There are lines of poetry that once you’ve read them you’ll never get rid of. “The world is ugly and the people are sad” is one of them and it’s bugged me for almost forty years. I was an undergraduate when I first read the lines and if you’re a reader of American poetry you know they are by Wallace Stevens.
The lines represent a mood. Moods are to truth as armadillo meat is to–well, anything. It doesn’t matter that the world is beautiful and people are at least happy on occasion. Mood wins in poetry and the darker the better.
What would a poem which argues the world is glorious and people are, if not happy, at least capable of happiness sound like? It would sound like this:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits.
I’ll take Keats over Stevens any day. Why? Because the imagination insists the gloomy days have no noble nature. Because the sails of beauty can be slack or filled with wind but they break the monotony of gloom. (Sails and horses running will always do this.)
On the night Stevens wrote his lines someone was playing a banjo in New Haven and singing softly something the poet did not conceive of. And whether it was a spiritual or the blues or a song of the working classes doesn’t matter. The world was never ugly. Some people are occasionally sad, or cannot shake sadness and in any case saying so bears nuance and scruple neither of which are evident in Stevens’ original lines.
Stevens for all his capacities could be cheap, a thing you never find in Williams, the poet against whom he’s often positioned. Williams would tell us an old woman eating plums finds them good. I’ll take Williams and Keats and plums.