Analysis: Wallace Stevens’s “Man Carrying Thing”

Man carrying thing, used as a photo for the Wallace Stevens poem

I won’t miss this day. In fact, I’ll try to make up for it by jotting down my thoughts on a Wallace Stevens poem, “Man Carrying Thing”. I just memorized it (hopefully it sticks) and it’s a fun thing to rattle off and attempt to wrap your head around. He wrote these incredibly eloquent, philosophical puzzles that require multiple readings and deep thought to unpack, if not fully understand. I’m not sure most of Stevens’s poems have a singular, unitary meaning. Perhaps some of the simpler ones do. However, most of the famous, great Stevens poems possess a multiplicity (not infinity) of meanings that merge and interweave and clash. The act of reading his poems isn’t trying to find out what they mean – as if each one came with a packaged, one-sentence definition. It’s parsing out each part, uncovering different meanings and how they interact to form a complex yet congruous whole – certainly one that requires many paragraphs, if not entire pages (books, even!), to elaborate on. The thing I love most about Stevens’s poems is how many questions unravel after landing on a likely answer. Again, there’s a limit to these questions, but the point is that his poems are a delight to return to again and again, since they seem to grow in stature and meaning as one grows in life experience. Without further ado, here’s the poem:

Man Carrying Thing

The poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully. Illustration:

A brune figure in winter evening resists
Identity. The thing he carries resists

The most necessitous sense. Accept them, then,
As secondary (parts not quite perceived

Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles
Of the certain solid, the primary free from doubt,

Things floating like the first hundred flakes of snow
Out of a storm we must endure all night,

Out of a storm of secondary things),
A horror of thoughts that suddenly are real.

We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.

Boo-yah! All from memory too. Let me pause while I check if I got it right…yep, mostly! I used a period where there should’ve been a comma, and missed another comma, but other than that, a successful transcription. Ok, where to start with this doozy? Well, before I begin, I should stress that one ought to read “Man Carrying Thing” a minimum of 10 times. Ok, so 10’s an arbitrary choice, but read it until the poem starts to take shape in your understanding. That could be 10 or 5 or 55. I don’t know. Read it a few times, at least, before absorbing ANYONE’S analysis of it – basically, form your own ideas before adopting someone else’s. I’ve made (and make) that mistake too often. As a disclaimer, much of my own analysis is informed by Dan Schneider’s brief but incisive take on it in his groundbreaking Wallace Stevens vs. William Shakespeare essay.

A brief technical scan, with further elaboration in the ensuing paragraphs: 14 lines, a de facto free verse sonnet. No end rhymes, but with rhythms and repetitions, consonance and assonance that convey music without a definite traditional rhyme scheme. The lines are broken into 7 couplets, which might imitate, as Dan Schneider claims, the free-floating nature of the poem. It’s an Art/Muse type poem, but much more abstract than traditional Art/Muse poems. Stevens scopes in, scopes out, specifies and universalizes upon a classic theme in the same space it takes for lesser poets to fart out another bland coffee shop poem.

So, I don’t think there’s one meaning here. Or, at least, it isn’t one that can be reduced into a soundbite without sounding awfully precious. If there is a theme, then it’s probably something like: Poetry exists within the tension of irreducible imagination and intelligence which must shorten, divide, contextualize and categorize reality in order to understand what is. The act of reading poetry is an almost violent undertaking. “Resist” is used three times in the first three couplets. “Storm” and “endure” are, respectively, mentioned twice in the last three couplets. One gets the picture of a siege taking place – but who are the assailers, and who are the assailed? Stevens posits a philosophical claim: “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.” So – already poetry and intelligence are at war. However, intelligence seems to be given precedence, since the poem cannot fully keep it out. What is the nature of this conflict? Well, let’s unpack that. (Also, as a digression, in some ways “Man Carrying Thing” is an archetypical Stevens poem, as it encapsulates much of his own worldview regarding art and reality. Neat.)

Wallace Stevens must illustrate this conflict. The next line offers an ekphrastic-like engagement with some imaginary painting, as if encountered in a gallery. “A brune figure in winter evening resists / Identity. The thing he carries resists / The most necessitous sense.” The “brune figure in winter evening” is held at a distance, as if the scene is observed from afar, far enough to capture only parts of a whole – the figure’s features are indefinite save for his “brune” hair and his surroundings are of a “winter evening” but not more specific than that. He “resists / Identity.” Not description, but “Identity.” The word is used here as a kind of totalizing, enveloping motion. He carries something – what is it? An object, a child? Again, it isn’t specific, it “resists / The most necessitous sense.” Which of the senses are the most necessitous? Perhaps sight? Is the “thing” being concealed from us, perhaps deliberately? Stevens doesn’t try to dive deeper into this mystery. Instead, he wants us to “Accept them, then, / As secondary.” What, exactly, must be secondary? The figure and the thing, or the parts of each that are hidden from our understanding? It’s a tricky one to unpack, but I think both are susceptible to analysis, together and apart. Since Stevens strikes me as a largely Apollonian mind, seeking order and harmony within a cosmos of seemingly random interactions, I’ll go for the latter as the stronger argument – and there might be textual evidence to back this up.

A long parenthetical takes up the bulk of the poem’s middle section. In it, the speaker elaborates on the “parts not quite perceived” (the brune figure’s indiscernible features, and the object he holds) being part and parcel of an “obvious whole” – meaning that a discernable, immediately identifiable whole can contain things indiscernible and unidentifiable – oh, the paradox! The speaker describes “the primary” as “free from doubt” – so, the secondary must be that which is held in doubt. In order to glean the primary, one must “accept” the secondary. There is a hint of surrender in the speaker’s tone, but acceptance also supposes consent from one willing party. So, within the confrontation, there is a concession. Maybe the reader disagrees on which, exactly, is primary and which is secondary, or maybe the reader casts her own doubt on this dichotomy, yet the basic idea stands – in the world, there are things we understand and things we don’t. In poetry, this tension is pushed to the fore, in confrontation with the reader. Yet, despite the tension, there is connection – you can’t have one without the other. They must be bound together in order for any worthwhile engagement to take place.

The fifth couplet (we’re still within the parenthetical) introduces the storm conceit. We must “endure all night” a “storm of secondary things.” Night and snow are classic thematic touchstones used to describe mystery, obfuscation, and the concealment of things from sight. The mystery of the secondary things (floating around us like flakes of snow) in the night must be accepted until, logically, the day arrives – the day carrying light, a classic metaphor for the uncovering of knowledge, an illumination of ideas. The night is dispelled, the snow melts, etc. The night and the storm are not banished through any action of the percipient but endured. Accepted. The line I have the most trouble with is line 12: “A horror of thoughts that suddenly are real.” It’s a jarring emotional break with the kind of objective, abstract (even soft) descriptions in the prior lines. Perhaps this is where the speaker’s own preference for identity and clarity comes in, since what is secondary (unidentifiable, mysterious) is seen as horrible. Yet, they become “real” – unavoidable, in a sense, and therefore must be taken into consideration.

“Man Carrying Thing” has a final couplet that seems to rise above the poetic illustration. It universalizes this tension to the reader’s own general thoughts – thoughts that might feed us uncertainty, fear, etc. They must not be fought against, but endured, all night. According to the speaker, these mysteries naturally give way to illumination – “the bright obvious.” Given a SparkNotes-type treatment, the final lines might read as: We have to accept everything we fear and can’t identify until what we can identify, name and know without horror stands before us, clarified and real. Now, it’s important to mention that the speaker doesn’t say that everything will be identifiable, eventually, but only what is obvious. Just as the brune figure in winter cannot be fully identified, nor the thing he carries – and yet everything we need to know about him is present, whether we realize it or not. These explanations might sound trite, sure, but they are my words, not Stevens’s! and poetry is not about the ideas themselves, but how ideas are articulated, given form, and shaped in a way that resists cliche and banality.

One could argue that “Man Carrying Thing” describes poetry (and the act of reading poetry) within the conflux of Identity and that which resists identity. Identity is primary, free from doubt, and all else is secondary. These mysterious secondary aspects must be accepted (i.e. taken in) and endured until what’s doubtlessly recognized arrives. Now, does the very action of acceptance allow the understanding to take place, or is this transition from ignorance to knowledge cloaked from us? Both, I say – how mysterious! The poem also has the air of a manifesto – “must” is used three times, in crucial spots. It carries itself, like so many Stevens poems, with the bearing of necessary equipment for living. That these ideas can be extrapolated from poetry into life, in general, is just a testament to Stevens’s power.

Of course, a great poem like “Man Carrying Thing” can’t be fully analyzed in a few measly paragraphs, especially by a 23-year-old amateur like me. Scholars devote whole essays and books and tenures to the corpus of Wallace Stevens. I’m sure boatloads of further philosophizing are absent in this treatment, and I may have missed the mark on some points, but anyway, I’m of the opinion that a lot of scholarly writing devolves into needless minutiae and/or, as Dan Schneider puts it, masturbatory “bigwordthrowingarounding.” A lay reader with a genuine curiosity for poetry (and the arts, in general) should be able to understand even the most complex Wallace Stevens poem; not immediately, granted. It’ll take work, but you certainly don’t need to waste years and money on a Ph.D.! Great poems retain a hint of the ineffable (that which “resists identity!”) no scholar or philosopher or poetry expert, amateur or not, can quite explain without actually reducing its value through explanation. Of course, it takes skill to get there, and “Man Carrying Thing” is certainly a treasury of technical felicity, the perfect marriage of philosophy and art. It is virtually void of cliche, and a more perceptive reader might even get emotional value out of it, although subtly rendered and somewhere between easily named emotions like sadness, wistfulness, and whichever emotion you attach to realization’s dawning.

[Note from Zeke: This is a slightly edited email I wrote last year in correspondence with friends. I had expressed my desire to memorize a poem a day, which, in the end, produced mixed but generally favorable results. More casual, personal remarks have been cut. The bulk of it, however, remains unchanged.]

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