30 April 2005

hyperbole a la Stevens

Tony Hoagland is one of my favorite poets and writes a wonderful essay, too. Here's Hoagland talking about a poem by Wallace Stevens in an essay called “On Disproportion." The essay appears in a highly-recommended volume called Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World,, edited by Gregory Orr and Ellen Bryant Voigt, published by (no surprise) The University of Michigan Press.

Hyperbole is a peculiar instance of disproportion in which perspective is warped, a language event in which the naming of a thing inappropriately exceeds the size of the thing named, therefore causing a lopsidedness that threatens to capsize the poem. Consider the hyperbole with which Stevens begins “Two Figures in a Dense Violet Light”:

I had as lief be embraced by the porter at the hotel
As to get no more from the moonlight
Than your moist hand.

Be the voice of night and Florida in my ear.
Use dusky words and dusky images.
Darken your speech.

Speak, even, as if I did not hear you speaking,
But spoke for you perfectly in my thoughts,
Conceiving words,

As the night conceives the sea-sounds in silence,
And out of the droning sibilants makes
A serenade.

Say, puerile, that the buzzards crouch on the ridge pole
And sleep with one eye watching the stars fall
Below Key West.

Say that the palms are clear in a total blue,
Are clear and are obscure; that it is night;
That the moon shines.

Reading this overture, we entertain again the fleeting chance that we will encounter an actual relationship between two characters in a Stevens poem. This turns out not to be the case. Ultimately, the “Other” here is a sort of stand-in for the muse. Notice, though, the complex kinds of distance made possible by multiple types of inflation in the first stanza:

I had as lief be embraced by the porter at the hotel
As to get no more from the moonlight
Than your moist hand.

In the elaborately delayed syntax, the archaic diction (“as lief”), the crabby overstatement of the speaker’s petty preference, and the fantastic alternative to reality proposed (embracing the porter at the hotel), we get what amounts to character description. The speaker is simultaneously capable of self-mockery and the insulting observation about the moistness of his companion’s palm. The courtly, archaic, gibing use of the adverb “as lief” likewise frees us from the obligation to identify with the situation. The exaggerated poeticalness underscores the petty spirit of the complaint, and does so at an early point in the sentence. This style could be said to be uneconomical—the marriage of a lot of fancy words to a little bit of situation—but the result of this inflation is that we feel protected. We are provoked to recognize that here the gap between words and things is large, and that we are living in the roomy language-half of the equation. The safety of that license frees us to admire and enjoy the poet’s ability to inflect reality in ways that an exclusively plain style never could.

From the linguistic vaudeville of this highly stylized beginning, the poem takes an unlikely direction, eventually arriving at a tone of grave sincerity. For though the hyperbole of the opening is mockery, it nonetheless establishes a high rhetoric, which enables the poet to segue into a boozy eloquence and then into a serious invocation. Logically, perhaps, such a transition should not be possible. But Stevens demonstrates an important truth: that our tolerance for inconsistency, our ability to change direction in an artwork, is greater than we commonly suppose.

1 comment:

  1. I dearly yearn to buy all the books you recommend, and more, to read them!! Love these posts, thanks.