Monday, July 25, 2016

Who Speaks in "Bantams in Pine-Woods"?

In a recent review of Paul Mariani's latest book, Helen Vendler accused Mariani of misreading the Wallace Stevens poem "Bantams in Pine-Woods." Vendler wrote: "Inexplicably, Mariani misunderstands this famous poem, saying that it is spoken by a pine tree." This is inexplicable, Vendler says, because it is common knowledge that the speaker in the poem is a bantam rooster.

Rooster talking versus tree talking—sounds like a big difference! How could there ever be a dispute about such a thing? Intrigued, I read the poem for myself. The poem's music is marvelous, but its meaning is obscure. The full text is online at, so I think it is OK to reproduce the poem here.

Bantams in Pine-Woods

Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!

Damned universal cock, as if the sun
Was blackamoor to bear your blazing tail.

Fat!  Fat!  Fat!  Fat!  I am the personal.
Your world is you.  I am my world.

You ten-foot poet among inchlings. Fat!
Begone! An inchling bristles in these pines,

Bristles, and points their Appalachian tangs,
And fears not portly Azcan nor his hoos.

I spent an hour after dinner reading the poem with a dictionary beside me. I looked up dictionary entries for bantam, point, tang, caftan, blackamoor, and a number of other words. In various cases, the dictionary helped me to sharpen the core meaning of a word, assess a range of peripheral meanings or connotations, consider a word origin, or check the pronunciation.

I was humbled by the number of words in this poem that I "basically knew," but that, in the context of this heightened reading challenge, I realized I didn't have total command of.

(One loose end: neither of my dictionaries defines hoo, or hoos. I don't like it when I'm unclear about a word in a poem—especially the word the poet chooses to end the poem with. Is hoo onomatopoetic? It's more of an owl sound than a rooster sound....)

What is going on in this poem? Based on the title, we know that the setting is a pine forest. Words are being spoken. (Perhaps silentlygiven the lack of quotation marks, I am actually picturing the communication as being more like a species of telepathy.) At first, it isn't so clear who is speaking, or even how many speakers there are. The stanzas might be parts of an extended address by one speaker, or alternating statements in a conversation, or a mix of speech and omniscient narration.

We can at least rule out the possibility that there's only one bantam—the title uses the plural bantams. Chieftain Iffucan is one bantam, hence there's at least one other bantam present.

By the way, I do think it is clear, from Stevens's tour de force of description in the first stanza, that Chieftain Iffucan is a bantam (miniature rooster).

What to make of the proper name Iffucan? I pronounce it like "If-you-can." If you can...what? Graphically, Iffucan also looks like toucan, which is a nice effect because of the way it further evokes feathered splendor. (Our Appalachian pine forest has a pretty exotic vibe altogether, what with the poem's allusions to Aztec feathered headdresses and Nubians swinging fans around.)

Getting back to the basics, how many characters speak in the poem? One, or more than one? In the first stanza, a speaker is addressing Chieftain Iffucan. The second stanza sounds to me like a continuation of that address. We next have a decision to make about the remaining three stanzas: are they the Chieftain's answer? Are they a continuation of the original speaker's address, making the poem a monologue? Something else?

I do sense a significant change in the tone of speech between stanzas two and three. This change in tone might suggest a change in speaker. However, the elevated tone returns in the fourth and fifth stanzas, and the word Fat! links stanzas three and four; so I'm not convinced there is a change in speaker between stanzas two and three. Certainly there are no explicit cues to say so.

I think we are looking at a single oration by a single character. Chieftain Iffucan never speaks, then.

Does a tree speak? I don't think so. For one thing, based only on the plural bantams in the title, it'd be peculiar for the speaker to be a tree. That would make the characters in the poem (1) a tree who talks; (2) Chieftain Iffucan, who listens; and (3) some nonzero quantity of additional, non-specified, non-speaking bantam(s), who enter the poem in no way whatsoever beyond driving pluralization in the title. That poem sounds more like "Bantam v. Pine Tree," not "Bantams in Pine-Woods."

I can understand why a person might want to consider the possibility that a tree is speaking here, primarily because the poem does attribute "Appalachian tangs" to trees, which could be read as attributing to the trees a sharp Appalachian accent (tang). However, the passage reads more naturally as attributing to the trees a sharp smell—that kind of tang. These are pines, after all. Tang could even refer to the pointed shape of trees or their needles; bristles and points are present in that vicinity of the poem. But I think of those as resonances, not as surface meanings, and I think the most natural surface meaning of tang here is the pungent smell of pine.

The bantam who speaks appears to be challenging the Chieftain, or at least projecting "attitude." There's challenge, bristling, cockiness; I get a certain feeling of mano a mano. A competition going on. Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat! It certainly sounds like a taunt. My best guess is that it is a taunt, but a nonverbal one: an onomonopoetic evocation of a rooster scratching the dirt. Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat!

Well, here's my attempt at a stanza-by-stanza paraphrase of the poem.
1. Whoa there, big Kahuna tiny-rooster!
2. Think you're all that, do you?
3. Pfft. You can't be too important, because you're not me, not part of my own interior reality.
4, 5. All you are is the greatest poem. But it doesn't matter. And get lost, because this whole forest was created by a poet—me, if you want to know— and I'm not intimidated by you.
That wasn't easy to do, and I doubt it's right, or even terribly close to right. To explain why I paraphrased in this way, I can start with a humble question:

Bantams are domesticated animals, so what are they doing in a pine forest?

Have they flown the coop? I don't see any evidence of that. It's an incongruity, and I'm thinking that perhaps it underlines the poet's absolute power to lay a scene and assemble his players.

There is a strutting vainglory to the poet's project. True, an artist can't create the Real, but art can endow the Real with meaning (give it a "point"). In some very complicated way, I think Stevens is projecting the poet's persona into this forest scene and picking a fight with the object of his art.

All this is ironic, or maybe even paradoxical, because Stevens the philosopher can assert the bantam's transcendence of art only to the extent that Stevens the poet is successful in using his art to convey the bantam's majesty. Anyway, this dynamic would explain the strenuous exertion evident in the first stanza's multiple poetic devices.

I'm far from believing that I "get" this poem. I have many specific questions and confusions about it. But then, "Bantams in Pine-Woods" has confused better readers than me. In the book where I found the poem, editor Joel Conarroe is silent about the poem itself, reproducing it only to illustrate the following anecdote about Stevens:
"It is not what I have written," he said in accepting the National Book Award for The Collected Poems, "but what I would like to have written that constitutes my true poems." Those who are devoted to his work, especially to the pleasure of reading it aloud and basking in the harmonious music, even when it is not completely comprehensible, obviously feel otherwise.


jeff said...

Jerk! Now i want to read Mariani's book. And i don't have time for it. And i can't read biographies even though i've always wanted to know more about Stevens.

I can't argue with your reading of the poem. I can't do much to support it either, but i will say that it gibes with what little memory i retain from my undergrad Modernist Lit course.

Finally, i wish i could find a way to need a D instead of a B for the 2nd scramble because that'd lead to a word i feel sure of. Could the final answer really be bittern even though it's a bit of a sneaker?

Jason Zimba said...

I'll be curious to see if Mariani writes in to the NYRB next issue, because Vendler savaged his book. I have seen plenty of positive reviews out there, too.

Bittern is right for the 2nd scramble!

Jason Zimba said...

I don't know why I can reply directly to a comment using my mobile device, but not reply directly to a comment using my laptop browser. Anyway, reply below. :-)