B.J. Leggett: On "Anecdote of the Jar"

Although other sounds are more numerous, round is what we hear as it imposes itself on the poem:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,

And round it was, upon a hill.

It made the slovenly wilderness

Surround that hill.


The wilderness rose up to it,

And sprawled around, no longer wild.

The jar was round upon the ground

And tall and of a port in air.

Just as the sound of round appears to dominate the poem once we fix on it---that is, once we read from a perspective that concentrates on roundness--so too does our understanding that the jar orders the wilderness depend on our adopting momentarily the point of view of the jar. The jar orders the wilderness by interpreting it from its own perspective, by imposing its own shape, making the wilderness surround it. And one must note here that the wilderness as a whole is not ordered, only the edge that has been made round (given form) by surrounding the jar. That is, the order imposed by the jar is a perspectival order. From the point of view of the jar, the wilderness is no longer wild, alien; it has been given a shape familiar to the jar (the only shape it knows or needs to know, to paraphrase another text on a jar). But to adopt any perspective other than that of the jar is to see that the wilderness is in no real sense changed; it is to recognize the arbitrary quality of the ordering, as the poem eventually does.

The issue of point of view is clearlv central to the poem, as Frank Lentricchia has recently noted, although Lentricchia's own perspective--he wants to read it as an anti-imperialist anecdote--does not allow him to pursue the issue to its conclusion. He writes that point of view in "Anecdote of the Jar" is mainly "panoramic," but at two crucial points limited. At first we view the world "according to a jar, refusing to keep its proud sense of its own well-formed self to itself, smugly taking itself as the distributing point of order and sole topographical coordinate: we see the wilderness forced out of itself into order." At the end "we experience the point of view of the wilderness in the sense that the panoramic speaker takes the side of the wilderness" (10). This is also the side Lentricchia takes. He argues that the old point of controversy--is the poem for art or for nature?-- disappears "when we note that [Stevens] lets nature get the last word by characterizing the autonomous jar of art, at the end of the poem, as an absence of nature." Nature is "maternal, creative, pliant," while the jar is "inflexible, hard," a "receptacle that doesn't receive and from which nothing emerges." Lentricchia suggests as well that the poem does not achieve coherence on its own terms; it asks us to go outside the text for an understanding of its implications: "Formalists must all sooner or later come to the grievous conclusion about "Anecdote of the Jar" that the aged Ezra Pound came to about his Cantos: it will not cohere" (10). Whether or not a poem coheres depends in large measure on the way we opt to read it. In my reading of "Anecdote of the Jar" Lentricchia's brand of incoherence, which arises from the absence of a political context, is of less importance than the incoherence that arises from the poem's epistemological and aesthetic ideologies.

"We'd better look harder at point of view," Lentricchia writes of the poem, but he chooses to ignore its most crucial perspective, that of the "I" who initiates the action. He finds that "this is an anecdote that does not, apparently, centrally involve the human actor who places the jar" (7), and, in truth, the poem's first line--"I placed a jar in Tennessee"--has never been sufficiently emphasized. To put it another way, the speaker's perspective on the opposition of order and chaos needs to be uncovered, which also means that we need to be more careful in our phrasing of what actually happens in the poem. To speak of the jar's "refusing to keep its proud sense of its own well-formed self to itself," to accuse it of being smug, or to say that the wilderness is "forced out of itself into order"--these are products of Lentricchia's own point of view and not sanctioned by the poem itself. Neither does the poem sanction the question of whether it is for the jar or for the wilderness. All of these issues are a result of personifying the jar as human intelligence, forgetting that it is itself the result of an arbitrary imposition of order and that another ordering principle lies behind it. The first line of the poem modifies our entire reading if we recognize that the speaker takes full responsibility for this arbitrary imposition of order. He places the jar, imposes a "geometrical simplification" onto the void, notes the domination of any center of power, but, being more mobile and more sophisticated than a jar, also notes that from another perspective the jar's ordering power is illusory. The wilderness is not physically changed; it is not literally "forced out of itself into order," as Lentricchia claims, any more than a text is physically changed by a new interpretation. The jar "made" the wilderness surround it only in an interpretation that adopts for a moment its point of view. Interpretation here means the imposition of sense and value, these being reduced in this case to roundness.

To ignore the interpretation that lies behind the jar's interpretation and initiates it is to be surprised by what has appeared to many readers a sudden and arbitrary shift in point of view. In the third and last quatrain the speaker says of the jar's ordering power

It took dominion everywhere.

The jar was gray and bare.

It did not give of bird or bush,

Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Readers who have assumed that the poem is for the jar against the disorderly wilderness may feel that the speaker's attention to the jar's sterility is not sufficiently prepared for, or, like Lentricchia, who is for the wilderness, they may feel that the poem does not cohere. But the point of view that controls the poem, that comprehends both the jar and the wilderness, does not blunder into incoherence. It recognizes instead the ironies of perspectivism--that it is only through the adoption of a willful and arbitrary point of view that one is able to interpret a world too slovenly (not only "slipshod," but "of low character" and thus, like the giant, "uncultivated" or "uncivilized") to provide its own meaning, and, simultaneously, that the perspective through which the world is given form is not itself a part of that world. The jar, as the speaker's form of artifice, is utterly alien to the world of bird and bush, which is to say (as does "The Snow Man") that any order, any interpretation of the Tennessee wilderness would be an imposition and therefore not a true depiction of that world as it is. To follow the development of the poem we must understand that it reflects the speaker's point of view, which exceeds that of the jar and identifies with it only momentarily. It is for this reason that Lentricchia is, I think, mistaken in arguing that the preposition of in the title "means not 'about' but something like 'belonging to,' as if the jar could speak, as if the poem were really about a story that a jar might tell about itself" (8).

Against Lentricchia I would argue that the poem is neither for nor against the jar, and that a political context that includes our forefathers' slaughter of the Indians who lived in the Cherokee village for which Tennessee is named is not particularly helpful in our understanding of the wilderness. It is a poem primarily about perspective and interpretation, which come to mean very much the same thing. It is aware of the dilemma it dramatizes--that perspective is both necessary and untrue--but it cannot escape another dilemma inherent in its own perspectivist assumptions, which we recognize once the speaker's point of view is no longer identical with that of the jar. The poem ceases to cohere with the line "The jar was gray and bare," for at this point the speaker recognizes the jar's alien status. It is like "nothing else in Tennessee" since it is static, not "natural," incapable of change and generation. To make this distinction between the jar and the wilderness, however, the speaker must assume that we can know the Tennessee wilderness as it is, that it presents itself to us, in Macherey's suggestive metaphors, as "an open fruit" or as "a discourse already constituted" (6), and not as something whose only meaning is that given to it by the jar. The first two stanzas of the poem are however based on the assumption that reality will be known only as it is interpreted by such a geometrical simplification as the jar represents, and that to interpret is to create according to one's own sense and values. If the description of the jar's effect on the wilderness is to be taken seriously, the speaker must also impose his sense and values on that which he identifies with the living world antithetical to the artificial jar. And we now see that what was presented as disorder was by necessity already ordered from the beginning. By associating the wilderness with a particular region, Tennessee, by characterizing it as sprawling, slovenly, by referring to its vegetation and animal life, the persona had given form to that which he then set against form. And in the end, by asserting the jar's alien presence in a readily apprehended world of bird and bush, the instigator of this epistemological exercise unmasks a naive empiricism that lies behind the more official perspectivist stance of the poem. The first two stanzas give us a world that is "fully made," while the last gives us one that is "fully found." If the character of the Tennessee wilderness is a given, if it can be known as it is, then the ordering power of artifice over unordered nature, seemingly the point of the anecdote, is made unconvincing. The poem, that is, has it both ways--the character of reality is a creation of perspectival seeing and ordering; the character of reality as a given exposes the artificiality of any given perspective.

From Early Stevens: The Nietzchean Intertext. Copyright © 1992 by Duke University Press.


Criticism Overview
Title B.J. Leggett: On "Anecdote of the Jar" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author B.J. Leggett Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Dec 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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