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.
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.