Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Disillusionment of Wednesday VI

Wednesdays have been haunted
By this game of poetry criticism.
This is the last one.
I promise.

Under the Sea

The key to Wallace Stevens's odd poem "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" is hidden in plain sight.  It requires only a simple anagram operation on the first letters of the otherwise opaque lines to render Steven's message meaningful. What we find, after sorting out "tbnooonwaptodci," is a manic zest for nautical daring-do. "Now to octopi band!" Stevens announces, like a kind of ancient submariner ready to lead us to our own destruction, or perhaps redemption.

With this key in hand, much that seemed arbitrary is now clear, in particular the "old sailor" who seems so intrusive in a naive reading.  The seaman stands revealed -- or rather, reclines revealed -- as the author himself, catching some intoxicated rest before the adventure begins. "Red skies at night," as everyone knows, are a "sailor's delight," and a man happily catching tigers on land tonight may well be happily be catching -- or collaborating with -- octopi tomorrow. What otherwise seems like just so much silly babbling nonsense about contrasting colors, similarly, suddenly becomes recognizable as the dreamlike loveliness of the undersea spectrum, with its purples, greens, and occasional yellows (but never reds). Note too the witty deployment of the word "rings," which is obviously a synonym for the octopi "band" but also a clear reference to the tentacular suckers characteristic to the animal and perhaps, even, a reference to its overall radial symmetry. Needless to say, octopi do not require decorative socks or sashes; the very idea is absurd, and this is perhaps a weak point in the poem as properly understood. Stevens is only being direct, however, when he announces that "People are not going to dream of baboons and periwinkles." They certainly are not: there will not be time for such reveries on our journey to the octopus lair.

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