Sunday, April 10, 2011

Wallace Stevens, 'Mozart, 1935'

It is National Poetry Month in the USA. To celebrate this I have decided to post a poem by an American author, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). I came across this poem late at night. It was one of the first nights of the Lybian war and I could hear the planes flying above my head, leaving from an American military base nearby. They were heavy and I knew that, in spite of all the talks of peacekeeping missions, they were taking war to that country, so close to Italy geographically. I understood the poem as an invitation to keep writing poetry, keep producing art even in a violent world. Ignoring what is happening around him, a corpse being carried down the stairs, stones thrown upon the roof, I perceived that Wallace Stevens was asking artists to keep working even in a time of great upheavals and horrors. Just read the poem and then something more after it...    

Mozart, 1935
Poet, be seated at the piano.
Play the present, its hoo-hoo-hoo,
Its shoo-shoo-shoo, its ric-a-nic,
Its envious cachinnation.
If they throw stones upon the roof
While you practice arpeggios,
It is because they carry down the stairs
A body in rags.
Be seated at the piano.
That lucid souvenir of the past,
The divertimento;
That airy dream of the future,
The unclouded concerto . . .
The snow is falling.
Strike the piercing chord.
Be thou the voice,
Not you. Be thou, be thou
The voice of angry fear,
The voice of this besieging pain.
Be thou that wintry sound
As of the great wind howling,
By which sorrow is released,
Dismissed, absolved
In a starry placating.
We may return to Mozart.
He was young, and we, we are old.
The snow is falling
And the streets are full of cries.
Be seated, thou.

The poem is actually quite connected to the moment in which it was written, as I learned browsing the internet for information. Many critics accused Wallace Stevens of paying too much attention to sounds and rhythmwithout putting ideas into his poetry. He was considered 'out of tune' in a time when the Great Depression was what people should think about and consequently what poets should be writing about. The poet answers with this poem, quite beautifully. 'Be seated at the piano' he says, play arpeggios, even when people throw stones at your roof. Is it critics, criticizing the poet? Is it the terrible things happening in the world? I don't know. The poet-pianist is playing the present (hoo-hoo-hoo, shoo-shoo-shoo, ric-a-nic, whatever the tune of the moment is) and must remain seated at the piano. In the end, history passes, art remains. Mozart is still relevant today, he's still young, because with his music 'sorrow is released / dismissed, absolved'). This is what art is for. It cannot always change things in the world, but it is important in order to give our minds a relief from the bleakness of everyday life and maybe in order to placate our conflicts. That comma in the title, critics write, is essential: Mozart seems anachronistic in 1935, but is it really? By the end of the poem it doesn't seem so. 'The streets are full of cries', the last line says, and yet it is placidly snowing, Mozart is playing. Poet, be seated at the piano! The poet is 'interested not in writing about the street, but in writing about the problem of writing about the street' Mark Halliday wrote.
I so regret that Wallace Stevens was not in my syllabus, because I love this poem.


  1. An interesting thought. I share this absolutely. Why must we pander to the ephemeral things around us. Art lives forever. Shakespeare is still relevant and Mozart and Da Vinci.

  2. I absolutely agree. And the proof is that this poem, written in 1935 still speaks to us in 2011.

  3. I rather did enjoy the sounds and ryhtms of the poem. A beautifully written poem, I think.

  4. Oh what a nice post, Stefania! Not many people post on poetry, so it is interesting when someone does. For some reason, I feel you might like this poem too;
    I did this poet at the same time as Wallace, as by good luck he was on my syllabus!

  5. @Geosi: yes, I particularly like the rhythm and sounds of the first four lines.

    @Sarah: you're right, I love that poem. Thank you for the link. It reminds me of a poem by Rilke, originally written in French. Unfortunately I can find an English translation only for the first two quartaines (how strange!). They are however the most beautiful, according to me.

    Here if you read French: