Today we offer selections by two pillars of American poetry, reflecting on the American sublime: first, the poem with that title by Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), and then a poem of memory by Donald Justice (1925-2004), whose work often describes the settings that defined who we were in the last century, with his own delicate sense of where the sublime was, perhaps, to be found. The work of both these poets is always in print, but an entirely new Selected Poems of Wallace Stevens will be available this coming August, edited by the Stevens scholar John N. Serio.
The American Sublime
How does one stand
To behold the sublime,
To confront the mockers,
The mickey mockers
And plated pairs?
When General Jackson
Posed for his statue
He knew how one feels.
Shall a man go barefoot
Blinking and blank?
But how does one feel?
One grows used to the weather,
The landscape and that;
And the sublime comes down
To the spirit itself,
The spirit and space,
The empty spirit
In vacant space.
What wine does one drink?
What bread does one eat?
Dance Lessons of the Thirties
Wafts of old incense mixed with Cuban coffee
Hung on the air; a fan turned; it was summer.
And (of the buried life) some last aroma
Still clung to the tumbled cushions of the sofa.
At lesson time, pushed back, it used to be
The thing we managed somehow just to miss
With our last-second dips and whirls—all this
While the Victrola wound down gradually.
And this was their exile, those brave ladies who taught us
So much of art, and stepped off to their doom
Demonstrating the fox-trot with their daughters
Endlessly around some sad and makeshift ballroom.
O little lost Bohemias of the suburbs!
More about Selected Poems
About Wallace Stevens
More about Donald Justice’s Collected Poems
About Donald Justice