I don’t know how it is in Tennessee, I’ve never been there. My uncle moved there and since has refused to talk to his brother, my father, and that’s all I know about Tennessee.
When I read this poem, I kept thinking, of all things, of South Carolina. I’ve been there. It was lots of sprawling wilderness and green as far as the eye could see and no civilization what-so-ever. For those who are wild at heart this was paradise. A part of me is pretty wild, but I did not screech and holler until they let me out of the car to run free. No. I just sat in the boring, grey rental and let the wilderness pass by. Is that what civilization is? Does it make us ignore our instinct to be free? Does it make us grey and boring (measure our coffee in teaspoons). It stops us from doing stupid and violent things and that most definitely is a good thing. But in return what do we give up?
When Wallace Stevens places a jar in the wilderness, the curious tendrils of green wilderness come up to meet it and it dominates them. I’m not certain how, but since the jar is doing something other than containing something (the one and only thing that it is made to do, that it can do), then I have to read this jar as a literary symbol.
And why do I say that it represents civilization? It’s a good question, after all, there’s nothing in the poem that says anything about civilization, just about wilderness (“It made the slovenly wilderness/Surround the hill”). Well, the jar is separate from the wilderness; the wilderness circles around it. A jar something that must be made by hands, not grown. It’s grey and bare which means that it’s devoid of dirt, unlike most of the things in the wilderness, and not a color of living things. The color grey reminds me of cement, though that’s just my reading of it. And the wilderness is being forced to do something that it does not naturally do, grow along a certain path (surround the hill), instead of growing freely where ever it chooses. So, the barest interpretation can be, something wild or natural versus something constructed.
And as the poem goes on, the jar dominates the wilderness, so now we have some order among the slovenly, but it seems to be a mean spirited sort of order: “it did not give of bird or bush,/Like nothing else in Tennessee.” It’s as if to say, once order is created, generosity goes out the door, suddenly we are living in sparse times with little bounty. So, the real question is, what’s so wrong with a little slovenliness?
Above all, a mean-spirited, dominating and uncharitable orderliness is unlike Tennessee. This is according to Wallace Stevens, after all, I’ve never been there.
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.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.