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This poem is basically about the relationship between an everyday, commercial jar and the wilderness surrounding it. Pretty straightforward, eh? Well… not so fast. Since this is a poem by the famously complex Wallace Stevens, we can't help but think about the life of the poem's author as this empty jar and the wilderness interact.
Though Stevens is now thought of as one of the most significant and imaginative American poets, he led a life that seemed most likely to be associated with the jar, and not with the wilderness. As a lawyer and a businessman, Stevens worked with insurance (not exactly stunt-driver territory). Yet, particularly in his later years, the wilderness of creativity stole back some power from the boring old jar that was his workaday existence. Stevens wrote poetry throughout his life, though he only became widely recognized for it soon before his death.
One reason for that might have been how relatively late in life Stevens began to publish. This poem, "Anecdote of the Jar," was in his very first book, Harmonium, which was not published until 1923, when Stevens was already 44 years old. After Harmonium, though, the flood gates opened, and Stevens continued to write and publish until his death, some thirty years later. It's never too late, it seems, to turn your life over the power of the imagination.
So, as you read about the effect that the jar has on the Tennessee wilderness, think about the relationship between the commercial and the man-made in Stevens' life, in society generally, and in your own life, too. Which holds more sway over you: the static, empty jar, or the unruly, creative wilderness?
It might seem weird to read a poem about something as mundane as a jar. Since it's Wallace Stevens that's describing the jar, though, we should be prepared for some complex, and meaningful, reflection. When you think about it, the very fact that a jar is so commonplace means it could characterize everyday life for us humans. We wake up, go to work or school, come home, rest, and repeat. In that way, our lives resemble an assembly-line product. We're like so many ordinary jars, just tumbling off a conveyer belt and being packaged into a cardboard existence.
Sound like fun? We didn't think so. Luckily, our main man Wallace is here with some hope. Or, at least a helpful warning. Let's explain a minute. (The jar may be simple, but the poem definitely isn't.) Though it's not much of a story, this anecdote can really spark debate about the meaning of the man-made and everyday, as opposed to the lure of the unbridled wilderness. Still, where does the dividing line get drawn? How much a part of the rigid, man-made world are we, and how much do we still belong to the wild realm of the natural order?
Those are big questions, one we bet you'd be interested in asking too. If you've ever felt trapped in the grand scheme of school, capitalism, or society in general, this poem represents a great chance to pause for reflection. Any lover of wilderness, and any lover of domestic comfort, really, can find something to think about in this poem, just as anyone who uses jars, or spoons, or even a toothbrush can. So, check it out. It might just change the way you think about the next everyday object you pick up, or the way you think about your life.
This group maintains a journal devoted to Stevens' work. Good links, too!
On "Anecdote of the Jar"
Here's some collected literary criticism of the poem.
A very, very trippy video.
With images, too!
Bill Murray reads Wallace Stevens (That's Right)
It's not clear that he's actually read these poems before, but this is just too cool not to pass along.
Stevens reads his poem aloud.
"The Idea of Order at Key West"
Stevens reads perhaps his most famous poem aloud.
Photograph of Stevens, in the typical serious poet pose.
Stevens and His Wife
Here's a split image of Stevens and his wife, Elsie.
Kickin' It with Frost
Yup, that's Robert Frost on the left, Stevens on the right.
Mitt and Wallace?
A New Yorker writer considers what Stevens might have to say to the former presidential candidate.
The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens
Here's the whole kit and kaboodle, including "Anecdote of the Jar."
Here's the book in which "Anecdote of the Jar," as well as many of Stevens' other most famous poems, first appeared in book form.