Hello, and welcome to Poetry Soup! I’m your host, Emma Catherine Hoff. Today, I’ll be reading “The Motive for Metaphor,” by Wallace Stevens, which is a poem about poetry itself.
Wallace Stevens was born on October 2, 1879, in Reading, Pennsylvania. He was both a lawyer and an insurance executive, but above all, he was an amazing poet. Some of his most well-known poems are the haunting, “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” “The Snow Man,” and, one of my personal favorites, “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” which is based off of Picasso’s painting, “The Old Guitarist.” Wallace Stevens went to Harvard and then the New York Law School, from which he graduated with a law degree. In 1909, he married Elsie Viola Kachel. The two had a daughter named Holly Stevens.
Wallace Stevens won the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, the National Book Award for Poetry for his books “The Auroras of Autumn” and “The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens,” the Frost Medal, and only after he died did he receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He didn’t publish his first collection of poetry, “Harmonium,” until he was 43 years old!
“The Motive for Metaphor” is only one of the many poems in which Stevens talks about writing poetry. Another example is his poem, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” This could be called his ars poetica — a poem which talks about why we write poetry, how we do it, and what poetry really is. Stevens’s poems often also focus on what reality is and how we separate or mix it with our image of the world, which is influenced and formed by our imagination.
Now I’m going to read “The Motive for Metaphor,” a poem about the tensions between reality and imagination.
You like it under the trees in autumn,
Because everything is half dead.
The wind moves like a cripple among the leaves
And repeats words without meaning.
In the same way, you were happy in spring,
With the half colors of quarter-things,
The slightly brighter sky, the melting clouds,
The single bird, the obscure moon–
The obscure moon lighting an obscure world
Of things that would never be quite expressed,
Where you yourself were not quite yourself,
And did not want nor have to be,
Desiring the exhilarations of changes:
The motive for metaphor, shrinking from
The weight of primary noon,
The A B C of being,
The ruddy temper, the hammer
Of red and blue, the hard sound–
Steel against intimation–the sharp flash,
The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.
“The Motive for Metaphor” is about how we experience the world compared to how the world really is. Wallace Stevens is obsessed with this idea, and it comes up in much of his work. For example, in Stevens’s poem, “The Snow Man,” he writes, “For the listener, who listens in the snow,/ And, nothing himself, beholds/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Stevens proposes two ideas here, which are reality and imagination. He is interested in the difficulty of really being able to know things. One example of this could be religion. Stevens asks himself what we do without God. What can we do to fill this void that appears when we no longer have a greater deity to rely on? In Stevens’s case, the answer is art. Metaphor, poetry, and many other things can fill the emptiness of the void, which, in this poem, is symbolized by the “X” mentioned at the end.
Stevens also talks to a “you” in the poem. This “you” could be any regular person — the reader, a lover, a friend — but, as Stevens does in many of his poems, he could also be talking to himself. He tells himself that there is some sort of in between space which must be made use of. Stevens also refers to “primary noon,” which is reality. We shrink away from it, seemingly afraid of it or uncomfortable with facing it. Another way that he refers to this concept is “the ABC of being.” It is the very base of all life.
The entire poem asks if we can live well without language, art, and metaphor. It shows that they are important and beautiful — we need them to make reality, in a way, bearable. To Wallace Stevens, the best way to capture this idea was in a poem — one of the very things he is talking about.
Stevens shows the contrast between reality and the in between space in the beginning of his poem. Autumn and spring could be considered in between seasons, spring not being as hot and bright as summer, autumn not being as cold and barren as winter. Summer and winter feel so clear, while autumn and spring are wavering, unsure of how they are supposed to be. Stevens likes these spaces — they are spaces of possibility.
Many of the colors Stevens uses in his poetry have meanings — for example, “the hammer of red and blue.” Red symbolizes reality, while blue stands for imagination. These two colors blend together to create poetry. To accompany this image, the last stanza includes phrases like, “the hard sound” and “the sharp flash.” Wallace Stevens uses stressed syllables — he makes the poem itself sound powerful and even slightly angry, like a hammer banging against something else.
The “X” that Stevens talks about also, in a way, contradicts itself. However, it isn’t because of clashing colors. It is because “X” turns out to be both good and bad. We need it but we also need to fill the empty space that hovers all around us. “X” is a horrible necessity.
Stevens uses sound and language to show us what the “motive for metaphor” — and poetry in general — really is. We need these things to survive, to sustain ourselves. But, of course, we also need Stevens’s “X.” However, Stevens gets across the point that it is possible to live in language and in beauty. The perfect mix of red and blue.
“The Motive for Metaphor” may seem daunting, but really, it shows us what poetry really is — a way to fill the void, or emptiness, around us. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Poetry Soup, and I’ll see you soon with the next one!