No possum, no sop, no taters

Poem: No Possum, No Sop, No Taters (link)
Poet: Wallace Stevens

Legend tells us of a race of people far in the north, further north than even the cold can reach. There they lead a blessed life, these Hyperboreans. Pindar knew them, and spoke of them. Nietzsche was sometimes convinced he was one of them.

But Wallace Stevens knows the earth is round, knows the north terminates in cold, in regions where:

Snow sparkles like eyesight falling to earth,

Like seeing fallen brightly away.

But in this harsh solitude, devoid of sun, is a certain truth, the primordial truth. Indeed, “bad is final in this light,” and yet:

It is here, in this bad, that we reach
The last purity of the knowledge of good.

The poem has to this point proceeded with four-beat lines, hovering in the vicinity of iambic tetrameter, but only in the vicinity. Yet here Stevens substitutes in a line of anapestic trimeter, with commas separating out each foot: it is here, in this bad, that we reach. But where anapestic substitutions normally lighten a line, an effect that here should be only enhanced by the loss of a beat, the line here is heavy. The heavy mid-line stoppages make each stress especially weighty, forbids them to blend into the rush of speech. Such blending occurs in the next line, where the first ‘of’ takes a stress so faint as to be almost absent altogether. Thus the bad, though short in syllables and in stresses, dominates the couplet, as if it itself were one of the broken stalks of this wasteland.

Sparseness is the Moral Law of this landscape, a law that governs even companionship. The crow, with bright “malice in his eye,” is our only companion, and then, still:

One joins him there for company,
But at a distance, in another tree.

Such an image may, for another, be a grim and lonely vision. Not for me. Too well I know such wastes—too well, certainly, to hope for Hyperborean revelry. No, what this image tells me is, company is possible. Today, of all days, when it seems most incredible, this poem has saving power.

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