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Thread: The Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens

  1. #1
    The Lost Mairwen's Avatar
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    Question The Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens

    My American Literature II teacher and I have differing opinions on how to interpret this piece. Can whoever views this take a moment to read this short three-stanza poem and donate a comment detailing your perspective? That would be amazing.

    Thanks!

    The Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens

    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.

    It took dominion everywhere.
    The jar was gray and bare.
    It did not give of bird or bush,
    Like nothing else in Tennessee.

  2. #2
    Bibliophile Drkshadow03's Avatar
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    It seems to be about a jar. I think it might also be about some strange wilderness called Tennessee. But seriously, the point I think Stevens is driving at in the poem is that the value of everyday objects (a jar) can be drastically changed through language and context. This simple everyday object suddenly acquires grandiosity by the speaker placing it on top of a hill (thus through its relationship with other things in the world) and by taking an ordinary object in an unusual situation it becomes the focus of the poem.

    By doing this, Stevens challenges the assumption that great poetry must be about epic things like warfare or love or spiritual philosophies or the moving beauty of landscapes; even a simple jar can be the subject of poetry. Yet, at the same time by placing the jar in an unusual place (in Tennessee on a hill in the middle of the wilderness), the poems recognizes that the value and meaning of simple objects shift with the external world, thus the poem makes a philosophical point anyway. The value we place on a thing is contingent on various factors found external to that thing.

    One of these contingent factors is language itself. Our language can imbue an object with importance or suggest unimportance, depending on how we speak about it. Poetry can takes everyday events (a bird's chirp, the buzz of an insect, or a jar on a hill) and imbue them with importance. So this philosophical point also becomes an indirect defense of poetry. By exploring the idea that the value of the object is related to its context and the way we speak about the object, the poem itself becomes an external force that unveils hidden and new values of ordinary things, and by doing so is also revealing one possible purpose of poetry.

    A second way of looking at the poem is to think about the relationship between the jar and Tennessee. The man-made object, a jar, is placed artificially in the Tennessee wilderness and it becomes part of the wilderness. The wilderness isn't really wild, which implies a value-judgement, but rather it is the way it is and it is only outside forces man-made language that calls a natural setting wild (and by implication, "bad.") The man-made jar seemingly resists the forces of nature ("it did not give of bird or bush"), but we find out that it does this by inheriting the essence and becoming part of its surrounding. For all intent and purposes the man-made jar placed in an unusual setting has become part of the setting now, forcing us to reconsider the dividing line between natural and artificial.

    A third way, which is probably a variant of the 2nd reading, is to see the jar as a symbol of technology and humanity and tennessee as a symbol of nature and the wilderness. The poem is then about the human struggle to overcome the wilderness (nature). The wilderness becomes less wild due the presence of human made creations (a jar), as human beings use their ingenuity to control nature. However, while humanity attempts to conquer and keep the wilderness at bay, nature also changes humanity and reveals the natural side of humanity. Just as nature never gives up trying to restore its lost territory, humanity never gives up its battle to make nature succumb to its will, showing that human tenacity to overcome nature is itself a product of nature.
    Last edited by Drkshadow03; 07-10-2013 at 08:21 PM.
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    The Lost Mairwen's Avatar
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    I really enjoy your interpretation. It's a way that I didn't think of perceiving the writing. Wallace Stevens was not one of those that wrote for only the literary guys that would get the inside jokes about allusions and stuff of that nature--he wrote for everyone/any audience willing to read his work (even though he kept it away from his coworkers at his insurance company). So, in essence, his writing could most definitely have been just about this jar, rather than making the jar some sort of greater symbol. That's an idea I would love to entertain further because in his poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" it is simply about taking a gander at just a plain Blackbird from several different perspectives. Maybe I can read "The Anecdote of the Jar" from the perspective of seeing the jar as just this synthetic object and explore its value, as you say. Thank you for your input on the poem!

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    Bibliophile Drkshadow03's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mairwen View Post
    I really enjoy your interpretation. It's a way that I didn't think of perceiving the writing. Wallace Stevens was not one of those that wrote for only the literary guys that would get the inside jokes about allusions and stuff of that nature--he wrote for everyone/any audience willing to read his work (even though he kept it away from his coworkers at his insurance company). So, in essence, his writing could most definitely have been just about this jar, rather than making the jar some sort of greater symbol. That's an idea I would love to entertain further because in his poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" it is simply about taking a gander at just a plain Blackbird from several different perspectives. Maybe I can read "The Anecdote of the Jar" from the perspective of seeing the jar as just this synthetic object and explore its value, as you say. Thank you for your input on the poem!
    You're welcome. But what is your disagreement with your teacher exactly?
    "You understand well enough what slavery is, but freedom you have never experienced, so you do not know if it tastes sweet or bitter. If you ever did come to experience it, you would advise us to fight for it not with spears only, but with axes too." - Herodotus

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    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    I like darkshadows' analysis, too.


    An “anecdote” is a short literary form. It reminds me of an “ode”, another short(ish) literary creation that Keats describes in his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (both titles could be badly translated as "A story or poem of a jar"). An analogy might be: anecdote is to ode as jar is to urn. Anecdotes are light-hearted, humorous historical tales. Odes are noble, emotionally laden historical tales. Stevens’ poetry is often a meditation on poetry. How is an anecdote different from an ode, and how is a jar different from an urn? Urns are elegant and ancient; jars are modern and functional. Like an urn, a jar separates what is inside of it from what is outside of it. But I think of jars as made of glass, or “gray and bare” clay. On Keats’ urn, we see paintings: the boy trying to kiss the girl, and the pipers piping their spirit ditties of no tone.

    The eternal pictures on the urn tell Keats that truth is beauty, beauty truth. The jar, instead, does not “give of bird or bush.” There are no simple, eternal truths embodied in the jar – nonetheless, “It took dominion everywhere”, grey and bare though it is. The truths that it whispers, of a tamed wilderness, of a port of air, are like nothing else in Tennessee, or, perhaps, the British Museum.
    Last edited by Ecurb; 07-10-2013 at 06:28 PM.

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    I think it's very simple. The jar is structured. Anything that you place in the wilderness that is structured will make the wilderness bow to it. As you focus on the structure, this will be clearly so.

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    The Lost Mairwen's Avatar
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    I spoke up when he asked my group what our take on the poem was, and said that it was about an alien thing coming and ruining a wild area. I saw it being placed by the narrator in the wilderness as a symbol of maybe divine right, and when the wilderness rose up to contact the jar, the wilderness ceased to be what it was. It was "no longer wild." In class, I tried to illustrate my idea by telling him that it was kind of like the Europeans being royally sent to the Americas to conquer it, and the natives were curious about these new people. We sadly know how that story ended. When I concluded my idea with all the evidence from the text that I gathered, my teacher said, "No, I can't sign off on that one." Now that I have discussed it with several people, and looked up other online analyses, it seems that nobody truly has a uniform consensus as to what the poem truly means. My teacher stated that the meaning of the poem was that the jar represented an empty mind and absorbed possibility in its surroundings, but I disagree with this because the jar in the end was not affected whatsoever.

  8. #8
    It's actually pretty shocking that your teacher is so close-minded about a differing perspective. Sounds like one of those teachers less interested in fostering reading and interpretive skills in his students, but more interested in big-noting himself.
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  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by cafolini View Post
    I think it's very simple. The jar is structured. Anything that you place in the wilderness that is structured will make the wilderness bow to it. As you focus on the structure, this will be clearly so.
    I guess that is the point, or at least a plausible meaning of the poem. You could substitute "man-made" for "structured," and in that sense the man-made is contrasted to the "natural" wilderness of Tennessee. But why "Tennessee" and not, say "Kentucky?" My guess is that WS wrote it this way because he liked the sound. It's a very playful poem and memorable.

  10. #10
    The Lost Mairwen's Avatar
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    Yeah, I was sort of shocked too; not to mention slightly belittled. I'm sure he didn't mean it in any insulting way whatsoever, but it would have been nice just to have him state why he didn't like my interpretation or how he saw it as wrong.

  11. #11
    The Lost Mairwen's Avatar
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    Yeah, I totally agree because that's for the most part what I was trying to convey to my teacher. I guess I just illustrated it in a way that wasn't pleasing to him.

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    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    I agree that close-minded teachers are the worst. It is perfectly fine to have a student disagree with your position - English class is about using the text to create and back-up your position. The end result is not nearly as important as the process.

    That being said - I agree with your teacher's interpretation of the poem. On first reading it, I was more inclined to your view, Mairwen, that the poem was about a foreign object taking or corrupting some wilderness or primal state. I thought it was about the dangers of urbanization - in the same manner of Frost often writes about..

    However, Stevens is a far more metaphysical poet than transcendentalist. Everything is about the mind and perspective. So I began to look at it in that light, and it seems like the jar is the poem itself, and the poem is about the need to interpret: this abstract thing thrust upon people who cling on, hoping to find meaning. The poem draws scattered ideas (the wild) around it and the ideas try to fit the shape.

    ON a completely separate note - one thing that always fascinated me about the poem was the idea of the jar. A jar is typically meant to put things in but the entire poem happens around the jar, externally.
    I wrote a poem on a leaf and it blew away...

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