Poetic Investigations

Tom D'Evelyn on Poetry and Its Others (philosophy, theology, poetics)

Inner Form (Stevens)



The short poems of Wallace Stevens can seem like mere finger exercises, vain doodles meant perhaps to pass the time. J. V. Cunningham, who would know, said Wallace Stevens wrote too many rot-gut poems. Let’s say he did write poems for “self-medication.” There is evidence that he was wise about the self and that he wrote for anyone willing to be entertained by a song softly sung, a skeptical lullaby.

Here’s “A Dove in the Belly”:

The whole of appearance is a toy. For this,
The dove in the belly builds his nest and coos,

Selah, tempestuous bird. How is it that
The rivers shine and hold their mirrors up,

Like excellence collecting excellence?
How is it that the wooden trees stand up

And live and heap their panniers of green
And hold them round the sultry day? Why should

These mountains being high be, also, bright,
Fetched up with snow that never falls to earth?

And this great esplanade of corn, miles wide,
Is something wished for made effectual

And something more. And the people in costumes,
Though poor, though raggeder than ruin, have that

Within them right for terraces—oh, brave salut!
Deep dove, placate you in your hiddenness.

This little poem has many virtues — syntactic variety amidst syntactic pattern (the question, with variations); the way the camera pans here and there, as if by accident directing the mind back to the belly; and as often Stevens’ mastery of surfaces may conceal depths unless we concentrate, or let the poem concentrate us.

Such concentrating is the mode of Inner Form analysis. Inner form asks us to consider the opening in light of a general notion, available to all partaking of the human conversation. “The whole of appearance is a toy.” An extreme position perhaps but one susceptible to glib repetition or canny equivocation. Accepting that starting point, we are offered Stevens’ own provisional take on it: “For this, / The dove in the belly builds his nest and coos . . . ”

Complacence perhaps, but how else respond to the “toy” that is “the whole of appearance”? The poet refuses the indignation of the Puritan (who is suspicious of appearances and hates toys) or the incredulity of the lazy skeptic.

That bird is a Psalmist in Stevens’ worldly choir! Selah may be a “musical direction” or a gesture of “peace,” or both; the poet acknowledges the “tempestuous” potential of this bird in the belly, whose coo seems to parallel as commentary the playfulness of appearances. But the difference is always there; the threat of silence haunts the poem.

That attitude towards the appearances goes through a number of transfigurations as it takes in the rivers’s shine, the trees’s upness, the transcendent brightness of mountains.

Then the poem, having touched heaven, looks down at “this great esplanade of corn” and the ragged harvesters. Yet this poverty, “though raggeder than ruin,” has something within it “right for terraces” — and it is this inner X, this patience — that the poem comes to praise.

Can the tempestuous bird abide the paradox of appearances? Can we? Is that to be “conservative” and deny the need to do justly and serve thy God?

Do we not want to DO SOMETHING about the dignity of those poor people? Who wear costumes as if doing their part in keeping or “saving” the appearances? To save them from themselves?

The final couplet addresses both withins: “oh, brave salut!” to the laborers. And: “Deep dove, placate you in your hiddenness.” The poise of the poem is reflective. It does not flinch at what is uncovered as it goes. It does contain it. It is, in the end, a prayer. It is on the verge of saying something that would shatter the peace.

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