A Bad Time Was Had by All
February 21, 2011

(In which poetry specifically does not provide consolation, and a good thing too.)

One of the last things one wants to hear, when one has undergone some misfortune or difficulty, is the injunction to count one's blessings. Think how well off you really are, someone inevitably tells you. Remember your advantages, the voice exhorts, your resources, your talents. But this individualist, go-get-'em cheer rings hollow in times of widespread deprivation, when "misfortune" is not individual bad luck but a structural unhappiness shared by many.

Be grateful for what you have, they say; but what do you have? Or, switching pronouns and switching into Wallace Stevens's poem "In a Bad Time" (published 1950 in The Auroras of Autumn; full text of poem available on LION):

What has he? What he has he has. But what?

In my book I've been writing quite a bit about Stevens's use of tautological phrases and sentences, but I've never found space to talk about this particular poem. I find it puzzling--and so I thought I'd try to discuss it a little in this space, where, if I stumble into a disastrous misreading, you can correct me. Warning: if I'm talking about Stevens, it's pure self-indulgence. But, you know, one needs such things in bad times.

"In a Bad Time" stands out, because whereas tautologies like these often imply fullness, completion, self-sufficiency--"I am that I am," or in a Stevensian version, "I have not but I am and as I am, I am"--here tautology takes us down to the sheer vacuousness of reminding the destitute to cherish what they have. For the "he" here is a beggar, named six lines earlier:

But the beggar gazes on calamity
And thereafter he belongs to it, to bread
Hard found, and water tasting of misery.

For him cold's glacial beauty is his fate.

Before the poem even reaches the desultory affirmation that "What he has he has," the beggar is subsumed by another slender monosyllable, an insistently repeated "it" ("he belongs to it," says Stevens, "And the night...where it is"). Stevens's trademark fluidity and conceptual vagueness does not yield a welter of imaginative possibility here; instead, in a reprise of the tautology:

He has his poverty and nothing more.
His poverty becomes his heart's strong core---
A forgetfulness of summer at the pole.

If this were a triple-rhyming poem, "pole" would be "poor": and if this were Yeats yearning for Innisfree in his "deep heart's core" (a phrase Stevens thinks of elsewhere in this volume of his poetry, in "Page from a Tale"), the dreary world of the Bad Time would be contrasted to an imaginative world of vitality. Here, at the pole, summer is forgotten. Indeed, it's always winter at the pole.

There is, for me, something admirable about this refusal to think of consolations in a bad time--and something admirable about Stevens's continuation into the immediate postwar of his Depression-era project of not losing sight of poverty within his own aestheticist and often flagrantly hermetic poetry. There is nothing delusive or fleeting about this Bad Time, nothing wrong with the beggar, whose "strong core" is in harmony with the glacial beauty of the environment. The perennial post-Romantic problem of bringing the subject into harmony with the natural world is solved by stripping both of them down. In the age of global warming this pristinely arctic world looks particularly appealing. But there's nothing redemptive, either, about that beauty, nothing to say that the beggar should be glad of what he can experience. No one, least of all Stevens, would trade places with this impoverished and departicularized figure.

And so Stevens has another perennial post-Romantic dilemma on his hands, namely that of the bourgeois poet regarding one of the poor (e.g. a leech-gatherer) and searching for the right attitude to adopt. The immediate critique is to say that adopting an attitude is precisely the wrong response to the spectacle of deprivation, a response made worse by Stevens's condescending supposition that the beggar lacks "understanding" and agency. But there is a countermovement to this questionable choice, insofar as Stevens is rewriting his own "The Snow Man" as a figure with a class position. In the earlier poem, Stevens's attention was on a listener "who, nothing himself, / Beholds the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." A beggar beholding calamity is "nothing" for a very different reason that the poem, for all its vision of a winter landscape, makes us remember.

This is, I think, the reason why the poem ends, startlingly, with two stanzas of apostrophe to Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, enjoining her not to "strut" in costume but to ensure her audience beholds "you, not your gown." The poet enjoins himself to present not the form, but the simple fact--if this elaborately allegorical figure, substituted for a beggar in an already allegorical landscape, can really do the work of standing in for simple fact. If it can, however, then a Stevensian poetics will have found a role for itself in a bad time.

[edited 2/22/11, 2/23, 3/1]

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