The Order of Words

The Order of Words
The Order of Words

Robert Frost argues that a poem should “end in a clarification of life” which provides the reader (and writer) with “a momentary stay against confusion.” For many modern thinkers religion no longer adequately answers the significant metaphysical questions about life’s meaning; and thus the established beliefs of past centuries are “falling down falling down falling down.” Subsequently many modern writers turn to art as a means of making sense of the world and creating order in the world. Wallace Stevens, Edna Millay, and Gertrude Stein are three modern writers who share the belief that the world is characterized by confusion for most people. This essay will examine these artist’s definitions and descriptions of confusion in the modern world and will explore how these writers use art as a “momentary stay against” this “confusion.”

In her novel To The Lighthouse Virginia Woolf succinctly summarizes the modern view that nature (and experience in general) is unsympathetic to the human need for order. Woolf writes: “Did Nature supplement what man advanced?…Listening from the upper rooms of the empty house only gigantic chaos streaked with lightning could have been heard tumbling and tossing, as the winds and waves disported themselves like amorphous bulks of leviathans whose brows are pierced by no light of reason?” When turning to nature in hopes of finding answers and comfort, one hears only their own echo or a horrible beast writhing in confusion. Similarly, both Stevens and Millay describe nature as savage and indifferent to the human sufferer. In Steven’s poem “Anecdote of the Jar” he describes nature as a “wild” and “slovenly wilderness.” Likewise, Millay, in her poem “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines,” depicts nature as being opposed to the “sweet Order” that the human heart desires. She describes Chaos, presumably a representation of the natural world when unrestrained by artistic formulation, as a wild male figure that tries to “twist, and ape/ Flood, fire, and demon” his way out of the confines of her poem.

However, both Stevens and Millay possess a desire to find order, despite the fact that they see only chaos and confusion in the world. These individuals fulfill this desire for order and meaning by writing poems that provide a “momentary stay against confusion.” Life is clarified and given definition as Stevens places “a jar” “upon a hill” in the “wilderness” of “Tennessee;” and as he writes a poem about placing this jar in the wilderness. He states that the placement of the jar on the wild hill “made the slovenly wilderness/ Surround that hill.” The jar and the poem accomplish a similar feat: they both make the chaos of nature and experience less confusing by giving it definition and form. In this way nature is tamed: for “the wilderness rose up to it/ And sprawled around, no longer wild.” The poem, like the jar, has a form that is balanced and orderly compared to the sprawling birds, bushes, and weeds (of various shapes and sizes) that spring up at random, growing (and going) in every direction, around the jar. The poem is composed of three stanzas; each stanza consists of four lines; and each line has eight syllables. Human experience is rarely this organized and orderly. A jar is usually made of clear glass; the lines around the jar are clearly defined, even, and of the same length; the top and the bottom of the jar are generally perfectly round; and the sides of a jar are of the same substance and shape. Stevens writes that the jar provided a sort of “port in air”; this shapely object offered the mind, hungry for order, relief and perspective amidst an otherwise disorderly scene.

While Stevens places a jar in the wilderness (which is a metaphor for art’s role in the world), Millay resolves to “put chaos into fourteen lines.”  Her purpose, however, is the same as Steven’s: she desires to “hold his essence and amorphous shape/ Till he with Order mingles and combines.” Stevens says that his jar “took dominion everywhere,” which suggests that it subdued the wilderness. Likewise, Millay wants to tame Chaos by placing him in “the strict confines/ Of this sweet Order.” The structure of the poem forms the bars that will keep this creature captive, and provides poet and reader “a momentary stay against” whatever Chaos would be doing if he was not confined.

The form of the poem, like the description of the poem’s purpose (to become a cage where Chaos will be kept and tamed), puts the arbitrary symbols of language into a purposeful and organized pattern. Each line of the poem has ten syllables; the end of each line rhymes with another line in a predictable manner; and the rhythm of the poem is aesthetically pleasing. Ironically, the poem is accomplishing (through its organized form) what the speaker claims she is going to do with Chaos: “keep him there” as a prisoner within the poem. The poem produces a delight, provides wisdom, gives structure to experience, and offers meaning and clarification to our life. Thus the confusion is set at bay for a brief period, allowing poet and reader to enjoy and learn from the clear lines of the poem.

Chaos is diminished for the reader and writer of poetry, when something is defined and understood that was formerly unknown. Frost says that the delight of poetry comes when the poem causes the reader to remember something that they did not know they knew. Millay says of Chaos, “He’s nothing more nor less/ Than something simple not yet understood.” In The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein claims that confusion and pain in the human world is a result of a failure to understand completely. She argues that humans see themselves and their sins in other human beings. Consequently “mostly everyone” is “irritated” by the continual repeating of our sins and lives in other people: “it is often irritating to listen to the repeating they are doing.” But this repeating of being only causes pain and confusion for those who have not yet learned to love the repetitive pattern of existence: “As I was saying often for many years some one is baffling.” Therefore Stein sets out to reveal to the reader what they did not know they knew.  She does this by composing a poem that reflects, and draws one into, a meaningful life.

Stein argues that through “listening to repeating” one can come to realize that the repeating is “interesting.” A person who begins to see this repeating as interesting may also see themselves in others (and others in themselves), and then learn to love the repeating, and this “is one way of being.” The person who sees their “harmless” “faults” as “a charm to any character” will accept themselves and love other people who remind them of their “faults” and their “charm.” For this person the “irritation passes over into patient completed understanding.” Stein wants us to see her style, which may baffle and irritate us with its grammatical flaws and seemingly nonsensical statements, as a metaphor for the life we may learn to love and understand.

The confusion, then, becomes beautiful and orderly to an individual who has mastered the art of listening and observing “the repeating of being.” Stein wants the reader to master the art of learning to love “the repeating of being.” And she helps the reader do this by aiding them in their understanding of the poem: if the reader understands the poem, then the repeating of being in life, which reflects the poem, will also make sense. Like her poem, experience does have a pattern and a purpose; and like most poems, there are certain rhythmic and repetitive elements in experience that enable one to stave off and control confusion. Human experience and being consists of a repetitive pattern. Once recognized, this pattern becomes a “mainstay against” the confusion that comes from not knowing. Stein recognizes and accepts the pattern of experience. Subsequently she loves this familiar cycle of events: “I love it that every one is a kind of men and women, that always I am looking and comparing and classifying of them, always I am seeing their repeating. Always more and more I love repeating.
”  There was a time, however, when she “did not see or hear or feel repeating;” consequently, she “did not know repeating.” This inability to “hear or feel repeating” made her confused. For failure to attain “complete understanding,” which results when one “fights and attacks” instead of slowly resisting and learning to love, necessarily leads to confusion.

As Stein describes the different ways of being, the form of the poem is actually mirroring and mimicking the process she is describing. She begins a paragraph with a phrase – “I am writing for myself and strangers” – and then repeats this same phrase a little later in the work with a slight variation – “I write for myself and strangers.” She proceeds to explain the meaning of the previous phrases by adding words that clarify and expand this phrase – “I want readers so strangers must do it.” If we consider the previous lines, which uses a similar combination of these same words, we learn (in the last lines) that she writes to strangers because she wants readers. She also claims that readers “must do it.” But what is it? Don’t worry, she will say it again and has already said it before – “It is very important to me to always know it, to always see it which one looks like others and to tell it.” By repeating this phrase, and developing the ideas slowly, the reader may come to a “complete understanding” of her artistic purpose, which reflects her hope for humanity. She desires us to read the repetitive patterns of being that fill our lives in the same way we are reading her poem.

Stein is sorry that “everyone is always busy with it,” because “no one of them then ever come to know it.” She wants them to stop being “busy with it” in order to learn to listen to it, and thereby come to love it. The reader may become irritated with the form of this poem (always repeating and reminding one of what irritated them in it a few lines before this baffling line). But if the reader listens to the words, they may realize that the poem reflects the repetitive patterns found in life’s experiences. Then we will come to a complete understanding” of the poem’s purpose, and may even learn to love it. The form the poem makes is the “same as for love” and life.

If the reader listens to the “repeating of being” in life (as we listened in the poem), we may learn to love ourselves, others, and life. “Loving repeating is one way of being.” Understanding the pattern of the poem, and it’s purpose, is a mainstay against confusion while reading the poem; because we find that Stein is intentionally repeating key ideas that she wants us to grasp. Likewise loving and understanding the “repeating being” in experience (which is meaningful in that it is constantly repeating itself) also works to produce order and meaning in life. The wisdom of the poem, reflecting the “repeating of being” in life, makes us more aware of the way life works, and hopefully leads us to “loving” and “complete understanding.”

“Shall I set my lands in order…London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down…These fragments I have shored against my ruin.” These concluding lines of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland suggests a sequence of thoughts that may also occur in the mind of a modern artist. The modern artist thirsts for meaning and order in the world but finds only desolation and emptiness. Contrary to being orderly, everything is “falling down.” Therefore the artist uses their imagination to create order and meaning in a world seemingly devoid of these things. The fragments that the artists “shores against” their ruin are meaningful pieces of insight and beauty that provide structure, delight, and meaning. (“Only through the form, the pattern, can words or music reach…the stillness as of a Chinese Jar,” writes Eliot.) The jar placed in the wilderness provides order and perspective for the observer. And when Chaos is captured and defined (in and through a poem), the reader is able to make sense of their experience. Art brings delight and wisdom to the world, and in loving art, and the life it reflects, an individual may gain “complete understanding.” For Stevens, Millay, and Stein, art creates understanding and love; and through understanding and love one is able to elude the Chaos that desperately desires to rob life of order and meaning.

Robert Frost argues that a poem should “end in a clarification of life” which provides the reader (and writer) with “a momentary stay against confusion.” For many modern thinkers religion no longer adequately answers the significant metaphysical questions about life’s meaning; and thus the established beliefs of past centuries are “falling down falling down falling down.” Subsequently many modern writers turn to art as a means of making sense of the world and creating order in the world. Wallace Stevens, Edna Millay, and Gertrude Stein are three modern writers who share the belief that the world is characterized by confusion for most people. This essay will examine these artist’s definitions and descriptions of confusion in the modern world and will explore how these writers use art as a “momentary stay against” this “confusion.”

In her novel To The Lighthouse Virginia Woolf succinctly summarizes the modern view that nature (and experience in general) is unsympathetic to the human need for order. Woolf writes: “Did Nature supplement what man advanced?…Listening from the upper rooms of the empty house only gigantic chaos streaked with lightning could have been heard tumbling and tossing, as the winds and waves disported themselves like amorphous bulks of leviathans whose brows are pierced by no light of reason?” When turning to nature in hopes of finding answers and comfort, one hears only their own echo or a horrible beast writhing in confusion. Similarly, both Stevens and Millay describe nature as savage and indifferent to the human sufferer. In Steven’s poem “Anecdote of the Jar” he describes nature as a “wild” and “slovenly wilderness.” Likewise, Millay, in her poem “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines,” depicts nature as being opposed to the “sweet Order” that the human heart desires. She describes Chaos, presumably a representation of the natural world when unrestrained by artistic formulation, as a wild male figure that tries to “twist, and ape/ Flood, fire, and demon” his way out of the confines of her poem.

However, both Stevens and Millay possess a desire to find order, despite the fact that they see only chaos and confusion in the world. These individuals fulfill this desire for order and meaning by writing poems that provide a “momentary stay against confusion.” Life is clarified and given definition as Stevens places “a jar” “upon a hill” in the “wilderness” of “Tennessee;” and as he writes a poem about placing this jar in the wilderness. He states that the placement of the jar on the wild hill “made the slovenly wilderness/ Surround that hill.” The jar and the poem accomplish a similar feat: they both make the chaos of nature and experience less confusing by giving it definition and form. In this way nature is tamed: for “the wilderness rose up to it/ And sprawled around, no longer wild.” The poem, like the jar, has a form that is balanced and orderly compared to the sprawling birds, bushes, and weeds (of various shapes and sizes) that spring up at random, growing (and going) in every direction, around the jar. The poem is composed of three stanzas; each stanza consists of four lines; and each line has eight syllables. Human experience is rarely this organized and orderly. A jar is usually made of clear glass; the lines around the jar are clearly defined, even, and of the same length; the top and the bottom of the jar are generally perfectly round; and the sides of a jar are of the same substance and shape. Stevens writes that the jar provided a sort of “port in air”; this shapely object offered the mind, hungry for order, relief and perspective amidst an otherwise disorderly scene.

While Stevens places a jar in the wilderness (which is a metaphor for art’s role in the world), Millay resolves to “put chaos into fourteen lines.”  Her purpose, however, is the same as Steven’s: she desires to “hold his essence and amorphous shape/ Till he with Order mingles and combines.” Stevens says that his jar “took dominion everywhere,” which suggests that it subdued the wilderness. Likewise, Millay wants to tame Chaos by placing him in “the strict confines/ Of this sweet Order.” The structure of the poem forms the bars that will keep this creature captive, and provides poet and reader “a momentary stay against” whatever Chaos would be doing if he was not confined.

The form of the poem, like the description of the poem’s purpose (to become a cage where Chaos will be kept and tamed), puts the arbitrary symbols of language into a purposeful and organized pattern. Each line of the poem has ten syllables; the end of each line rhymes with another line in a predictable manner; and the rhythm of the poem is aesthetically pleasing. Ironically, the poem is accomplishing (through its organized form) what the speaker claims she is going to do with Chaos: “keep him there” as a prisoner within the poem. The poem produces a delight, provides wisdom, gives structure to experience, and offers meaning and clarification to our life. Thus the confusion is set at bay for a brief period, allowing poet and reader to enjoy and learn from the clear lines of the poem.

Chaos is diminished for the reader and writer of poetry, when something is defined and understood that was formerly unknown. Frost says that the delight of poetry comes when the poem causes the reader to remember something that they did not know they knew. Millay says of Chaos, “He’s nothing more nor less/ Than something simple not yet understood.” In The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein claims that confusion and pain in the human world is a result of a failure to understand completely. She argues that humans see themselves and their sins in other human beings. Consequently “mostly everyone” is “irritated” by the continual repeating of our sins and lives in other people: “it is often irritating to listen to the repeating they are doing.” But this repeating of being only causes pain and confusion for those who have not yet learned to love the repetitive pattern of existence: “As I was saying often for many years some one is baffling.” Therefore Stein sets out to reveal to the reader what they did not know they knew.  She does this by composing a poem that reflects, and draws one into, a meaningful life.

Stein argues that through “listening to repeating” one can come to realize that the repeating is “interesting.” A person who begins to see this repeating as interesting may also see themselves in others (and others in themselves), and then learn to love the repeating, and this “is one way of being.” The person who sees their “harmless” “faults” as “a charm to any character” will accept themselves and love other people who remind them of their “faults” and their “charm.” For this person the “irritation passes over into patient completed understanding.” Stein wants us to see her style, which may baffle and irritate us with its grammatical flaws and seemingly nonsensical statements, as a metaphor for the life we may learn to love and understand.

The confusion, then, becomes beautiful and orderly to an individual who has mastered the art of listening and observing “the repeating of being.” Stein wants the reader to master the art of learning to love “the repeating of being.” And she helps the reader do this by aiding them in their understanding of the poem: if the reader understands the poem, then the repeating of being in life, which reflects the poem, will also make sense. Like her poem, experience does have a pattern and a purpose; and like most poems, there are certain rhythmic and repetitive elements in experience that enable one to stave off and control confusion. Human experience and being consists of a repetitive pattern. Once recognized, this pattern becomes a “mainstay against” the confusion that comes from not knowing. Stein recognizes and accepts the pattern of experience. Subsequently she loves this familiar cycle of events: “I love it that every one is a kind of men and women, that always I am looking and comparing and classifying of them, always I am seeing their repeating. Always more and more I love repeating.
”  There was a time, however, when she “did not see or hear or feel repeating;” consequently, she “did not know repeating.” This inability to “hear or feel repeating” made her confused. For failure to attain “complete understanding,” which results when one “fights and attacks” instead of slowly resisting and learning to love, necessarily leads to confusion.

As Stein describes the different ways of being, the form of the poem is actually mirroring and mimicking the process she is describing. She begins a paragraph with a phrase – “I am writing for myself and strangers” – and then repeats this same phrase a little later in the work with a slight variation – “I write for myself and strangers.” She proceeds to explain the meaning of the previous phrases by adding words that clarify and expand this phrase – “I want readers so strangers must do it.” If we consider the previous lines, which uses a similar combination of these same words, we learn (in the last lines) that she writes to strangers because she wants readers. She also claims that readers “must do it.” But what is it? Don’t worry, she will say it again and has already said it before – “It is very important to me to always know it, to always see it which one looks like others and to tell it.” By repeating this phrase, and developing the ideas slowly, the reader may come to a “complete understanding” of her artistic purpose, which reflects her hope for humanity. She desires us to read the repetitive patterns of being that fill our lives in the same way we are reading her poem.

Stein is sorry that “everyone is always busy with it,” because “no one of them then ever come to know it.” She wants them to stop being “busy with it” in order to learn to listen to it, and thereby come to love it. The reader may become irritated with the form of this poem (always repeating and reminding one of what irritated them in it a few lines before this baffling line). But if the reader listens to the words, they may realize that the poem reflects the repetitive patterns found in life’s experiences. Then we will come to a complete understanding” of the poem’s purpose, and may even learn to love it. The form the poem makes is the “same as for love” and life.

If the reader listens to the “repeating of being” in life (as we listened in the poem), we may learn to love ourselves, others, and life. “Loving repeating is one way of being.” Understanding the pattern of the poem, and it’s purpose, is a mainstay against confusion while reading the poem; because we find that Stein is intentionally repeating key ideas that she wants us to grasp. Likewise loving and understanding the “repeating being” in experience (which is meaningful in that it is constantly repeating itself) also works to produce order and meaning in life. The wisdom of the poem, reflecting the “repeating of being” in life, makes us more aware of the way life works, and hopefully leads us to “loving” and “complete understanding.”

“Shall I set my lands in order…London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down…These fragments I have shored against my ruin.” These concluding lines of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland suggests a sequence of thoughts that may also occur in the mind of a modern artist. The modern artist thirsts for meaning and order in the world but finds only desolation and emptiness. Contrary to being orderly, everything is “falling down.” Therefore the artist uses their imagination to create order and meaning in a world seemingly devoid of these things. The fragments that the artists “shores against” their ruin are meaningful pieces of insight and beauty that provide structure, delight, and meaning. (“Only through the form, the pattern, can words or music reach…the stillness as of a Chinese Jar,” writes Eliot.) The jar placed in the wilderness provides order and perspective for the observer. And when Chaos is captured and defined (in and through a poem), the reader is able to make sense of their experience. Art brings delight and wisdom to the world, and in loving art, and the life it reflects, an individual may gain “complete understanding.” For Stevens, Millay, and Stein, art creates understanding and love; and through understanding and love one is able to elude the Chaos that desperately desires to rob life of order and meaning.

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