jar on a hill...

from my anthology of must read (a)merican poems

Wallace Stevens

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.


This poem by Wallace Stevens is in one of my deepest wells. I really can’t remember a time when I didn’t know this poem. I know the work came to me through my father who has always referred to it – my father whose ideal poet is Longfellow, yet is a man who knows Stevens’ poem. From that connection, I grew to love this poem – and that pulled me deeper, when I was ready, into Stevens’ great works: “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “The Snow Man,” “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” “Sunday Morning” … I’ll stop there.

What amazes me most about “Anecdote of the Jar” is Stevens’ ability to give force to such a small and insignificant object. The poet emphasizes circular imagery throughout – jar, round, hill surround, around – to add a universal or even archetypal quality to the poem. Stevens writes, “The wilderness rose up to it, / And sprawled around, no longer wild” – and the jar becomes transformed. This is a surprise, given the almost trivial nature of the opening line: “I placed a jar in Tennessee”. It was round. It was on a hill. Add to this the fact that the jar is plain and translucent. – Yet, the world, the wilderness, rises to meet it. This wilderness, however, instead of existing as a romantic landscape of untamed beauty, is described as “slovenly” and “no longer wild”. Its beauty, whatever that is, is either overwhelmed by or infused with – and I lean more toward the latter – the jar’s plain but real presence.

Loneliness of the creative act is realized in the stark imagery of the closing lines:

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush

The poem ends with the unique attributive force of the jar: “Like nothing else in Tennessee”. The jar’s purpose – as supply, protection, display – is unlimited. Stevens, in his description of the jar, wants many possible readings of “port” – gateway, demeanor, harbor, meaning, refuge – to instill the poem with more ambiguity. The speaker gives the jar to the wilderness – such a strange act, since the jar is alien to nature in its existence as a result of human mass production.

The complex nature of the poem becomes evident when considering the dominion that is declared. What’s important to note is that the jar, and not the “I” of the poem, asserts dominion. A hill serves as pedestal for this dull and undecorated human product – no doubt, Stevens had in mind some sort of kinship with modern art and New York’s famous Armory Show of 1913 when he wrote this poem during or shortly after his 1918 trip to Tennessee. It’s the act of placing the ubiquitous jar in such an unlikely place that is of value in this poem, and in the doing, reveals something about the giver.

A jar that haunts.


Dennis said...

A ponderous vessel indeed. When I peer into the jar, I can’t help but see it as a vessel containing soul, at least in part. Thanks Sam, and have a great holiday. Wishing you abundance.

Suzanne said...

Happy Holidays, Sam!

Pamela said...

I love this poem--I even have a "Dominion" brand jar that bought at the Nashville flea market. I've always thought of Stevens' poem as an ekphratic response to Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn."

And now we can add to that jar and that urn the duke-it-out poem from Radish King , which is magnificent.

Sam of the ten thousand things said...

Thanks Dennis, Suzanne, and Pamela for the read and the words.

I'm certain that Stevens had in mind a reverse view of Keats' urn -- to de-romanticize it. James Owens' comment on my previous blog entry was that the "The Snow Man" was a Zen poem. I agree, even though Stevens is absolutely not conciously in that tradition. The jar in "Anecdote" is part, I think, of the No-nature view of Zen. Stevens' image is anti-Wordsworth and is very pro-Basho, pro-Snyder.

As for Loudon's poem, "Keats and the girl with the big mouth duke it out"-- amazing. I'm in awe.

Paula said...

My best wishes for this Holiday Season, Sam, and thank you for the fine posts thoughout the year.

LKD said...

"Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness..."

Yes, Keats comes instantly to mind.

I don't know this Stevens.

I've got his collected poems sitting on my shelf collecting dust. I should maybe undust it, eh?

This poem reminds me of my childhood spent searching for seaglass on the beaches of Maine. I was, in essence, collecting trash, litter that had been transformed by the ocean into something beautiful. Interesting how nature transforms what man leaves behind and vice versa.

Thanks for this poem, today. It feels like an early Christmas gift. It's got me thinking. I feel like a jar, opened.

I feel, to borrow your words, widened, widening as a song.

LKD said...

To follow up on the idea of mutual transformation:

I guess that could be applied to the poem itself. The poem is transformed by each individual reader just as each individual reader is transformed by the poem.

Sam of the ten thousand things said...

Thanks Paula and Laurel for the read and the comments.

And Laurel-- an interesting notion on transformation. I agree.

You should dust off the Stevens. Lot of greatness in there.

anhaga said...

Best of the holiday season to you and yours, Sam.

Some interesting reads of "The Jar" here. I think your commentary is right on target, and I am more convinced than ever that a Zen Basho-Snyder sensibility is a good mindset for reading Stevens, which is quite different from his treatment in most "academic" criticism (an opportunity for somebody!).

What do you make of this poem's insistence on taking place in Tennessee? It can't be incidental that the name ends both the first and last lines.

I seem to remember from one of Stevens's letters that, on a stopover during a business trip to Florida, he was surprised to find electric lights in his motel room in Kingsport.

Jeannine said...

I used to love this poem because nobody wrote poetry about Tennessee, where I grew up. So I thought Williams was great!
Happy Holidays Sam!

Sam of the ten thousand things said...

Thanks for the read and the words James and Jeannine. A happy season to you both.

Stevens did stop in Tennessee near the end of WWI. I didn't know about the Kingsport connection though. One writer, as I recall, said to follow the thread of moonlight and jars in Stevens. Interesting.