My screening process for these poems was straightforward: each had to be in the public domain (therefore, published before 1923) and each, simply, had to please me. I also wanted material that was stylistically and thematically modern. So the search was limited to poetry written between 1900 and 1923. In reviewing the three poems that I ultimately published, I noted interesting coincidences. For one thing, all of the authors were American. Also, and, more significantly, all of the poems contained the image of vacuity.
Wallace Stevens, in Anecdote of the Jar, puts his jar, “empty and bare”, in the Tennessee wilderness. Amy Lowell, in Absence, regards her cup and sees that it is “empty and void”. And Dargan, in her sonnet, reaches for the warmth of another person and discovers that the earth is “void”.
Along with having the aspect of hollowness, each of the poems exists in nature. Stevens’ jar is “upon a hill”, where it is surrounded by a “slovenly wilderness”; Lowell’s cup sits by an open window, where it “sparkles white in the moonlight” and is “chilled by the wind”; and Dargan, in her sonnet, references the earth, the world and “mountain folk”.
The publication dates for these poems were 1919, 1914 and 1916, respectively – years of social, political and intellectual upheaval. The Great War raged from 1914-1918. Freud issued his Interpretation of Dreams in 1899 and Einstein expounded his Special Relativity Theory in 1905. The glue of traditional relationships – cosmic and interpersonal – was disintegrating.
From Wikimedia Commons
NASA image of a quasar , or growing black hole
A poet of the Romantic era might have been comforted by nature – but not these three. They are creatures of their time, alone in a desolate, incomprehensible universe.
By Amy Lowel
My cup is empty to-night,
Cold and dry are its sides
Chilled by the wind from the open window.
Empty and void, it sparkles white in the moonlight.
The room is filled with the strange scent of wistaria blossoms.
They sway in the moon’s radiance
And tap against the wall.
But the cup of my heart is still,
And cold, and empty.
When you come, it brims
Red and trembling with blood,
Heart’s blood for your drinking;
To fill your heart with love
And the bitter-sweet taste of a soul
Sonnet 36 from The Cycle’s Rim
Olive Tilford Dargan
Sonnet 36 from The Cycle’s Rim
Today I went among the mountain folk
To hear the gentle talk most dear to me.
I saw slow tears, and tenderness that woke
From sternest bed to light a lamp for thee.
And “Is it true?” hope asked and asked again,
And “It is true,” was all that I could say,
And pride rose over love to hide gray pain
As eyes tears might ungrace were turned away.
So much they loved thee I was half decoyed
By human warmth to feel thee near, but when
I put my hand out all the earth was void,
And vanished even these near-weeping men.
Thus each new time I find that thou art gone,
Anew do I survive the world, alone
Anecdote of the Jar
By Wallace Stevens
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,