WALLACE STEVENS: West Imagining East

WALLACE STEVENS took to heart Kakuzo Okakura’s question, “When will the West understand, or try to understand, the East?” Okakura’s 1906 treatise on the Chan Buddhist and/or Zen infused tea ceremony, “The Book of Tea,” fell into Stevens’ hands by way of his Harvard acquaintances, Walter Bynner and Arther D. Ficke (Willis). His first national recognition as a poet was winning Poetry magazine’s 1916 contest, and a $100 for his play, “Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise,” a story woven around three Chinamen fixing tea in the Pennsylvania woods (Murphy 132). This was a direct result of Stevens’ brush with Tao, The Way, or The Path, that which encourages the artist to develop a “wide and keen observation, eventually to find in enrichment of the spirit, the secret of the rhythm of nature.” (Sze 18)

Maureen Kravec noted, the play evinces “the early modernist fascination with chinoiserie.” (Kravec 310) The layout of the play on the page is interesting, in that it presents an amalgamated version of a play and a poem. For example, the line breaks would not be such in the dialogue for the usual play format. The form is sometimes referred to as verse drama, but Stevens reworked it a bit after his win “to have the play a play and not merely a poem” (Murphy 132).

As a playwright in the UNO graduate MFA program, I find this quite intriguing, although not a total surprise. At the turn of the last century, Stevens and other poets were enthusiastic about the literary possibilities in the new art theatres popping up all over the East coast, emulating the independent theatres of Europe. Stevens shared the bill at Provincetown Players with fellow poets, Alfred Kreymborg and Lawrence Langner, but unfortunately before “Three Travelers” was produced, Stevens was intimately involved with the production of his second play, “Carlos Among the Candles,” and had a harrowing experience. The lead actor forgot three of the twelve pages of dialogue, and the whole production was a huge disappointment. After one opening night, the show was shut down, and Stevens fled the theatre, referring to the entire affair of producing theatre as “the horrors.” (Murphy 132)

I couldn’t find the original pear-shaped vase Professor Qian mentions as a possible inspiration for this play (Qian 39), but I did find this motif, which captures the spirit of the three Chinamen in the story, that of the first being “short, fat, quizzical, and of middle age. The second is of middle height, thin and turning gray; a man of sense and sympathy. The third is a young man, intent, detached.” (Loving 494)

The play incorporates the aesthetics of Chan/Zen to guide the audience through the horror of suicide and lynching, “the invasion” of humanity, and in my opinion to give people an alternative to despair, or as the Third Chinese says, (the one likened to Stevens’ personae), “The candle of the sun/ will shine soon/ On this hermit earth” (Loving 499).

After the American Civil War came a plague of black lynchings, mostly instigated by the Ku Klux Klan. In Stevens’s own Pennsylvania locale occurred an infamous lynching in nearby Coatesville circa 1911. Although the black actors in “Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise” don’t speak, their actions and body language signify this major theme, and by juxtaposing black actors with a body hanging from a tree “the invasion of humanity,” albeit a suicide, the audience is forced to think about this tragic topic of lynching. Stevens incorporated this Taoist idea illustrated as the “[…] value of suggestion. In leaving something unsaid the beholder is given a chance to complete the idea and thus a great masterpiece irresistible rivets your attention until you seem to become actually a part of it. A vacuum is there for you to enter and fill up the full measure of your aesthetic emotion.” (Okakura 46)

This play may not be regarded as Stephens’ “greatest masterpiece,” and it was a flop, due mainly to the poor production, i.e. the sun did not “rise”–a light bulb flashed on instantly (Murphy 138). Stevens used the vacuum of Taoist space in and around a bottle to invoke an aesthetic emotion. The story begins with the Second Chinese saying, “All you need/ To find poetry/ Is to look for it with a lantern” (Loving 494), and if that doesn’t work then, “There is seclusion of porcelain,” the same porcelain with “[…] the three figures/ Painted on porcelain/ As we sit here,/ That we are painted on this very bottle” (Loving 499). The bottle represents the very earth we stand on, illuminated by the lantern, held by the old hermit that holds the light of imagination.

What made Stevens’ psyche so receptive to the “rhythm of nature” art produced by the Oriental Taoist? For one thing, Stevens inherited the influences of the New England transcendental movement voiced in the monumental writings of Emerson, an earlier Harvard graduate, and the likewise Emersonian naturalist, Walt Whitman (Bloom 10). Stevens embraced Emerson’s transcendental message for students to observe that “all things in Nature, the animals, the mountain, the river, the seasons, wood, iron, stone, vapor, have a mysterious relation to his thoughts and his life; their growths, decays, quality and use so curiously resemble himself, in parts and in wholes, that he is compelled to speak by means of them. (Emerson) The world is a “picture-book” of every passage in human life, and in every object of Nature is where the poet will find the essence of man.

Emerson himself studied the Oriental nature of Buddhism, as received through the sages of India, and wrote extensively on the matter. (Gordon) The magazine, The Dial, in which Stevens would later be published, was initially formed as a transcendental publication with Emerson as one of its early editors. Stevens was influenced by his Harvard philosophy professor, George Santayana, in whose honor he wrote, “To An Old Philosopher in Rome.” (CP 508) An avowed atheist who aesthetically mirrored much of Emerson’s Naturalism, and later called himself an “aesthetic Catholic,” Santayana fostered in Stevens a creative imagination, and offered a “sensitive account of the spiritual life without being a religious believer (Saatkamp). Santanyan died in Rome under the care of nuns–interesting in that Stevens allegedly converted to Catholicism on his own deathbed.

Steven’s disillusionment with Christianity was made public in his published and first critically acclaimed poem written in 1915, “Sunday Morning” (Bloom 22). Instead of going to the obligatory church service (that is, for Christians who want to go to the Heaven in the King James Bible), Stevens’ character chooses instead, “Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,/And the green freedom of a cockatoo/ Upon a rug mingle to dissipate/ The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.” (CP 66-7) Note the lower case “h.”

By this time the Christianity Stevens grew up with in his Dutch/German Pennsylvania home had “dissipated” in his face. His father experienced a mental and spiritual breakdown, as well as a bankruptcy, which must have affected Stevens enormously, and he wasn’t speaking to his father at the time of the latter’s death in 1911. It would seem the Christian home where his mother read the Bible every night couldn’t sustain familial devotion in negotiating a riff triggered by Stevens’ choice of Elsie for his wife. Never recovering from her grief, his mother died soon thereafter. (Peiu)

Only after these events did Stevens find a voice that appealed to a wider audience. Stevens found comfort in writing to assuage these real life tragedies, and his exposure to the active tranquility of Chan Buddhism helped him fill the void where a dogmatic religion had been. The “awakening” first seen in his “nothing that is” poem, “The Snowman,” (1921) sustained him in the years to come, and so, despite the lukewarm relationship with his wife, Elsie (Voices & Visions), Stevens found in his imagination “The loneliest air, not less was I myself” (CP 65). Other than a short break after the release of Harmonium in 1923-30, he never stopped writing.

Professor Qian has eloquently presented a thorough investigation regarding Stevens’ reading habits on Buddhism, and Stevens’ exposure to Chinese Landscape Art and Oriental ancient artifacts at the MFA in Boston and exhibits in New York, specifically those which flowered from the Southern Sung school, fueled by the Tao of Chan Buddhism, which in turn inspired the Zen school of Japan (Qian). It seems only natural that a sensitive, individualistic hardhead like the Dutch-German Stevens (I should know, my mother was a Stevens, and both of my parents came from Puritan/Quaker stock) would be receptive to the “awakened state” of Chan Buddhism.

Stevens’ birth place of Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn–a haven for Quakers, who fashion their belief around meditating on the “internal light,” and southeastern Pennsylvania is full of quiet vistas for contemplation, but not many 19-year-olds would question, “why people took books into the woods to read in summertime when there was so much else to be read there that one could not find in books.” (Qian 96) Stevens’ bent for the philosophical started at an early age.

Maybe one way to analyze how Stevens felt about Chinese art is to show an example of the “orientalism” he loathed. The following is a painting by Eugéne Fromentin, an artist who thought “a painting should be neither eastern nor western, but a conglomeration of both […] I [Stevens] can only say that I detest orientalism: the sort of thing that Fromentin did […] although I like it well enough the way Matisse does it“ (Qian 200).

Let’s compare the aspects of Chan Buddhist Chinese landscape to this painting. Is there a state of “active tranquility? Is the figure in harmony with nature? Does the water flow? Can you see the water’s source? Does the wind “breathe” a rhythm throughout the picture? Do the mountains in the distance evoke a “quality of spirit” (Sze 21)? I agree with Stevens. The man (I think it’s a man) is in the center, not off to one side in contemplation. There is activity on the man’s part, that of riding a horse. This is about a journey, not contemplation of the “rhythm of nature.”

The man riding the horse may be in an awakened state, but there are no clues to this. The image is a manipulation of Nature, not a transforming moment of clarity in awe of Nature. The road cuts through the heart of the meadow and the water has no visible source. There is no flow. Is it a lake or a bay? The grasses do not move with the “breath” of the wind. The scene is probably proportional to reality, but where is the, “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (CP 10).

Stevens found many things to his liking in one of his favorite books on Chinese art, “Painting in the Far East,” by Laurence Binyon (Qian 27), and Binyon touches a Western nerve when speaking of Turkestan where “we touch three great civilizations at once: India, China, and Greece,” where “Apollo transforms himself into Buddha” (Binyon 28). For me, that is one more key to the thinking of Wallace Stevens and his interest in Chan Buddhism. Steeped as we Westerners are in our dogmatic religions (and we’re not the only ones), it might be beneficial for us all in the East and West to pause and contemplate that we all share a common ancestry from an earlier time.

Recent blood DNA studies are pointing to one small group in Africa that populated the entire human race starting around 100,000 years ago, a blink in the evolutionary timeline. (Sykes 277) If anything, Stevens may have found a cultural inheritance in the “quietism” infused into Chan Buddhist art that had been lost somewhere along the way. In “Six Significant Landscapes” (1916) “An old man sits/ In the shadow of a pine tree/ In China” (CP73). So many of them do. “Viewing the Moon under a Pine Tree” in Ma Yuan style (Qian 104) is an example of this type of old man Stevens got inside of to “breathe” and “awaken” not only to read about in his poem, but as a way for himself to physically experience this “breathe.”

Through the years, Stevens collected many Chinese artifacts, but one of his favorites, a carved wooden figure of “the most benevolent old god you ever saw,” was shipped back to him from Peking by the sister of Harriet Monroe, the editor of “Poetry” magazine. The old man carried a staff, and a lotus bud. For Stevens, this old man, a Shouxing, “is so humane that the study of him is as good as a jovial psalm” (Qian 157-8).

The implication here is obvious. Stevens filled his spiritual and mental cup, in part, by reading about, viewing at museums, and surrounding himself with Tao-infused artifacts, especially of the Chan Buddhist type, because they stimulated his imagination, and infused his poetry with an “awakened” awareness. This was his way as a Westerner to experience the gifts of the East. He continued to study this phenomena to the very end and invented his own rhythmic dance with the river of life that continues to flow East to West and back round again. Imagine that. “Surrounded by its choral rings,” in the Buddhist breath, Stevens discovered “A new knowledge of reality” (CP 534) and shared it with us with his words.

Now. Everyone take a deep breath.

Works Cited

Binyon, Laurence. Painting in the Far East: An Introduction to the History of Pictorial Art in Asia, Especially China and Japan. London: Arnold, 1908. 4th ed. rev., 1934. Reprint New York: Dover, 1959.

Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate. New York, Cornell University Press. 1977

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essay “Poetry & Imagination” (1872) http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/poetryimag.html 9 Nov 2006

Gordon, Robert. “Emerson’s Earliest Interest In India.” http://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/i_es/i_es_gordo_emerson.htm 11 Nov 2006

Loving, Pierre. Shay, Rank. Fifty Contemporary One-Act Plays. Cincinnati, Ohio. Stewart & Kidd. 1920. 494-500

Okakura Kakuzo. The Book of Tea Classic Edition. USA: Tuttle P, 1989 46th ed.

Peiu, Anca. “After the final no: The World of Wallace Stevens” http://www.unibuc.ro/eBooks/lls/AncaPeiu-STEVENS/chronology.htm 11 Nov 2006

Qian, Zhaoming. The Modernist Response to Chinese Art: Pound, Moore, Stephens. USA, U of Virginia P, 2003.

Saatkamp, Herman. “George Santayana”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2006 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2006/entries/santayana/ 10 Nov 2006

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York, Vintage Books 1990.

Sykes, Bryan. The Seven Daughters of Eve. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001.

Sze, Mai-mai.( trans). The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting. Chieh Tzu Yuan Hua Chuan, 1679-1701. New York, Princeton University Press 1977.

Willis, Patricia C. (curator) Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, 1997 http://www.library.yale.edu/beinecke/orient/mod7.htm 11 Nov 2006


“Wallace Stevens – Man Made Out Of Words.” Dir. Richard P. Rogers. Sr. Consultant Helen Vendler. Voices & Visions Series. Natl. Endowment for the Humanities. Wash. D.C. 1988.

Poetry has dedicated a slide show of the original copy of Stevens’ playbook, “Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise” here: http://www.poetrymagazine.org/webexclusive/vol8no4.html

“Three Chinamen on Porcelein” – http://www.rugreview.com/stuf/chincer.htm

(This was a class presentation for Professor Zhaoming Qian’s graduate class Modernism & the Visual Arts November 2006 at the University of New Orleans)

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