For some reason, as I think of the upcoming Hanukkah candle-lighting, I find myself remembering Wallace Stevens’s “Mozart, 1935.” What could the two have in common, other than winter?
The poem begins,
Poet, be seated at the piano.
Play the present, its hoo-hoo-hoo,
Its shoo-shoo-shoo, its ric-a-nic,
Its envious cachinnation.
“Play the present”–this seems directly opposed to playing Mozart; the sounds of the present are rough and rude. One might think Stevens (or the speaker in this poem) is urging the poet to adopt the language of the street.
But something different seems to be at work here. Mark Halliday comments,
A different poet–one more like Thomas Hardy, or more like William Carlos Williams, or more like Kenneth Fearing (a significant poet of social protest in the thirties)–having turned to face the “angry fear” of people, would feel that his poem’s project must be to explore “this besieging pain” and to show forth its lineaments. Stevens, however, is interested not in writing about the street, but in writing about the problem of writing about the street. “Mozart, 1935” is a poem about poems that will do the work it does not itself undertake.
If this is so (and the interpretation seems both sound and illuminating), what does the poem suggest that poems can do?
Be thou the voice,
Not you. Be thou, be thou
The voice of angry fear,
The voice of this besieging pain.
There is something extraordinary happening here in this repeated “thou.” (It should be read in the context of the full poem.) Halliday again:
Stevens’ earnest wish to maintain a distance from the turmoil of others’ experience is reflected by his stern insistence on the word “thou,” which is repeated four times in the two stanzas just quoted and returns as the final word of the poem. Stevens does not want the poet to be one person among others, a “you” among “yous.” Indeed, he judges that for the poet-pianist to perform the new work, to strike the piercing chord, it will be necessary for him to adopt a status and a role larger and more central than mere individual selfhood: “Be thou the voice, / Not you.”
This is not a matter of rising above the crowd, but rather of rising up through the self into something beyond one’s immediate perceptions and capacities. To be the “voice” of the “besieging pain” is not to imitate or reflect it. The pain, up to this point, has noise but not voice; to become its voice is to inhabit a great soul.
This takes me, in a way, to candles.
To light a candle is not to express flimsy hope in the face of a broken world, a noisy street. Nor is it to “rise above” the world. Nor is it even to endure. The candle hints at the possibility of “thou”–of a dignity that faces the world with full intensity of form. When I look at a candle’s flame, I am entranced by the upright quivering; it seems at instants that the quiver is mine. Of course that is my imagination–but without imagination, a candle would be just functional, a thing that could help me see around a room.
What on earth does this have to do with Hanukkah–a minor holiday commemorating the rededication of the Temple and, according to tradition, the miracle of lights? I am not proposing any special interpretation here. Rather, in this cheerful festival, where the candles stand by the window, there is a chance to form and fortify a relation to the world.
Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.