Wallace Stevens, “The Load of Sugar-Cane”

I don’t know Wallace Stevens’s work well but I want to make a few simple comments on “The Load of Sugar-Cane” – a slight piece but one that is weirdly haunting. You can find the text at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Load_Of_Sugar-Cane .

One thing that keeps you rereading it is the elusiveness of the tone. From the start the poem gives off completely contradictory signals in this regard. After the prosaic, factual title the first two lines are both extremely and self-consciously beautiful in their sound patterning:

The going of the glade boat
Is like water flowing.

They can seem almost to beg you to read them in a hushed, reverential voice, milking their auditory possibilities, playing up the stately, archaic feel that the verb “going” has in this context and wallowing in the romantic Taoism of the comparison to flowing water. But this lushness of expression and tone and the closeness of what’s being said to nonsense or tautology at least hovers on the edge of self-parody, suggesting a quite different reading in a derisive drawl. Opposing impulses between which the poem seems to spin are joy in the transformative or revelatory power of the imagination as incarnated in poetry and down to earth contempt for its fanciful self-deceptions.

About the beauty of the patterning, I’ll just say that it combines repetition with rhythmic fluidity so that the movement of alliteration, assonance and internal rhyme is like the unravelling of a swirl of water in a river. Patterning of sound can’t but shade into suggestions of meaning, however. The fact that the two things compared with each other, the going and the flowing, also sound similar has an effect like that of self-reflective simile, where something is compared to itself: it gives a feeling of mysteriously deepened apprehension of the obvious. But the similar is also different, and this difference is suggested in the sound: the hard gs of “going” and “glade-boat” evoke (for me) the hard push of the boat’s prow, whereas the softness of w and fl suggest the yielding flow of the water. I find the flicker of a smile in the corner of the poet’s mouth in the way the very sound of the assertion reminds us of qualifications to it.

“Like water flowing” is repeated in the third line, as line 5 (“Under the rainbows”) is repeated as line 6. Repetitions of this kind are highly characteristic of Stevens. They come across less as repetitions than as fluid pulsations because of the artful way in which they’re varied. The delicacy of Stevens’s technique here strikes me as astonishing. Compare how he does it in this poem with his approach in “Ploughing on Sunday”:

The white cock’s tail
Tosses in the wind.
The turkey-cock’s tail
Glitters in the sun.

Water in the fields.
The wind pours down.
The feathers flare
And bluster in the wind.

The whole spirit of “Ploughing” is explosively dynamic and in keeping with that spirit Stevens’s catching up of lines and phrases is combined with sharp variation. Lines one and three exactly parallel each other syntactically and in the words “cock’s tail” but this parallelism heightens their divergence in rhythm, in image and in half their wording. Something similar happens with the echoing of line 2 by line 4 and of line 5 by line 8. But of course such sharp divergence would destroy the quiet mood of “The Load of Sugar-Cane”. Stevens’s solution to the question of how to make differentiation as soft and subtle as it could be is a brilliant example of unobtrusive craftsmanship. He keeps the wording of the repeated lines exactly the same (except for the omission of “is” at the beginning of line 3) but in each case they have a different cadence according to whether they come as the termination of a line of thought, with a falling intonation (lines 2 and 5) or as the initiation of a new one with a rising intonation (lines 3 and 6).

These repeating yet varying pulsations have an effect that is incantatory and hypnotic, like the weaving of a spell or the dancing of light on gently moving water. You can’t help being drawn in, however playfully you feel the spell is being woven. You become, and you feel the poet is, at least half entranced by the beauty of what he’s evoking.

Much could be said about how colour references and vivid evocations of different kinds of movement sharpen the impact of the poem, or about the effects of the quirkiness of diction / the outrageousness of thought involved in describing rainbows as “bedizened”. The final thing I want to comment on, though, is the contrast between the phantasmagoric quality of the first ten lines and the apparent simplicity of the last three. The sense of a condition bordering on hypnagogic trance in the first ten lines is heightened by the way extreme sharpness of impression combines with vagueness and disconnection – for example, the uncertainty of what we should see for the apparently multiple rainbows, the way the wind comes out of nowhere, or the way the killdeer (a kind of plover) introduced as a simile invade the “real” world of the poem. The last three lines make a strong impression because in some ways they seem to break free from all this whirling of the imagination into what Stevens would much later call “a plain sense of things”:

When they rise
At the red turban
Of the boatman.

The impact that has on me has something of the flat visual clarity of a Japanese landscape print. It comes, I think, from the simplicity of the essential situation described, the focusing on the colour red, and the plainness of language and rhythm, but of course this impression is itself equivocal. Is the incongruous-sounding “turban” something like what my mother used to call a “doek” (a square of cloth worn as a head covering)? Or what?

Of course this kind of close inspection of a poem’s procedures leaves the essential mystery of the poem’s success untouched because it can’t say what it is that makes this particular combination of pattern and freedom, elegance and physicality or this particular phantasmagoria of images seem as beautiful as they do. The essential broad point was well and succinctly expressed by Tamar Yoseloff when she said,

“What makes those poems so beautiful is their strangeness, their humour, and the total impossibility of nailing a meaning.”

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