Sunday, September 21, 2014

MOOC ModPo Poem of the Day: "Gray Room" by Wallace Stevens

The Songs of Eretz MOOC ModPo Poem of the Day for September 21, 2014 is "Gray Room" (1917) by Wallace Stevens (1879 - 1955) (pictured).  A brief biography and references may be found here: and here:  The poem is in the public domain and therefore legally reprinted here.
Gray Room
Wallace Stevens

Although you sit in a room that is gray,
Except for the silver
Of the straw-paper,
And pick
At your pale white gown;
Or lift one of the green beads
Of your necklace,
To let it fall;
Or gaze at your green fan
Printed with the red branches of a red willow;
Or, with one finger,
Move the leaf in the bowl--
The leaf that has fallen from the branches of the forsythia
Beside you...
What is all this?
I know how furiously your heart is beating.
Wallace Stevens was active in the Imagist movement of the early twentieth century.  "Gray Room" is a good example of the Imagist aesthetic, which involved the use of ordinary, common language, irregular free verse, and words chosen for their precision rather than for ornamentation, in order to produce poetry that created a clear image of the subject--and no subject was considered out of bounds.

"Gray Room" could be an ekphrastic poem.  It is easy to envision the poet describing a painting or sculpture in an attempt to bring a precise image of it to mind.  It is also possible that the poet was describing a real person from a hidden observation place, perhaps voyeuristically peering into a private home through a window.

However, "Gray Room" goes beyond mere description.  It starts with the word "although."  This beginning causes the reader to read the poem and see the image, yes, but to read in anticipation of some revelation or insight to resolve the "although."  The final line resolves the issue and adds a mysterious backstory, perhaps imagined, to the life of the lady described--for, "although" she may appear calm and collected, she is actually nervous.

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