Wallace Stevens’ “The Man with the Blue Guitar”

Blue Guitar illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Blue Guitar
illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

The Book Review of the Sunday New York Times this week (July 20, 2014) focused on contemporary poetry. It reviewed five books of contemporary poetry and featured an essay by David Orr entitled “On Poetry.”  The front cover was a whimsical drawing with archaic poetic terms such as “forsooth,”  “twas,”  “alas-alack”  and “thither” graffitied onto walls, suit jackets and boots. And on page 4, where the Book Review often introduces the matter of chief focus in that particular issue, there is a brief recap of New York Times’ poetry criticism through the years.

The four paragraph piece remembers the 1937 review of Wallace Steven’s  The Man with the Blue Guitar,  a review of John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs in 1964, a 1975 piece on John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and a 1981 review of Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems (18 years after her death). And it was the review of the Steven’s piece that caught my eye.  The reviewer–Eda Lou Walton–stated that “the skill of these plucked and strummed-out improvisations proves him again the master of the most subtle rhythmical effects.”

And so of course, I had to pull from my shelf my copy of Wallace Stevens’ Collected Poems and looked to “The Man with the Blue Guitar.”  Actually the title refers to both a particular poem and the book in which it was contained.  The individual poem is the piece that attracted the world’s attention. It is a long piece, thirty-three sections of between four and sixteen couplets.  Stevens claimed that he was inspired by Picasso’s painting Old Man with a Guitar. (Later David Hockney would paint a series of works inspired both by Picasso’s painting and Steven’s poem.)

Picasso's Old Man Playing Guitar

Picasso’s Old Man Playing Guitar

What is surprising is that the poem is so much more a “shattered” portrait than Picasso’s piece. Picasso’s Man with a Blue Guitar belongs (not surprisingly) to his Blue Period, but more importantly comes  several years before he is influenced by African art and–with Georges Braque–invents Cubism.  It is the cubism–and his art that follows–that is “shattered,” that most resembles the large schisms and small fractures running through society and which most resembles the world of Stevens’ guitar.  In fact, despite his referencing Picasso in the poem itself, it seems as if Stevens’ poem is more in tune with Hockney’s painting (impossible since it was painted in 1982, forty-five years after Stevens’ poem.)

David Hockney's Blue Hockney

David Hockney’s Blue Hockney


The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”

And so, we have the “man with the blue guitar” refusing to tell things as they are–or perhaps unable to. Or is he implying that even the imagination, the creative faculty, is unable to depict “things as they are”?  Or is this phrase “things as they are” simply a coded phrase for the physical world–and guitar and the player are able to sing of what is behind that physical world. And yet his audience seems somewhat philistine–they are slow to understand. For them, “Day is desire and night is sleep” and “the earth for us is flat and bare/there are no shadows anywhere.”  And yet, we–and the player of the blue guitar–know that if nothing else, the 20th century has taught us that shadows are everywhere.

The poem has often been depicted as a tension between the guitarist and his audience, between the imaginative truth and the surface perceptions.  I believe it shows the failure of the audience to see deeper, a failure of the audience’s imagination.  Modern life–and this is surely not original with Stevens–is deadening and routine, and we need the players of the blue guitars to break us out, to center our focus on the more important things than mere survival.

Because of copyright issues, the entire poem is not available on line. (Though I am sure some clever computer user has found it somewhere.) But it is worth finding. It is a Whitman-esque explosion of images and thoughts and debate and sound.

I had forgotten about it–and about where and who I was when I first read it–and so am grateful for last Sunday’s paper which mentioned it a tiny corner of a large section. Sunday’s paper was the blue guitar that sent me re-reading and re-thinking.

Here are the first six sections of the poem:

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”

I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.

I sing a hero’s head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,

Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.

If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,

Say that it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.

Ah, but to play man number one,
To drive the dagger in his heart,

To lay his brain upon the board
And pick the acrid colors out,

To nail his thought across the door,
Its wings spread wide to rain and snow,

To strike his living hi and ho,
To tick it, tock it, turn it true,

To bang it from a savage blue,
Jangling the metal of the strings…..

So that’s life, then: things as they are?
It picks its way on the blue guitar.

A million people on one string?
And all their manner in the thing.

And all their manner, right and wrong,
And all their manner, weak and strong?

The feelings crazily, craftily call,
Like a buzzing of flies in autumn air,

And that’s life, then: things as they are,
This buzzing of the blue guitar.

Do not speak to us of the greatness of poetry,
Of the torches wisping in the underground,

Of the structure of vaults upon a point of light.
There are no shadows in our sun,

Day is desire and night is sleep.
There are no shadows anywhere.

The earth, for us, is flat and bare.
There are no shadows. Poetry

Exceeding music must take the place
of empty heaven and its hymns,

Ourselves in poetry must take their place,
Even in the chattering of your guitar.

A tune beyond us as we are,
Yet nothing changed by the blue guitar;

Ourselves in the tune as if in space,
Yet nothing changed, except the place

Of things as they are and only the place
As you play them, on the blue guitar,

Placed, so, beyond the compass of change,
Perceived in a final atmosphere;

For a moment final, in the way
The thinking of art seems final when

The thinking of god is smoky dew
The tune is space. The blue guitar

Becomes the place of things as they are,
A composing of senses of the guitar.

(27 more sections yet to come)


Renoir…Cotton Candy…and Barbie’s Bordello

photo Ralph Crane

photo Ralph Crane

We probably all can imagine that little boy or girl at a fair, a carnival, or an amusement park, who seeing an enormous pompadour of pink or blue cotton candy (spun sugar to some of you) insists on getting the largest size. We can see further the sticky stains upon their faces, the crazed shock of sugar in their eyes. And we can empathize with them and their queasy stomachs that a night filled with cotton candy is certain to produce.

That’s how I feel about Renoir and his nudes.

Pierre Renoir "The Bathing Group (1916)" Barnes Foundation

Pierre Renoir
“The Bathing Group (1916)”
Barnes Foundation

I spent more than three hours at the Barnes Foundation last Friday night. And as always, it is a mind-boggling collection of early modern art, African sculpture, and American furniture, decorative and industrial arts. I could spend a lifetime looking at the Modglianis and Mattisses. I am fascinated by Chaim Soutaine and George Seurat. And Henri Rousseau I find thoroughly relaxing and amusing.

But it is the Renoirs that I find cloying.

Barnes owns 181 Renoirs that encompass the span of the artist’s career. Now, there is much that I like about Renoir: his early works, the group portraits and the early nudes. But the more famous nudes, those cotton candy swirls of creams, oranges, pinks and yellows, I find difficult to look at.

By contrast, one of my favorite paintings in the collection is also a nude: Amadeo Modgliani’s Reclining Nude from Back. Is it lifelike?  No.  But it is sensuous and intriguing and narrative and appealing and pleasing. And what more could a person want from a work of art?

Reclining Nude from the Back by Amadeo Modgliani

Reclining Nude from the Back by Amadeo Modgliani

Modgliani’s attenuated figures with their mask-like visages, I find fascinating. I find a story in each of their stony faces. Likewise, I delight in the classical innocence of Picasso’s Girl with a Goat or the bold outlines and patterns of Mattisse’s Reclining Nude with Blue Eyes.  Each is so distinct in itself, so original in its view of the human body.

Renoir’s nudes, on the other hand, I find distracting in their busyness. I find them tiring and I tend to pass over them quickly.

To me, they look like how Barbie would decorate a bordello if she ever became a Madam.

Barbie and the Bordello

Barbie and the Bordello

The house that Barnes built…now relocated

Yesterday I went to the new home of the Barnes Collection.  The building is light and airy and relaxing and peaceful.  And the art there is second to none. Even to the least knowledgeable visitor, there must be ten paintings in each room that are recognizable.  In many ways, it is like walking into a primer of Modern Art.

To give you some idea of the scope of this collection, it holds 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modiglianis, 11 Degas,  7 Van Goghs, 6 Seurats, as well as numerous works by Manet, Utrillo, Demuth, Prendergast, de Chirico, Gauguin. And shoring up these masters is the odd El Greco, Rubens, or Titian.  There is also a large array of African sculptures, modernist textiles, ceramics, American folk art, Pennsylvania-Dutch cabinetry, and a large assembly of ironwork that, like the delicate chain of a rosary, seems to link the paintings together in each room.

And all in a private collection!

There are so many stories behind the Barnes Foundation. Having amassed what is arguably the most famous personal collection of modern art in the world, Albert C. Barnes had willed that his collection remain at his residence in  Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia. He had stipulated that the collection would be open to the public for no more than two hours a week and that reservations had to be made two-weeks in advance. He wanted the works to be used solely by artists, students and educators for study, and so the paintings  were not to be loaned or reproduced. After what would be the first of many legal challenges, these stipulations were first amended to two-and-a-half hours a week  and visitors were limited to 500 people a week.

(Originally, Barnes wanted his collection for art students and laborers only, and he had little time for the rich and celebrated. In a room outside the galleries, there are documents from Barnes’ life. One is a letter to the automobile tycoon,  William Chrysler, stating that he must refuse his request to visit the collection because at the moment he is practicing goldfish swallowing and can not be bothered!  Another form was a bill of sale for eight Picasso’s. He had spent $1490.00)

In 1992, the Barnes Foundation was in some straits, the house itself needed some repair, and after a great deal of legal wrangling much of the collection went on a world tour. For the first time, the collection, which had been so limited in the numbers of people who had actually seen it, was now being viewed by millions in cities around the world.

But the tour still did not bring in enough funds.  When the foundation tried to extend its hours, the local municipal government balked, and after several years of suits and counter-suits, of bitter and arcane legal wrangling, it was decided that the collection would be moved to a new location on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The move was (and still is) highly controversial and was the subject of the 2009 documentary, The Art of the Steal.

But to be honest, the museum is beautiful.

The new location recreates the rooms of Barnes’ home to the finest detail–baseboards the exact height, wall paper the exact texture, paneling the exact wood–and encases them in a building that is peaceful, modern, and relaxing. And the bonus is that now so many more people are now able to see what was before limited to such small numbers.

How impressive is Barnes’ collection? It literally takes one’s breath away–you walk into the first room and you gasp! The sheer number is overwhelming. Above the windows of the first room are the three large panels of Matisse’s Dancers. You are in a room with several Picasso’s and yet that is not where your eyes go immediately.

The paintings are hung with precision and deliberation–two small Renoir landscapes will surround a large Renoir portrait which will contrast with the Matisse portrait above it.  And the ornamental ironwork that is placed throughout reflects the patterns, shapes and themes of the pictures they  accent.  For instance, a sinuous iron bar  echoes the curves of an odalisque by Cezanne.

A single day is rarely sufficient to see any museum, and this is truly so with the Barnes. A person could easily spend an entire day in one room and feel sated. (And one could certainly post an entire blog on any single room…if not on any single painting.)

While so many of the paintings are very familiar and are such a part of Western culture, they were not so when Barnes first bought them. (The $1490.00 that he spent on the eight Picasso’s attests to that!)  He had traveled to Europe on his honeymoon and had befriended Leo Stein, who with his sister Gertrude had become such great patrons of Picasso and Matisse. Barnes then commissioned his high-school friend, the artist William Glackens, to Paris to buy art for him. Barnes trusted him completely, and Glackens purchased the first twenty paintings of the collection.

Another story, tells how Barnes himself went into one particular gallery, liked what he saw and bought 52 paintings. Could you imagine a gallery owner today with that sort of sell? Could you imagine the cost?  But aside from having money, Barnes also had an extraordinary eye–and an extraordinary vision.

Barnes had made his money by inventing a chemical preparation used to disinfect the eyes of  newborns. He spent his money on opening our eyes to the glories of twentieth century art.

Today, despite the wrangling and the bad blood, despite the legal pyrotechnics and the extra-legal manipulations, the Barnes Foundation is nevertheless one of the great centers of modern art–and the controversial relocation is truly a masterpiece.

And more importantly: amid all this hubbub, amid all the controversy, it is a place of extraordinary peace and beauty.

It’s not a bad place to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Thursday Music Review: Great music and then musings on greatness.

I went to see a band tonight down at a local pub, The Dark Horse, known more for soccer clubs and televised soccer games than for music. But some friends of mine are in this band and I had to see them.

The Dark Horse Pub, Philadelphia, PA

I have played with two of the members before in an Irish band, but this new band, The Flashbacks, is just that …a flashback to several decades earlier.  The band started out as a Beatles cover band, but then expanded with a lot of Steely Dan, Yardbirds, Stones, Kinks, before settling into CSNY, Beach Boys, the Dead, Eagles, etc. (They tout themselves as the second British Invasion, but they cover a fair amount of  American bands as well.)

And the reason they can cover this music is that they are DAMN GOOD!  The harmonies are precise–three-part most of the time–and the musicianship is impeccable.  They are seasoned players who have, for the most part, known each other for a very long time and they play to each others’ strengths and build on it. The youngest member–Joe Manning–is just a pup compared to the others, (he wasn’t born when these guys first started playing together) but he is one of those wunderkinder who can play anything and play it with perfect beauty, wit and definition. If he had been alive forty-five years ago, they would have called him a god.

And so this got me to thinking….

There are an awful lot of very talented people out there. I could go see scores of really talented bands or individuals every night of the week in my city alone.  Multiply that by every other city, burg, town. How many great musicians are there in Dublin? Edinburgh? Berlin? London? Madrid? Cairo?  Innumerable.

I know very talented artists, amazing writers, magical poets, extraordinary designers who day in and day out work at their craft (or because of the ways of the world, work at their “day-job” and then work at their craft) and create wonderful pieces. I am sure you know similar people in your parts of the world. What separates these artists from those who’ve become household names?

Luck, certainly plays a role, but a very minimum one.  Being at the right place at the right time, meeting someone who can truly help, etc. are all fortunate but are not the thing that separates the very good from the great.  And mere technique is not sufficient–there are thousands of technically gifted people.

I believe it is focus, focus on one’s calling at the expense of all else.

Picasso and Bardot. How great is that?
re-posted from http://weekendspast.com

I remember having a discussion with my father once. He was bemoaning the way that Picasso treated women, discarding them indiscriminately whenever it suited him. I argued that it was a symptom of his genius. (He challenged my assumption that Picasso was a genius.)  Genius, I said, uses everything it comes across. There is nothing else that matters but his or her art, his or her genius–other people and other people’s emotions included.

The conversation came up again this week, when someone remarked on seeing the television movie Hemingway and Gellhorn on what an unlikeable cad Hemingway actually was.  Again, it is all ego wrapped around his art…or maybe the opposite, all his art is wrapped around his ego.

The attitude can be summed up in the clichéd saying “It’s his (her) world, we’re just living in it.”

Hemingway and Gellhorn in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Who else has stepped on everyone to further their art–or in the furtherance of their art?  We could cite both Shelley and Byron, who stepped on and used everyone in their belief in their own genius and the entitlements it should deserve.

But this is not only in the arts.  Steve Jobs may have been a genius but he was hardly a likeable person. And Bobby Fischer, arguably the greatest chess player ever, became more than simply an egocentric genius. He became a misanthropic, hate monger.

Mozart–a man who could create entire operas in his head without touching an instrument–was certainly egocentric, almost to an infantile degree.

So what about all your acquaintances who are truly talented, gifted people? Is it that they are decent human beings whose company you enjoy, whose interest in you and others around them is obvious, that keeps them from reaching the pantheon of genius.

And would you have it any other way?  I know I wouldn’t!  I too much enjoy the people who are creating wonderful, beautiful things–like the middle-aged Flashbacks at The Dark Horse pub–and who are still wonderful human beings, interested in the world and the people around them.

The etymology of the word “amateur” comes from the word Latin word “amat” –to love. Whether one is paid or nor, celebrated or not, it is the love of doing, making, performing something that is good and beautiful that makes for a better world.

I’ll go see the Flashbacks, the next time they play!