For Clive Watkins
‘The maker’s rage to order words…’
THE IDEA OF ORDER AT KEY WEST, Wallace Stevens
There, as we drove past the Heritage Centre
that once was a medieval church, on the steps,
among the shoppers and the trippers,
there on a provincial, English street
was a busker with a blue guitar.
And I thought of the poem by Wallace Stevens,
who did not drive, and walked to work each day –
from his house on Westerly Terrace
to his office on Asylum Avenue
at Hartford Accident & Indemnity –
composing verses and aphorisms,
jotting them down on a legal pad
for his secretary to type up:
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, ‘You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.’
The man replied, ‘Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.’
And they said then, ‘But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.’
The ‘Adagia’ of Erasmus – Ancient
Greek and Latin sayings now become common,
like ‘to die of laughing’, ‘out of tune’ –
inspired Stevens to coin adages:
for instance, ‘God is a postulate
of the ego’, ‘Money is a kind of
poetry’, ‘Every man dies his own death’.
He wintered – without his wife and daughter –
in Key West. A tall, heavy bodied man –
nicknamed ‘Giant’ at Havard – he was prone
to Martinis, and had a fist fight
with Ernest ‘Papa’ Hemingway, five inches
shorter, two decades younger, and prone
to Mojitos. Giant, it was alleged,
had sneered at Papa’s literary achievements.
The Ivy League lawyer was felled by two blows
into a puddle. He died, in his bed,
many years later, fully insured.
A black and white photo shows Stevens walking
almost jauntily in winter sunshine,
and self-consciously twirling his cane.
Beneath his straw boater he is smiling
circumspectly – as if W.C. Fields
(Mr Macawber in Hollywood’s
‘David Copperfield’) had just fallen
on the softest of times. The comic actor,
who was also rather prone to Martinis,
had opened a savings account in each town
where he toured in vaudeville just in case
hard times returned. All over America
the nickels and dimes gather interest.
Somewhere in Missouri or Texas,
Illinois or California,
in his faded denims and his baseball cap,
waiting for a ride beside the black top
is an ageless man with a blue guitar.