeish:

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.
written by pgepps, August 09, 2014
I am forced to agree with schm0e, that this column seems to be a trick played on the reader. I fear that the estimable and enjoyable David Warren has stumbled into the trap of doing what he criticizes, preferring an elusive and allusive irony to honest criticism.

Surely, there is plenty of bad criticism out there--and plenty of bad poetry, too. In an era when criticism is written to justify the critic's paycheck to other critics, and poetry is written to justify the poet's MFA student loans to other MFA program participants, we are desperately in need of good criticism to answer bad poetry--and good poetry to confound bad criticism.

Warren justly argues that realist metaphysics, and ready acceptance of the gifts God gives us, are necessary to good art of any kind. Huzzah! Let us close ranks.

It seems a bridge too far, though, to suggest--and possibly I am reading Warren harder than he wants me to, I confess--that "all true critics" are mimeticists, judging art by its conformity to [consensus view of] empirical reality. Surely great art also declares realities beyond nature, gracious realities which heal and perfect nature, and which also therefore confront the wounds of nature. Would you not agree? And surely competent criticism recognizes that "literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint," as T.S. Eliot so memorably posits. Must you not agree?

It seems to me that supine "appreciation" simply lets bad poetry, and the bad philosophy that accompanies it, go unanswered. Warren objects to criticism because there is so much bad criticism, like those who object to philosophy because there is so much "philosophy and empty deceit" in the world.

The Catholic critic and the Catholic poet will have to be more than mere mimeticists, and more than mere "appreciators," in order to co-operate with grace and confound bad critics and poets.

The results may be jarring.
written by Benedict Augustine, August 09, 2014
I agree with the first comment, but I'll hazard a comment nonetheless. I found this essay rather frivolous and self-indulgent. I learned that Mr. Warren likes guavas and thinks today's literary scholars are full of baloney; and yet this somehow took so many paragraphs to establish. Warren would do well to learn from the mistakes of fatuous intellectuals and actually make a relevant point next time.
written by schm0e, August 09, 2014
frkloster: exactly. that's what I thought was some sort of "ironic trick".
written by DeGaulle, August 10, 2014
Some commentators seem to be accusing Mr Warren of practising "smart-alec" post-modernism and even of enthusing about feminism. I recommend they become a little more familiar with his writing.
written by Chris in Maryland, August 10, 2014
I love David Warren's essays.
written by David Warren, August 10, 2014
I was writing in defence of poetry. It has many enemies, & is widely feared.

To Brad's wonderful quote from the American, MacLeish, let me add this snippet from the Czech, Nezval:

The decorator is mixing his plaster.
He's lit an oil lamp on top of the stepladder.
It is the moon.
It moves like an acrobat.
Wherever it appears it causes panic.

As to Stevens, who like my father died clutching a Catholic crucifix, another of the "Thirteen Ways" from which Randall quotes:

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

To pGepps in particular, my very point was that we cannot genuinely criticize poetry until we have mastered the "supine" appreciation of it. I am very certain Mr T.S. Eliot would agree with me.

As to gender, I will continue to refer to ships as "she"; to persons generally as "he"; to Gentle Reader always as "he"; but to Patient Reader as "she."

Of course all this gets me into trouble with the Jansenists.
written by Stanley Anderson, August 10, 2014
Wonderful column today, ironic trick or not (which I certainly don't think to be the case). Like Anthony Esolen's column from a while back that reminded me of a Photoshop image I had created earlier of a variation on a Norman Rockwell painting, today's column reminds me of another Photoshop image I created just a few days ago. In this case, the guava morphed into an avocado in a curious manner. I am reluctant to post another "forbidden" link (that was graciously accepted before), but if one goes to the link from that previous column and then "goes right" a few clicks to the "avocado" image, it can be seen there.

(Here is the link which can be deleted by admin of course -- I certainly don't want to abuse the system.)
written by joe, August 10, 2014
I think the Stevens poem's meaning can be summed up in this line by e.e. Cummings:

"A world-of-made-is-not-a-world-of-born."


written by joe, August 11, 2014

Stevens supports the poem you cite with I think with his own definition of poetry or of Truth in the aphoristic line:

"Let Be, be the finale of seem."


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