The first question that is always asked by a student after reading a Wallace Stevens poem is, “but what does it mean?” This is, of course, the wrong question entirely to ask about about any poem, even one as loaded with potential meanings as a Steven’s poem.
As I have written elsewhere on MontanaWriter, the question of meaning in poetry is always secondary to the question of emotion/feeling. The best way to approach a poem like “The Planet on the Table” is to begin with a different kind of question altogether. Something like: “What is the emotive center of this poem?” or “What emotion/feeling is the poet trying to capture/convey?”
To this question, Stevens gives us a number of obvious clues, beginning with certain word choices: “Ariel was glad,” “of something seen that he liked.” Secondly, the emotion is carried in the “tone” of the language. This is admittedly more subtle than word-meaning but is nonetheless quite clear when the poem is read out-loud, like all poems should be.
Stevens occupies an interesting position in American poetry. He created some of the most original, demanding, and creative poetry of the 20th Century yet lived as an “artistic outsider.” He did not teach at a university as most poets do. In fact, when offered a job teaching at Harvard he turned it down. He chose rather to continue living the most anti-bohemian life that one could imagine: Vice-President of Hartford Insurance.
One of the great ironies of art in the United States is that it has become a club of insiders. Insiders do not push boundaries by definition… there are too many disincentives for doing so. And when you are afraid to push the boundaries… than art is something much diminished.
They were of a remembered time
Or of something seen that he liked.
Other makings of the sun
Were waste and welter
And the ripe shrub writhed.
His self and the sun were one
And his poems, although makings of his self,
Were no less makings of the sun.
It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character,
Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.