THE POEM that made me fall in love with poetry, when I was 16, is Wallace Stevens’ “This Solitude of Cataracts.” I was a shy child who read a lot of books, but fiction held my heart, and I scribbled stories all day long. Poems intrigued me but I didn’t understand them, I felt. In my senior writing seminar, our teacher asked us to choose a poem from our anthology to write a paper on. Flipping through I stumbled on this poem by Stevens. What I remember is the shiver of the sounds, the amulet-like quality of the last lines — the way they seemed to hit my limbic system with the shock of a gun recoil. People talk of the thrill of shooting, the thrill of competing — but there is also the thrill of reading words that get under your skin and into the blood. Like antibodies, they disquiet your equilibrium, but they seem to be antibodies to the mundane, to habit, to accommodation, to the pretense that language is merely communicative (and also to the pretense that language is fully communicative).
It’s a gorgeous piece in tercets. On one level, it appears to deal with a man looking at a river. It offers a visceral evocation of what a river is like, endlessly moving onward, invoking Heraclitus’ idea “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” It tries to imagine the river becoming a lake. On another level, by the end it has vocalized our desire to come to a “permanent realization” of our place in the world, and included a tripwire that reminds us that we never will. The poem opens:
He never felt twice the same about the flecked river,
Which kept flowing and never the same way twice, flowing
Through many places, as if it stood still in one,
Fixed like a lake on which the wild ducks fluttered,
Ruffling its common reflections, thought-like Mondanocks.
Stevens gets criticized for his headiness — or rather when people come to Stevens and recoil it’s often because they find him too think-y, too hard to penetrate. But to read a poem like this is to be reminded of the incredible physicality at the heart of his abstraction. There’s the tactile description to be sure but also the physicality of the words: fluttered, ruffling, reflection. Then there is the clever (thinky) way that the “reflections” in the river work both as a concrete and abstract noun: they are the physical (if ethereal) reflection of the mountains around the river. (Mount Monadnock is a mountain in New Hampshire.) But the word also invokes “thought” or “meditation,” if only subliminally. This secondary meaning-echo prepares the reader for the shift from concrete description to the phrase “thought-like Monadnocks.” There, Stevens turns to describing the natural world as if it were a reflection of mental states. (Is there a literary term for this? It’s a kind of kissing cousin of personification.) The meaning? Mountains have a still, abiding quality that resembles thoughts, or, as Stevens put it in a 1954 letter to his Italian publisher,
The expression “thought-like Monadnocks” can best be explained by changing it into “Monadnock-like thoughts.” The image of a mountain deep in the surface of a lake acquires a s...read more