‘Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself’ by Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens

“Vast Ventriloquism,” 2019

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird’s cry at daylight or before,
In the early March wind

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow . . .
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep’s faded papier mâché . . .
The sun was coming from outside.

That scrawny cry—it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.


More here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/podcasts/75278/its-like-a-new-reality-man-a-discussion-of-wallace-stevenss-not-ideas-about-the-thing-but-the-thing-itself
Listen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vBw4fjp9jQg

7 thoughts on “‘Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself’ by Wallace Stevens

  1. The thing that strikes me about this poem, having read it often, is the way the image of the sun slowly, literally appears in the reader’s mind.

    SLIGHT, but places the thing: “a scrawny cry from outside” –> more tactile, real; suggesting the sun, but still a half-step: “A bird’s cry at daylight or before” –> tentative, but naming the thing: “The sun was rising… It [WOULD HAVE BEEN] outside.” –> DEFINITELY: “The sun [WAS] coming from outside.” –> striking imagery, complete descriptor, but still not whole: “That scrawny cry… It was part of the colossal sun” –> BANG: A huge thing SURROUNDED, still far away, LIKE knowledge! LIKE reality! “Surrounded by its choral rings, / Still far away. It was like / A new knowledge of reality.”

    That simile is only used twice in the poem (first and last graf) is important. It links in a loop this conception of nature and imagination with art and reality. It blends these ideas (the bird’s cry and knowledge and the sun rising and creativity (new knowledge) and the sound in his mind (imagination) and all of that wonderful inclusiveness) into a beautiful and inspiration work of art.

    Stevens isn’t telling you that the speaker’s perception has been altered by this weird half-dreamt bird’s cry turnt revelation, he is LITERALLY showing you!

    I memorized this poem earlier this year as part of a memory palace (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Method_of_loci) experiment and found myself so intimately connected to Stevens as a poet that I was devastated. This poem seems so simple, but as I thought long and hard about the language and the structure, how long it must have taken WS to complete it, I’m floored; every word is perfectly positioned. Every beat falls at just the right breath.

    I think this is a great place for us to start our workshop. We can all write our own perfect poem if we give it our all.


  2. In the first (3) stanzas, the poet is awakening to a “cry” that the poet feels is internal and yet feels
    that its origination is “outside” of himself. He places the setting as the end of winter and that the bird’s cry comes at “ daylight or before”. The cry or awakening is external to him as it originates
    from external place and time. The cry takes on a form as if it is a herald or a the new or a thing
    being born. The poet situates it from coming into a time of darkness (night) into the
    morning (light) – Comparison of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave-moving from darkness (ignorance)
    into knowledge (light-opening of the cave) This is telling as the poet gradually builds assuredness
    in himself that this is a living thing outside of himself. He understands that the cry is not a copy, a mimic or even a dream. This is a thing that exists in the sunlight of reality. The lone voice/cry is apart from the choir that sings. It pushes forth from the choir and makes itself known as itself. Though the thing in itself still retains vestiges and
    tremulations of it’s originating place, it is still understood to be a new thing. A form that is uniquely its own.
    The cry takes many forms in this poem. it is representative of the epiphany that occurs in all new
    ideas, thoughts or knowledge. A new understanding of a concept whether in the self or in a
    creation of a new work. The poem takes great lengths to make known that this thing exists
    of its own accord. The issue is if the cry itself is representative of the bird? is the cry just a
    an echo of the thing that comes from the dark or is it the light itself? The poet believes that the
    cry ( the new form/knowledge/work) exists in itself. Its newness, the fact that is it exterior to the
    poet marks it as a new form of reality.
    – AF

  3. The poem elicited feelings of internal transformation to me. Paralleling a new day with a new life/outlook. This day everything changes — the cry was both internal and external. Internally the change was manifesting itself and external the universe welcoming it (The sun shining down, as if to acknowledge the new perception)
    this is no dream (It was not from the vast ventriloquism
    Of sleep’s faded papier mâché . . .) It was real. The final bit gave the strongest impression that this could be a mental shift “A new knowledge of reality.” An epiphany even?

  4. The first stanza gives us many possible modes of interpretation. It’s a relation of one thing to another: the scrawny cry to a sound in his mind. Later stanzas give us context, but likening the two does tell us that the separation of the inner (inside the narrator, who I’ll refer to as H, he, him, etc.) and outer worlds is questionable.

    The next stanza characterizes the earlier relation. He’s certain that he heard a sound in his mind (line 4), but H isn’t certain when as to he heard it (line 5). He can, however, place it as being inside the early March wind. This makes me think of how there are times when all I can do to remember something is to think of what it’s associated with. I might not know exactly when a conversation with a friend happened, or much of what it was about other than that it was a good conversation, but perhaps I do remember the café it was in, and how shitty their chairs were. Often times one association leads to others, which I think we’ll see happens in the next stanza. The poem could be saying, so far, that things of interest in both the inside and outside worlds are defined by their associations, where and when they happen, and a few inherent qualities. Also, this serves as the second use of March as a sort of location in the poem (lines 2 & 6).

    Stanza three finds H associating further, providing us with the next most important details: the time and the characteristics of the sun (defined with great finesse, I’ve got to say: battered panache? awesome). The last line feels the most strange: yes, the sun would have been outside (sounds about right), but is H insisting that it was outside his mind, or is he really absurd enough to just tell us the obvious? Pretty sure the former does more work, so that’s my working assumption.

    Next stanza, wow, Stevens comes around the bend with some really interesting word choice, evoking the recursive nature of sleep — were H asleep, it would be his subconscious squawking at him, using some unseen bird as a puppet — and the feeling that it’s a jumbled amalgamation of white material (white brain matter, anyone?), folded together to make shapes and, in some cases, puppets (ever see a paper mache puppet? They’re actually fairly common). This stanza ends with, again, an insistence that the sun was coming from the outer world, not just inside H; two such insistences, patterned with the same end word, make me start thinking that H needs to believe he is not trapped in his own head in some sense (perhaps knowledge of the outside world constitutes his new knowledge of reality?).

    The fifth stanza tells us the bird was apart from some flock, the first squawk of the morning, because the bird’s (the chorister’s) c (note) came before the rest of the choir (a bunch of other choristers organized, or a flock in this case). That is an image that feels unnatural; one bird, apart from the flock, chirping away on its own? Consider, also, that he has given us no reason to think there are other choristers about: he only tells us of the one cry, so we don’t know if there are more birds (and, by extension, any other squawks). One bird crying out, alone, in the middle of March, when hundreds of birds should be coming back from the south, seems like an almost surreal situation, which might explain H’s concern. Line 15 is the relation that H wants to exist: he wants the cry to be part of the sun, which is part of the outside world as he’s defined it. He’s carefully built an understanding of the outside world, and now, given the strangeness of stanza 5’s image, it seems he’s very willing to fold any new information (the abnormality of this choir out of sync) into where he thinks it should fit in his new world. The trouble with that, though, is that this act of defining what the world is seems like what you’d do in a dream, which is a de facto inner world. So his outer world is the same as his inner world, but not in the way he might want.

    The last stanza’s first line doesn’t ring true at all, to me. In what sense is this lone, scrawny cry, surrounded by choral rings? I suppose the fifth stanza could be taken to mean that the scrawny cry was the first of many equally scrawny cries, but this could also mean that H has placed the cry within these rings by repeatedly insisting that the world outside is independent of him and things like a lone, scrawny cry, at the end of winter, are unlikely and probably aren’t what really happened. Anywhoo. The cry is still far away, which could mean that it hasn’t moved or that it didn’t change its distance relative to H. Neither of those things are normal: a bird is prone to moving around in the morning. They fly around and try to get some food. Calling all these things normal and saying that this is all outside his mind would constitute a new knowledge of reality, one with self-delusion at its core. Whenever he has the opportunity to question himself about this strange set of circumstances and, perhaps, determine that he’s asleep, H instead opts to conclude that everything is normal and that all these things are coming from outside him. Perhaps he never wakes up, and is enthralled by his new knowledge of reality for the rest of his time.

  5. The title itself is an interesting construct, leaving the object until the end of the sentence and beginning our focus on what the poem is not about. This tells us to perhaps look out for something that is not ‘the thing itself’, but something else.

    The first stanza is very specific, telling us the precise time of year and giving a clear image. The ‘scrawny cry’ is perceived as an illusion for the ‘him’ in the poem. This looks to be the ideas that we are not to look for. As we proceed to the next stanza, this is affirmed with how ‘he knew he heard it’. We begin to see that the poem is about perception.

    Skipping forward, we can contrast this uncertainty of whether the bird is really there with the very clear image at the end. Here, the bird is a ‘chorister whose c preceded the choir’, which is very different from the ‘scrawny cry’ we heard of earlier. What was initially the mundane dream of a bird is now the realisation that Winter is over, signalled by this bird’s morning call. The character’s perception has changed.

    Interestingly, this actually indicates that maybe we are talking about ideas rather than ‘the thing itself’. The poem indicates that things are only ever viewed by what idea we have of them. The bird’s call itself never changed, but what it meant changed vastly over the course of the poem.

    Further to this thought, we have the ‘ideas’ from before, the ‘battered panache above snow’ and ‘the vast ventriloquism/Of sleep’s faded papier mâché’. Both of these images are highlighted by the ellipses at the end of the line, as if emphasising the realisation that we’re heading off-track and talking about ideas too much.

    Repetition is a strong part of the poem, primarily to show that we are hearing the cry and taking in the information to change our understanding of what it means. Initially it’s a ‘scrawny cry’, then he remembers hearing a ‘bird’s cry’. This is the character noticing the bird as he sleepily awakes. We then get the two images of what this is not, but they are separated by emphasis on how ‘It would have been outside…The sun was coming from outside’. This is the chracter’s brain processing the bird call and beginning to realise that it is really there and what it is indicating, that Winter is over. The ‘scrawny cry’ returns again, this time with the character waking, and then we are shown his realisation with the final image.

    The last line of the poem is a culmination of all of this. ‘A new knowledge of reality’ is meant to show us that nothing has changed. The bird is the same, the call is the same, but it’s meaning is entirely different for the character. It is no longer a bird calling out at first light, but a sign of what is coming.

  6. Great work, all. These comments are really encouraging. I think those of you that contributed here will be invaluable to the Reddit Workshop going forward. Thanks and talk to you all soon!

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