Dan Schneider’s Poetry: Stevens on Safari

Great poetry blooms in its individuality, yet it doesn’t deviate from certain fundamentals – seeking music through subtle flow, escaping from the realm of clichés, and teasing out multiple meanings through good line breaks & enjambment. These tenets might sound simple, but they hide 3 vaster domains that every writer must be somewhat aware of – Form, Content, Structure/Narrative. Or, to draw another comparison in painting & art – the style of the stroke, subject of the painting, and composition of the elements.

Escaping from the realm of clichés requires some knowledge of previous (good) poets to stake out a future. When Dan posted up his video of writing the poem Ed Gein Becoming – you can see this process in action. He thinks about the subject, weighs out how other writers might have approached it, and chooses his own path.

Which then leads to the question – how would you apply the same method to an enigmatic and abstract poet like Wallace Stevens?

Let’s try to imagine how Dan might have thought of the process in writing this poem – Stevens on Safari – much like how he does in his Ed Gein video. So, without further ado, let’s get into the ‘planning phase’:

In order to write a poem about Stevens that escapes from his grasp, I feel as though dropping a ‘calling card’ is necessary to set up the narrative shifts and twists in the later parts of the poem. Something that declares the lineage of the sonnet clearly. When I think about Wallace Stevens – I think about his beautiful lines that are steeped in abstraction, and his own philosophical symbology that he repeats throughout several poems (e.g. winter & the idea of coldness).

As an example – let’s look at Man Carrying Thing. Within this poem of 14 lines – there are only a miniscule amount of concrete (relative to the rest) elements to cling on to: brune figure in winter, first hundred flakes of snow, storm, night – and some things that seem like concrete elements but are steeped in ambiguity – the thing that the man carries, the certain solid, the bright obvious. Yet, it is the ability of Stevens to bring these abstractions into fruition, allowing something higher to glimpse from beyond, through his placement of the elements on his canvas – that distinguishes him from other poets who try abstraction and fail.

From this idea comes a flicker of possibility – of stretching that core abstraction to its very limit. And so, we find some inkling of our ‘calling card’.

It can not ever change. What once was there
is still there because it will not be changed,
but something is changing. A feel for change
can be attained- yet not through change itself,

I have a feeling that any lover of poetry who understands the significance of this style might lightly snicker. The repetition of ‘change’ and sheer ambiguity is parodic to the extreme – but this is not merely reference aping the style for its own sake. For example, the sly use of ‘can not’ rather than ‘cannot’ in the first line forces a pause that implies much. The enjambment in the first line makes it ambiguous as to whether it talks about a past element remaining past (e.g. memory) or the past element carrying over into the present as a tangible thing – and allows for both views. Yet, even when we get inklings of a fixed element or stability, there is also something moving and changing – ‘a feel for change’. Then, it remains fixed again – “yet not through change itself”.

So, in this way we approach Stevens and his love of abstraction – as well as his frequent philosophical theme of the need for stability & clarity. This sets up how the poem will flow, and where Dan prepares the cut from his predecessor.

STEVENS ON SAFARI

It can not ever change. What once was there
is still there because it will not be changed,
but something is changing. A feel for change
can be attained- yet not through change itself,

but rather without- through a change in view;
this pain beyond logic just rearranged,
like a leopard sneaking up into range,
of a young gazelle in ignorant health-

then the chase begins, the break from all things
thought as commonplace, yet hoped for as rare,
in a dutied life subsumed in a blue
besides color, or its recognition:

from a bower a glower, and the cat brings
forth the death of youth, this love of clear vision!

Once you read the poem, note where the first concrete image comes in, and also note the moments where the poem veers away from that great abstract voice of Stevens.

Setting up the image of the leopard going after the young gazelle, Dan starts with a permutation of ‘change’, where he escapes from the abstraction of the first stanza to lead it into something else – a ‘change in view’ (mirroring the line before in grammar). Then, he brings in the direct element of ‘pain’ – as though a foreign element were contaminating the hermetic universe of the first stanza. In terms of form, he also sets up the transition through the rhyming sounds ‘range’ in lines 6 & 7 – giving a feel of actual re-arrangement. The sounds in line 8 are light and they linger off which hammers in the chase and hardness of ‘break’ in the next stanza.

Showing that Dan can have as beautiful abstractions as Stevens – there’s the line “thought as commonplace, yet hoped for as rare” – which grabs us in terms of how so many of us want the world to be – stretching out from tedium in the constant into a ‘safari’ of the unknown. Here comes the great shift in Stevens’ symbology – his love for that Zen kind of clarity that comes at the end of many of his poems. Instead, that clarity over here is a “dutied life subsumed in blue/besides color, or its recognition” – which can also be read biographically if you knew about Stevens as a poet who chose to remain an office worker – but doesn’t have to be. This life of blue lacks color or recognition of such. The philosophical paradise of Stevens is an empty realm separate from the wild color of life. In which case we might get a bit of a laugh to see Dan so blatantly pounce on his style in this poem.

from a bower a glower, and the cat brings
forth the death of youth, this love of clear vision!

Would Stevens ever write such a shout in his poems? Not from those I’ve seen – so this is probably Dan, right down to the love of assonance, internal rhyme & rambunctiousness. The great big cat cleaving ‘clarity’ in two (although, the comma means that there isn’t exactly a clear link between the death & the love) – allowing the safari to manifest.

This poem is fun. Any lover of poetry would be thoroughly entertained by how Dan treats the subject – the stuffy elegance of Stevens (although, of course, there’s also a greater philosophical comment about change & reality) – in his own distinct manner. More importantly, it communicates that fun rather than just existing as fun in itself – as many of Stevens’ lesser poems seem to be in their idle abstraction. You can hear the laughter behind the words. That, really, is how things should be written.

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