Wallace Stevens

snowy-day-1

In “The Snow Man”, Stevens emphasizes the importance of perspective. Some people may look at this picture of a snowy day, and see an opportunity to have fun: snowball fights, sledding, building snowmen. Others may look at the same scene and see an annoyance: frostbite, trudging through mountains of snow to get to school or work, shoveling  it in their front yards. As Stevens says, “one must have the mind of winter” (1) in order to have a positive outlook on the snow. Our perspective shapes the way we see the world, and what we make of life.

The speaker in “Sunday Morning” seems to be in the middle of a religious funk. It’s Sunday, and she is enjoying a relaxing morning (Easy Like Sunday Morning). She can’t decide whether or not to feel guilty about missing church. She doesn’t think about God very much, but she likes the idea of a blissful heaven. But she also thinks that Earthly nature is just fine, and maybe she doesn’t really need to worry about going to heaven. Maybe she would be happier if she just lived in the moment, and didn’t worry about the past or the future. The line “Death is the mother of beauty” (lines 63 and 89) is repeated twice, so it must be important, but I’m not really sure what to make of it.

There’s a lot going on in this poem, and it’s pretty difficult to unpack. But from what I got from it, the speaker was having doubts about whether or not to continue practicing Christianity. I can relate to this. I was raised Christian – dragged to church every Sunday and CCD every Wednesday for the bulk of my childhood. As a child, I never really thought to doubt the teachings of my religion, but as I grew older, I began to question whether I really wanted to be Christian and live by Christian ideals. Do I want to raise my future children with Christianity? It’s definitely something I’ll have to think about.

In “Anecdote of the Jar”, a jar is placed on a hill and proceeds to take over the world. The poem alternates between depicting the jar as something to be feared (“it took dominion everywhere”)  and something pretty ordinary  (“the jar was gray and bare”) (10). I interpreted the jar as representing human-made objects that are taking over the beauty of the natural world.

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William Carlos Williams

a-bleak-day-1888“Spring and All” sort of reminds me of Robert Frost’s poems, in that it describes nature in a very detail-rich way. The poem starts off in a pretty depressing way – “by the road to the contagious hospital” (1). I don’t like going to the hospital (I don’t think anyone does), so I would certainly not want to be anywhere near a “contagious hospital.” The bleak descriptions continue – there are “blue mottled clouds” “a cold wind” and “muddy fields brown with dried weeds” just in the first stanza. With these details, readers can easily imagine themselves outside on a cold, depressing, winter day. To make matters worse, you’re on the road to a contagious hospital. Looks like a pretty bad day. By the end of the poem, however, there appears to be some speck of hope amidst the dreary scenery: “the profound change has come upon them: rotten, they grip down and begin to awaken” (25-28). As the title suggests, this appears to be a description of the beginning of spring. Winter brings death, and spring brings rebirth. This rebirth does not give the poem a completely cheerful tone, however. Williams also describes the “stark dignity of entrance” (24). The hard sounds of those two words – stark dignity – suggest a sort of dreariness amidst the rebirth.

The poem “To Elsie” confused me. I wasn’t sure how the speaker felt about this Elsie figure (who apparently was a mentally handicapped nursemaid), or why the poem was addressed to her specifically. The speaker seems pretty critical of American ideals (“the pure products of America go crazy”), which is similar to e.e. cummings and Dos Passos.

“The Descent” is similar to the previous poem “Spring and All” in that it describes a new awakening after a period of despair. The formatting of the poem goes well with the title: it shows a descent down the page. The descent described in the poem seems to be a descent into the speaker’s mind and the unpleasant memories that live there. However, even among these bad memories, there is hope: “No defeat is made up entirely of defeat – since the world it opens is always a place formerly unsuspected” (14-16). This is a rather optimistic way of thinking.
“…beckons to new places and no whiteness (lost) is so white as the memory of whiteness” (20-22). This passage reminds me of Frost’s poem “Desert Places.” The repetition of the white imagery is used to elicit a feeling of emptiness and, to a certain extent, despair.

Robert Frost

In “Mending Wall”, the narrator and his neighbor are repairing their wall together. The narrator feels that the wall is unnecessary, but the neighbor is determined to keep the wall, saying “Good fences make good neighbors” (27). The narrator seems more playful and light-hearted, compared to the neighbor’s serious and old-fashioned values in insisting that they keep the wall (the narrator even compares his neighbor to a cave man – pretty harsh). It’s ironic that this wall physically separates the two neighbors, but it also brings them together, since they are working together to repair the wall.

In “After Apple-Picking”, the narrator is sick and tired of picking apples. The apples have completely taken over his life, to the point that he daydreams and night-dreams about apples. He says “I am overtired/ Of the great harvest I myself desired” (28-29). It’s pretty sad that he was once excited about the harvest, and the novelty of it eventually wore off and it became a burden instead. I can definitely relate to that type of situation.

The next two poems, “Desert Places” and “Design”, both have specific rhyme schemes that I did not see in the previous two poems. Both poems prominently feature white imagery. In “Desert Places”, it seems like the snow is causing loneliness and despair for the narrator, which is an unusual perspective. Usually snow is seen as causing joy and hope (White Christmas, Winter Wonderland, Let it Snow). In “Design” the narrator contemplates the strangeness of a white spider on a white flower with a white moth. The narrator wonders if there is some greater power out there that makes these strange things happen, or if everything happens just by chance. It’s interesting that, although the three objects of the poem are all white, the tone of the poem is pretty dark.

Passos and H.D.

My first thought when starting “The Body of an American” was that the syntax was similar to that of e.e. cummings. All of the words in the first paragraph are squished together, like in some of Cummings’ poems. Although “The Body of an American” is written in prose, it sometimes reads like poetry, which makes it difficult for me to read. Also like Cummings, this reading deals with the subject of war. Passos emphasizes the dehumanization involved with fighting in a war. With the quote “Naked he went into the army” (2348), I got the sense that the soldiers were not only being stripped of their clothes, but of their humanity as well. When John Doe dies, he cannot be identified and is given a generic funeral service, again stripping him of his identity. The squished words in the first paragraph suggest that the people doing the service are just going through the motions, and do not really care about the man who died fighting for his country.

“Trilogy” has a slightly more optimistic tone, while also dealing with the subject of war. The narrator says “we know no rule/ of procedure,/ we are voyagers, discoverers/ of the not-known,/ the unrecorded;/ we have no map;/ possibly we will reach haven,/ heaven” (43, lines 25-32). Although this suggests a sense of chaos and uncertainty (like “The Body of an American”), there is also a sense of hope that was not present in the previous readings that dealt with war.

e.e.cummings

The poems of e.e.cummings have a very unique style. There are hardly any capital letters – a lot of the “i”s are lowercase when they would normally be uppercase. The spacing is also odd – some groups of words are spaced together as one word, such as “onetwothreefourfive” “pigeonsjustlikethat” and “yellowsonofabitch.” Even his name is stylized in this way, with lowercase letters and no spaces.

“my sweet old etcetera” and “i sing Olaf glad and big” both seem to be about experiences with war. In “my sweet old etcetera”, family members tell the speaker why it’s a good thing that he’s going to fight in the war. The continued use of the word “etcetera” implies disinterest in what his family has to say about his going to war. “i sing Olaf glad and big” tells the story of the brutal death of a soldier in the war. With these poems, Cummings seems rather critical of war.

“i like my body when it is with your” has a similar style of writing, but a different subject matter. It recounts a sexual experience, in pretty vivid detail. The sex is described as very animalistic, using language such as “shocking fuzz” (10) and “electric fur” (11).

Washington and Du Bois

I had mixed feelings reading Booker T. Washington’s “Up From Slavery.” I was immersed in his retelling of his childhood experiences in slavery, and his journey to find Hampton. The vivid details of the story make it easy to forget that this was a true story, not a work of fiction. Naturally, I was disturbed by the inhumane way Washington was treated when he was just a young child, and I admired his determination to get to Hampton come hell or high water.

Although it was very commendable of Washington to be a mediator of sorts between the races, it’s difficult to make radical change under the circumstances he lays out. For example: “The time will come when the Negro in the South will be accorded all the political rights which his ability, character, and material possessions entitle him to. I think, though, that the opportunity to freely exercise such political rights will not come in any large degree through outside or artificial forcing, but will be accorded to the Negro by the Southern white people themselves, and that they will protect him in the exercise of those rights” (1370). He gives the white Southerners too much credit, and never really holds them accountable for what they did to the Negros. He’s putting the Negros’ fate entirely in the hands of the white Southerners. Du Bois also points out this criticism of Washington, arguing that Washington “represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission” and “practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races” (1385).

However, Washington does bring up some great points, some of which are unfortunately still relevant today. One quote that stood out as really ringing true: “No white American ever thinks that any other race is wholly civilized until he wears the white man’s clothes, eats the white man’s food, speaks the white man’s language, and professes the white man’s religion” (1361). In America, we like to think that we are accepting of people from all cultures, but in reality, there is still much discrimination against anyone perceived as being deviant from American culture.