April 28: Wallace Stevens's "Large Red Man Reading"

Today, “Large Red Man Reading,” a poem that is pure Stevens in its cool and all-knowing voice, its compelling yet unexplained character of the large red man, its instantly meaning-laden but somehow unprecedented situation of the ghosts who have returned to hear him read.  In his introduction to the new Selected Poems, John Serio discusses Stevens as a poet sometimes uncredited for his emotional range, one who employs distancing strategies in his poems not in order to be impersonal or to fulfill an agenda that is primarily intellectual, but because such strategies “serve to objectify and make authentic deeply personal sources of thought and feeling.” We asked Professor Serio for this thoughts on this particular poem, and his reply follows below.

Large Red Man Reading

There were ghosts that returned to earth to hear his phrases,
As he sat there reading, aloud, the great blue tabulae.
They were those from the wilderness of stars that had expected more.

There were those that returned to hear him read from the poem of life,
Of the pans above the stove, the pots on the table, the tulips among them.
They were those that would have wept to step barefoot into reality,

That would have wept and been happy, have shivered in the frost
And cried out to feel it again, have run fingers over leaves
And against the most coiled thorn, have seized on what was ugly

And laughed, as he sat there reading, from out of the purple tabulae,
The outlines of being and its expressings, the syllables of its law:
Poesis, poesis, the literal characters, the vatic lines,

Which in those ears and in those thin, those spended hearts,
Took on color, took on shape and the size of things as they are
And spoke the feeling for them, which was what they had lacked.

John Serio comments, “Stevens indicated in his letters that this was one of his favorites, and it is one of mine as well. The poem celebrates the preciousness of our physical reality—even the hurtful aspects of it—over the unreality of a wished-for heaven or afterlife. In elegant and rhythmically seductive long lines, he enlarges the little we have (pots and pans) over the nothing that might be (ghosts without substance or feeling). In that sense, it is a typical theme of Stevens: ‘The greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world.’ But he does more, too, which is also typical: he celebrates the power of poetry to create a reality imbued with feeling. There’s an irony in the poem in that the ghosts never get to experience reality, only the reality-making power of the poet as a reader (or interpreter) of reality: ‘They would have wept to step barefoot into reality.’ Even this is a typical strategy of Stevens: evoking the antithesis by denying it. We feel the reality that the ghosts cannot experience and thus appreciate it all the more.”

Listen to a clip of Edward Hirsch and Pearl London on poets’ core vocabularies and the use of color in Stevens from Poetry in PersonAudio

Learn more about Selected Poems by Wallace Stevens