Wallace Stevens helps Peter Meinke search for doom in Florida

Poet's Notebook.

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click to enlarge Wallace Stevens helps Peter Meinke search for doom in Florida
Photograph by Sylvia Salmi


How does poetry work? How does the mind work?

Wallace Stevens wrote a puzzling poem that I always liked, called “Anecdote of the Jar.” (Look it up.) It seems to be about the dominance of “art” (the jar) over “life” (the wilderness). Maybe he was thinking about John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”  Maybe he was just having fun. His last line is “Like nothing else in Tennessee.” I haven’t read his poems in 26 years, since I retired from teaching in 1993.

I’d been struggling with an indignant little poem about America’s tendency to give the poor an unfair amount of disasters (thousands of children poisoned each year by lead (in water) or radon (in gas)). I was trying to pack it into a rondeau, which has a rule that the first phrase of the poem is repeated at the end of the second and third verse. So, after I wrote the first stanza (below) the second stanza should have ended with “In Michigan.” But cheery “Florida” seemed to make more sense, so I just barreled on, as I tend to do: Put down what I’m thinking or feeling, and rewrite later. At the end of the day I had a lot of the poem’s lines close to what they are now, except for the required repetition. “Florida” still seemed right; but where should I go?  Rewrite some lines or skip the rondeau?

Then I remembered what I used to tell my students: When writing formal poems you have to know the rules — but who’s the boss? So my idea was not to repeat the exact phrase, but just use state names instead. That would be the right spirit, anyway. But what state?

Shortly, from the old days, “Tennessee” popped up. Stevens’ jar is on a hill. Tennessee covers America nicely, and even rhymed with “me.” So, I don’t know about the “dominance” of art, but this somehow says something about its permanence. Thank you, Wallace Stevens.

Anecdote from Afar

In Michigan invisible

and odorless radon will kill

a child in her cheap rented room

easy as those in Flint to whom

the river serves its rusty swill


Marx predicted that the rich will

eat the sick and poor but still

Americans won’t buy that gloom

in Florida


though sand they build on’s just a frill

above the ocean soon to spill

from manhole covers to consume

their guarded condos spelling doom

for you and me upon our hill

in Tennessee

click to enlarge Wallace Stevens helps Peter Meinke search for doom in Florida
Jeanne Meinke

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