On "As You Leave the Room"

Henry W. Wells

""As You Leave the Room" was apparently completed a year after "On the Way to the Bus" [reprinted in Opus Posthumous, p. 136]. Its first eight or nine lines may have been written as early as 1947, according to the conjecture of Samuel French Morse, editor of Opus Posthumous. But the last seven lines appear to refer specifically to "On the Way to the Bus." Stevens has again been calling his life as poet to account and wondering if it has not all been misspent in pursuit of an illusion. Or has his fondness for introducing the intellect into poetry reduced his work to the dryness of a skeleton? Are his poems merely the skeletons of poems, not true, living organisms of verse? At this point he recalls a few of his resilient pieces, throbbing with feeling, alive in flesh and blood. He remembers his sensuous "Credences of Summer," with its affirmation of fulfillment in all phases of experience, his poem on the hero, and similar pieces. Above all, he recalls "On the Way to the Bus" [which ends with "a perfection emerging from a new known, / An understanding beyond journalism, // A way of pronouncing the word inside of one’s tongue / Under the wintry trees of the terrace"], celebrating the illumination which he experienced on a winter morning only a few months before and the resilient faith in life, emotion, and clarity of thought there expressed. No, he concludes, neither he as a man nor his poems are failures, skeletons, the shadows or apologies for life. They are vital, residing at life’s core."

Jacqueline Vaught Brogan

The ambiguity of the word "still" points to the integrity of Stevens, who does not attempt to hide from anxiety inherent in self-consciousness. A comparison of "First Warmth" and "As You Leave the Room" is revealing here. The first poem says,

I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life,
As a questioner about reality,

A countryman of all the bones of the world?
Now, here, the warmth I had forgotten becomes

Part of the major reality, part of
An appreciation of a reality;

And thus an elevation, as if I lived
With something I could touch, touch every way.

The second poem begins with four allusions to earlier poems, including the "one / About the mind as never satisfied" and says that these "are not what skeletons think about." The poem then continues with, "I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life, / As a disbeliever in reality." Although Stevens undercuts the despairing tone by saying that skeletons do not think about the poems he has written, including the one about the "mind as never satisfied," he also increases the despairing tone by changing "questioner about reality" to "disbeliever." Similarly, the "warmth I had forgotten" in the first poem is replaced by the "snow I had forgotten" in the second poem. And, whereas the concluding lines of the first poem raise the possibility that he is now living in touch with an original warmth, the second one undercuts that possibility by adding that "Nothing has been changed" (by the poem) "except what is / Unreal." However, the following clause, "as if nothing had been changed at all" further complicates the ambiguity and raises the possibility that something has been changed by and in the language. This complication is, of course, one of the things that makes the second poem superior to the first. The other is the depth created by the ruthless question the second poem asks: whether living in poems has not been a kind of death. However, the restraint has been an inherent part of the poem since the opening lines, in which Stevens quietly reminds us that skeletons do not think. Ultimately, the poem reclaims something of the "finally human" despite its ruthless questioning.

From Steven and Simile: A Theory of Language. Copyright 1986 by Princeton University Press.

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