22: The Anecdote of the Jar

Doing my MA meant reading a lot of literature that I would not otherwise have encountered. As well as studying the Situationists and seeing how they related to other theorists, or learning about Georges Perec and Oulippo, I also encountered many poems and stories I would not have found on my own. One of these was Wallace Steven’s Anecdote of the Jar.

English literature courses spend a lot of time discussing how one should interpret a poem, and the discipline offers a range of different filters: Marxism, feminism, queer theory, psychoanalysis, &c. Some of the textbooks in particular treated literature as a patient who might respond to different treatments. I encountered other students who chafed at this, saying poetry shouldn’t be a puzzle, something to be solved and simplified. The best poetry is that which is unstable, that doesn’t quite surrender to interpretation.

Wallace Steven’s Anecdote of the Jar, first published in 1919, sounds simple, beginning “I placed a jar in Tennessee”, telling how “It made the slovenly wilderness¬†surround that hill.” Wikipedia refers to the way in which different interpretations can approach it: “from a poststructuralist perspective the poem is concerned with temporal and linguistic disjunction… a feminist perspective reveals a poem concerned with male dominance over a traditionally feminized landscape”. We could talk about the act of creation, about contamination or even colonialism. Some people have drawn links between this poem and Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn.

The Steven’s poem is one of the pieces of literature from the course that I remember most fondly. The professor who introduced it took a broadly post-structualist approach, while never compromising the basic act described in the poem. A poet placing an object in a landscape then looking at how that has transformed the environment.

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