Imagination: Jarred and Uncontained in "Anecdote of the Jar"

In the 1919 poem, “Anecdote of the Jar” by Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), the slovenly wilderness has unconfined presence, contrasting a jar’s confined space of potential emptiness and the nature of emptiness in general.  This distinction illuminates the relationships of presence to absence, of nature to artifice, of unity to multiplicity, of subject to object, of limitation to limitlessness, and of motion to stability.  Stevens uses these dualities to show that meaning depends on an “other” or “opposite” which the imagination creates and supplies. I will draw upon Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology and Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality to examine the nature of power and space in “Anecdote of the Jar” and show how binaries and contradictions allow for multiple perspectives from which we can draw upon and contribute to the discourse that shapes our own versions of reality. Because no perspective is alike, the power of knowledge must come from imagination as the mind articulates meaning by making distinctions which are ultimately arbitrary.

Much of the existing literature about “Anecdote of the Jar” has focused on how the poem represents imagination in response to Romanticism, how the poem functions within Stevens’ body of work or the Modernist tradition, or how a Formalist reading might work. While much of this scholarship is relevant here, I am analyzing the work through a poststructuralist lens in order to move the discussion away from what the poem means and toward how it means, that is to say, how the multiple binary systems facilitate the creation of meaning at all.

Doris L. Eder notes that “for Stevens, imagination subsumes the self and is larger than mind” (4). This idea that imagination is greater than ego and the conscious mind has an important implication for the study of discourse: if imagination informs discourse, then the subconscious, what is not known or seen, or what is absent or imagined—similarly informs reality, breaking down the barrier between the real and the imagined. James Longenbach notes in “Why It Must Be Abstract” that the Greek root of the word “anecdote” means “unpublished,” making the point that Stevens uses the unsaid as much as the said, as it relies on the context of the discourse to give it power. He further argues that “Words are nothing but of ourselves and what we see and know, and somehow at the same time are so much more” (Longenbach 90).

Samuel Jay Keyser writes in “Wallace Stevens: Form and Meaning in Four Poems” that Stevens structures the wilderness of language into art by crafting the poem, just as the poem’s speaker creates a still life through the action of placing the jar. I would take this a step further and say this same structuring process occurs in criticism by creating focal points for the analysis.  In a similar vein, Mark Jeffreys analyzes the use of empty space in the lyric genre, claiming that negative structures and balances in language reinforce the “empty space” of criticism, using “Anecdote of the Jar” as a poem representative of this tendency. Patricia Merivale describes the jar as an illustration of the images of Romantic poetry which are now in a “wasteland,” noting further that the vantage point from which we see the jar shows how the artifact seems to control our perspective (Merivale 530).  Both Merivale and Keyser consider the connection of perspective to power, but they lend more power to the jar itself than I intend to; I argue that the jar as well as the space outside it create systems through which the language creates reality and shifts power.

In a move that seems to anticipate poststructuralism, Stevens uses a binary system of presence and absence to create space into which meaning can arise. The poem employs plain language and a matter-of-fact tone, but after beginning with an image of strong presence, it becomes convoluted as it ends with language of absence. For this subject matter, this is logical. In the traditional utilitarian sense, the point of a jar is to contain something inside it; yet this poem of a jar looks outside of it. Though emptiness constitutes a jar, the space outside the vessel is equally important to the space inside, for without the "other," the jar could not exist. Stevens uses this binary system to show the interdependence of the concrete and the imagined, of objects and perspective, for it is because of this lack of fixed perspective that perspective is possible at all.

The turn toward describing what is not there illuminates a mask: the language conceals what could be said but isn’t, providing space into which the imagination can dive. The masking of the process of creating meaning is the writer’s work in his struggle to take power over language which will only run away with multiple meanings. This idea of power differs from Foucault’s idea of power, but Foucault is still relevant here; he writes, “Power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms” (Foucault 86).  In Stevens’ poem, the speaker’s power arises not only from his action of placing the jar, but also from his changed perception of the wilderness, which has changed the discourse, and thus reality. As Foucault wrote, reality is created by discourse. This discourse empowers those who learn from it, but the speaker absconds with information at the end of the poem, leaving only negative space.

The ability of discourse to structure reality becomes especially clear in the contrast of nature and artifice, here represented by the wilderness and the jar, further illuminating the arbitrariness at the heart of meaning creation. One might think that artifice is created when the imagination engages with nature.  The imagination, however, is part of nature, and cannot be outside of this system. Each person has a unique, imaginative, internal discourse which evolves over time, so there are infinite focal points between imagination and truth, artifice and nature. The selves’ systems of imagination naturally create artifice, so the concept of artifice is artificial. Nature forms, imposes upon, and juxtaposes with artifice. The difference between these concepts is fundamental to the human experience; however, the reality is that interdependence unites the disparate object and subject.  Imagination at once unites opposites and beholds their divisions. The space between our discourses—language as we know and use it—and Language in its broadest sense creates the open space to imagine the disjointed self in relation to the rejected notions—the negative space—that shape identity.

Stevens complicates identity and identification, inviting more imagination into discourse as meaning becomes more difficult to discern. Ambiguity of subject strikes routinely in this anecdote, creating a paradox with multiplicity and unity as deictic words shuffle meanings.  When Stevens writes, “It took dominion everywhere,” what does “it” contain, and to what does it refer (76)? The high usage of referents throughout the poem makes the reader look through the “I” or the “it” to question the subject, for deictic words require context and the mind’s engagement in order to make sense.  The poem starts with the subject “I”; an appropriate choice to ground the reader because we cannot help but to see our own perspective first. We can only know the world through our own “I”s, our own eyes, our own “aye”s, as we affirm that yes, we know this world—until Stevens defamiliarizes it, and we realize the importance of negative space. 

The remainder of the syntactical subjects in the poem are only guessable—surely not knowable—the ambiguous pronoun "it,” the wilderness, and the jar. In the first sentence, the jar is grammatically the direct object yet in the next sentence, the speaker states, "It made the slovenly wilderness / Surround that hill" (76). Here, it seems that the jar is performing an action; in what way it does this, the reader must imagine. “It,” therefore, could also stand for the imagination, the power of the mind. The engagement of human perception and consciousness made the slovenly wilderness appear to surround the hill. This interdependence resolves the contradictory concepts of the knowable and the unknowable; consciousness must reconcile these.  It does so by considering that the “I” is an “it,” just as the jar is an “it,” and so is “wilderness.”  We are all the same something, which Stevens demonstrates well through the complexity of the “Anecdote.” The resolution of these tensions must not be confused with the Hegelian system of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, as here, each referent becomes clear by deferring its meaning outside of itself in an act of differance.

Reconciliation of meaning is indeed necessary if ambiguity is accepted as intentional, for a certain “it” suggests multiple meanings, fighting and replacing each other: “It took dominion everywhere” (line 9). This referent, which begins the third stanza, could refer to either of the two subjects of the preceding stanza.  The wilderness rising up suggests a hostile takeover, as if “it” takes “dominion everywhere”; however, the jar likely belongs to the “it” of line 9, for the jar is tall, kingly, and able to take dominion (76).  Here again is a conjunction between the concrete and the conceptual: “dominion” means both the dominated territory itself, or the power to rule or control over that territory. The meanings are disjointed so the imagination wavers.  The jar, selfishly taking dominion, faces an uprising wilderness, described as “slovenly,” a term connoting carelessness and neglect, but overgrowth can only be seen as neglect through a human eye imposing an imagined order which has developed from historical discourse disempowering nature.

The play with limitation and control continues with the jar’s description: Stevens’ accounts are like political maps: he makes readers aware of the lines without describing the territory; for example, when a phrase begins with "The Jar," we cannot clearly see the subject. Is it a glass jar? A clay jar? A Grecian urn? Stevens defamiliarizes the jar through vagueness, simultaneously withholding the image as he expounds upon its description: “round upon the ground / And tall and of a port in air” and “gray and bare” (lines 7, 10).  “And” is the only conjunction that describes the jar, suggesting its power to link things; however, as it is round, it only points to itself. It stays upon the ground. This shows a disconnection in the notion of “itself” and propels the theme of multiplicity, as its various descriptions cannot fuse into a singly image.  Stevens describes it and describes it and describes it, and the wilderness rises and loses identity and the jar looks and looks at itself differently, in a wild, polysyndetic grasp for control.  If we anthropomorphize the jar as the speaker does, we can say the round jar goes in circles, trying to name itself, rhyming toward unity, but remaining different.  “Round…surround…around…round…ground” have not only a circling sound, but a sound of “ow,” like a throbbing pain that reinforces the violent connotations of the cold, gray language (lines 2, 4, 6, 7).  Furthermore, rounding is approximating, stepping around and smoothing small, wild, points to generalize an imaginable whole, yet generalization inevitably denies the unrounded truths of individual particles as they are in actuality. Although imagination cannot grasp reality in the way that it cannot grasp irrational numbers, it can conceive of ideas that become real through discourse. We may not know the real outside of our imagination; we can only imagine and make it real through discourse.

The poem contrasts the wild life around the jar with the grayness of the vessel, which is active and new in the poem. Gray is ambiguous, old, cold, inorganic, dead, metallic.  Gray resides between white and black, but because nothing in the world can fit the ideal the mind conjures, the eyes only see nearly-white, or nearly-black, both only gray.  Here is a paradox of perception and conception.  The power of the imagination and the nature of language to approximate allow for the conceptual existence of these opposites.  The jar could be any indescribable shade of gray because shade depends on lighting. Shade and lighting are unified by individual perspective, blended by perception.  Could the jar be completely gray, its surface reflecting hues of sky and wilderness? Or does it foreclose reflection with a matt finish? The word “bare” contradicts this; it means open, naked, without adornment.  This suggests that the jar is not only plain, but it cannot even associate with the wilderness, it cannot be decorated by its surroundings, because it is there and solitary and incapable of disturbance. The jar, however, does interact, as it takes dominion and inorganically controls that with which it has become a part.  The word “bare” also implies that it is natural, untouched.  Compared with the previously “untouched” wilderness which surrounds it, the jar does not seem natural.

In the second stanza, Stevens describes the jar as "round upon the ground / And tall and of a port in air." Placement on the ground and in the air gives a dual perspective. The reader needs the image of the hill to reconcile the difference, and mentally place the jar on top of the hill. Nevertheless, the “tall” container has no reference point against which to compare its height.  The reader constructs perspective.  The word "port" is equally jarring. This word is of great import to the poem, as the speaker imports the jar to the hill.  A port is a harbor, a place of holding, often for loading or unloading, and a stationary place of great activity.  A harbor unites these concepts of action and inaction, just as imagining the stable jar unites it with the rising wilderness.  Ships arrive at ports. Through this word, Stevens calls attention to that fact that we do not know the contents of this jar.  This vagueness is an important portal for the contents of the philosophical imagination, suggesting that nothing can help but to be open to wilderness because everything is already part of it and dependent upon it.  Stevens tells us the jar is gray—but how gray? He tells it is tall—but how tall? He tells it is a port—but for what, really? And what is “really”?  Blurring readers’ boundaries, Stevens complicates the poem and in so doing, creates an open, limitless wilderness in the space between the meaning he gives and what the imagination creates. The limited information reveals how language depends on absent words and deferred meanings.

In the same way the narrator brings the jar to the scene, so the readers bring their images and preconceptions to the poem.  The area surrounding the jar would not be a “slovenly wilderness” if the narrator were familiar with the area; he could order it based on mental notes from previous experiences (Line 3).  The incorporation of intent, however, when the speaker placed it purposively on the hill, allows for the peace that comes with the exercise of control.  The reader brings his or her own assumptions to the poem; some readers may have brought a desert hill, others a misty forest, clean and mossy.  The speaker brings the jar to the wilderness, but the reader must bring an ordered idea of "wilderness" to the reading, as "wilderness" is opener than a jar to interpretation.  They bring them in a “jar” of knowledge, in their minds, yet everything outside of their minds, everything not included in their scope of experience is equally important. Without the unknowable and the unseen, the poem could not exist nor effectively challenge the intellect.

 The jar in Stevens' poem brings order, or "dominion," to the "slovenly wilderness" by creating a focal point, a center, of the scene: the jar is on the hill. But the hill is in Tennessee. I know (from outside the poem) that "Tennessee" refers to one of the United States, which I mentally place in North America, the World, the Universe, infinity. The ordering process initiated by the placement of the jar transcends the poem through my interaction with it, just as the slovenly wilderness became ordered through the narrator's interaction.  If, however, order is a concept conceived through interactions of consciousness, then the inevitable "other" to that order is disorder, an unknowable concept. In a sense, the real, "knowable" Tennessee is destroyed by the imagination. I overlook its reality and use the concept my imagination has combined from maps in geography classrooms and airport travel magazines. Maps point, but drawn parallelograms are not Tennessee. Stevens placed Tennessee, just as the speaker “placed a jar,” and we only know this “Tennessee” through the text of this poem. This poststructuralist act of deferral to knowledge outside the poem exemplifies how discourse and imagination shape each, and in turn, reality.

Though the jar acts like a focal point at first, it does not remain so. The wilderness rises up to it, we rise out of it, and into it, and out of it again, adjusting our focus like the round glass lens of a camera, trying to get a clear picture of our placement. From what perspective does the reader view the jar? From above? From the West, with the sun squinting the eyes? Is an individual perspective a slovenly wilderness, here and there? Who or what really has dominion everywhere?  What focus can comprehend "everywhere," if no focus can see that far, let alone see itself? A questioned focal point implicates a call to rethink the notion of the point.  A “point” is a concept to get at particulars, which help us to know the unknowable whole, as through the use of anecdotes in constructing a paradigm.

The title, "Anecdote of the Jar" may seem problematic if an anecdote is a small point that does not seem to get to the point.  An anecdote, by definition, is a short tale of a single personal experience, often biographical, and often illustrating an epitome.  In court terminology, the phrase “anecdotal evidence” refers to random reports: personal examination or observation, case studies, and the like, instead of methodical evaluation. That this poem fits this general concept of an anecdote could go without saying, yet Stevens declares this, as if it were anything else. An “anecdote,” however, is just a concept that the reader must imagine to understand, so when Stevens names the obvious, he reinforces the paradox of concept (anecdote) versus concrete object (the jar). Furthermore, an anecdote pinpoints a specific event in time, yet every time the poem is read and re-read, an imagined jar is placed by the reader on an imagined hill in Tennessee, and each time, it will be imagined differently.  An anecdote is also a memory, and memories will also be imagined differently each time, reinforcing the anecdotal nature of memory by placing it beyond "systematic scientific evaluation," by confirming what it is not, yet denying its anecdotal nature by denying the singularity of the event.

The convoluted phrasing of lines 11-12, however, makes this poem different than other anecdotes: by using language to describe what isn't, Stevens effectively represents the importance of absence in relation to presence. Stevens writes: “It did not give of bird or bush, / Like nothing else in Tennessee” (76). These lines indicate that the jar is the only thing in Tennessee that does not give to bird or bush. This statement, however, contradicts the notion of wilderness.  To know a whole place, one must explore every crevice, and to state that birds and bushes do not go there is an imaginative assumption, slovenly in logic. (Anecdotes, however, do not need meticulous, scientific proof.)  “Bird or bush” may translate to “animal or plant,” if we let our wild imaginations rise up to the words and sprawl around.  But humans are animals too. Humans are a part of nature as much as an inorganic jar is a part of the earth. They cannot be separated, because they affect one another so completely: The jar, not growing, gets in the way of birds and plants, and the hill (which likely rises too, with plate tectonics) still bustles with organic content that will in some way, someday, push against the jar eventually.  Although the jar is not growing while the nature around it rises (as is its nature to do), the placed jar will necessarily move.  Anecdotes are incidents, and the story of this poem, if it is taken as truth, would have occurred over a great length of time, and under scientific, un-anecdotal scrutiny.  Another reading suggests that it seemed as though the wilderness rose up to it, because of the speaker’s perception.  Either way, the mind unites the limited nature of what can be known to exist, and the unlimited nature of what can “only” be imagined to exist.

Rather than giving an ending about how the placement of the jar on the hill affected specific things around it (bird or bush), the ending states what did not happen.  These lines create a tension as they contrast the affirmative—and therefore promissory—statements of the rest of the poem; they are “like nothing else.” In the way that the jar stands out as solitary and different in the wilderness, the last lines stand out from the rest of the poem, and may contain the thematic unity necessary to reconcile the contradictory statements within the poem. Lines 1-10 reflect the now-knowable wilderness and contrast the mysterious “jar” of lines 11-12, which demonstrate emptiness by containing negative language, “It did not give,” like “nothing else” gives.  The concept of “else” further transmits the notion of the unknowable, but here it appears that the speaker does know the rest of Tennessee but does not give the information, just as he only vaguely gives the description of the jar.  What can we know to not exist? Furthermore, these lines unite the contradictions by employing simile. Nothing cannot give something, and “it” did not give anything. To compare “nothing” and “it” brings unity to the paradox of simultaneous absence and presence.  If nothing gives more nothing, it takes away something; this something is the wilderness.  If the “wilderness” becomes “no longer wild” then what has it become? Its very definition, that which gives it the power to be known, has been defeated.   This exemplifies the theme that abstract concepts cannot be known, only imagined; through this imagination comes understanding necessary to resolve the tensions within the poem.

Nothing means “no thing.” To call something a “thing” is to affirm its existence, to give it a name; to give a name is to conquer it, to control it, to have dominion upon it. Interestingly, “no” is the name, but a negative name is still a name, and this appellation is itself a paradox, resolved by its existence, and the reader’s imaginative engagement by seeing it on the page. A page of text is a slovenly territory of ink to be conquered, yet the reader is the one jarred by the experience of intellectual consumption; likely, the page itself is only changed by gray smudges of bare fingers. When we read, we examine closely, categorizing complex images into manageable, habitual bits of information, and deferring other meanings as we make sense of what is at hand.  The word “thing” does not exclude people; neither was the speaker helpful to “bird or bush,” a notion that the violent language of conquering develops.  It seems as though the speaker shifts blame; he declares that he placed the jar, and then he is gone from the action of the poem.  The ambiguous subjects suggest that the speaker links himself in multiplicity of meaning with the word “it", reacquaints himself with nature, and counts himself as part.  This ultimately resolves the paradox of the separation of man and nature, as nature and artifice are notions constructed by consciousness and its tendency to recognize difference. Difference implies a this and a that, but interdependence unites them into an inescapable web of limitless meanings.  As imagination continues the development of discourse, certain meanings are foreclosed upon, creating more power and changing reality.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Print.

Eder, Doris L. “A Review of Stevens Criticism to Date.” Twentieth Century Literature 15.1 (1969): 3-18. Online.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage-Random, 1990. Print.

Jeffreys, Mark. “Anecdotes of a Jar: The Dominion of Spatial Tropes in Recent Criticism of the Lyric.” Criticism 40.1 (1998): 55-74. Online.  

Keyser, Samuel Jay. “Wallace Stevens: Form and Meaning in Four Poems” College English 37.6 (1976): 578-598. Online.

Longenbach, James. “Why It Must Be Abstract.” The Georgia Review 45.1 (1991): 75-92. Online.

Merivale, Patricia. “Wallace Stevens' ‘Jar’: The Absurd Detritus of Romantic Myth.” College English 26.7 (1965): 527-532. Online.

Stevens, Wallace. “Anecdote of the Jar.” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Vintage, 1990.


PoetryKatie Ancheta