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Stevens on Culture and Meaning

Wallace Stevens, one of the preeminent poetic voices of the modern period, was one of the greatest American poets, period. Among his chief concerns was the interaction of the mind with reality–the external with the internal–and the seeming inseparability of the two.

The poem below, one of several of the “anecdote poems” in his first book, Harmonium, is not one of his most famous, but it does touch one of his favorite themes and does so in a way that might be of interest to students of Christianity and culture.

For this post I’m going to revert to the approach utilized by my 7th grade Lit book (an approach that is much more helpful to me today than it seemed to be in 7th grade, but that’s probably mostly my fault)– I’ll present the poem (which is in the public domain) and then ask several questions. Feel free to think through the questions privately or discuss them in the comments.

Anecdote of Men by the Thousand

The soul, he said, is composed
Of the external world.

There are men of the East, he said,
Who are the East.
There are men of a province
Who are that province.
There are men of a valley
Who are that valley.

There are men whose words
Are as natural sounds
Of their places
As the cackle of toucans
In the place of toucans.

The mandoline is the instrument
Of a place.

Are there mandolines of western mountains?
Are there mandolines of northern moonlight?

The dress of a woman of Lhassa,
In its place,
Is an invisible element of that place
Made visible.

1. How might the soul be said to be composed of the external world?
2. Do you have an anecdote that supports the notion that the people of your home place are that place?
3. Can the words of men from a certain place be fairly compared to the cackle of Toucans in tropical forests?
4. Are there mandolines of the western mountains or Northern moonlight? Why or why not?
5. What invisible elements of Lhassa might be made visible by the dress of a woman of Lhassa?
6. What are some possible implications of this poem for a Christian reader?

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About David Oestreich

David Oestreich lives in northwest Ohio with his wife and three children. He is a maker of poems, photographs, fishing flies, and Saturday afternoon semi-haute cuisine. His poetry has appeared in various venues, both print and online.

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