Apr '03 [Home]


Wallace Stevens and the Other Guitarist:
Conjecture on the Model for "The Man with the Blue Guitar"

Before Music
Martin Willitts, Jr.


The Guitar Player
Toorenvliet, Jacob Leiden (1640-1719 Leiden)
Copper, 23.5 x 17.8 cm, Private Collection
The artist often used this model in his paintings.

The Man With the Blue Guitar
Wallace Stevens


The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."

The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."

And they said to him, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar,
Of things exactly as they are."


I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.

I sing a hero's head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,

picguitar Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.

If a serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,

Say that it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.


A tune beyond us as we are,
Yet nothing changed by the blue guitar;

Ourselves in tune as if in space,
Yet nothing changed, except the place

Of things as they are and only the place
As you play them on the blue guitar,
Placed, so, beyond the compass of change,
Perceived in a final atmosphere;

For a moment final, in the way
The thinking of art seems final when

The thinking of god is smoky dew.
The tune is space. The blue guitar

Becomes the place of things as they are,
A composing of senses of the guitar.


Tom-tom c'est moi. The blue guitar
And I are one. The orchestra

Fills the high hall with shuffling men
High as the hall. The whirling noise

Of a multitude dwindles, all said,
To his breath that lies awake at night.

I know that timid breathing. Where
Do I begin and end? And where,

As I strum the thing, do I pick up
That which momentarily declares

Itself not to be I and yet
Must be. It could be nothing else.

According to received wisdom, Picasso's Blue Period (1903) guitarist
was the model for the Stevens poem, but is either instrument blue,
either player unmistakably a shearsman?

. ~ . ~

harpBefore Music
Martin Willitts, Jr.


Before music, there was no sound,
the universe was speechless
as an unplucked harp
defiant in the void and not hearing
the wake-up call, the alarm
setting creation in constant motion.
Before then, there was nothing
and no one was listening.


On a white-hot night
you can hear the rumble of heat

like folding chairs snapping,
the body oozing quarter notes,

no breeze, uncomfortable blasts
full of jazz flames,

the explosion of new suns,
the rustling of anger,

the clash of cymbals,
then creation is exhausted.

We can almost smell fresh wet clay.
This is how life began.


There is no sweeter sound
than two lovers stroking as violins,
or a baby's trombone cry.

Before there was music,
silence was an empty cathedral
and chaos was parched trees.


When a woman heard man's heart
terrified of his own darkness,
she invented a drum to capture it.

When man heard woman's softness
coaxing strawberries into tasting like love,
he fluted stars to whirl around her halo.

The music of life, beginning.
A chorus of hope in laughter
and no incomplete deaf notes.


I pour water over my frenzied body
trying to cool my body temperature.
No sleep is in the forecast.
I am restless as a piccolo,
disturbed as Amadeus,
refreshed as orange juice,
faint as a lover's smile,
distant as the stilled wind,
lost as forgiveness,
sudden as the embarrassed applause,
gone as a fish escaping the hook.


Anxiety jitterbugs
across dissatisfied continents,
language twirls with skirt flying,
bobby socks white as expectation,
flash of legs of misunderstanding.
We pick up conversation
asking for names
in the swirl of dance floor partners.
The continued swaying,
mating rituals always this frantic,
the crude introductions,
slow dancing through assurances
or fast dancing to intimacy.

When the band stops playing,
no longer waltzing on the edge,
the final note held delicately
between interconnected hands
as a hint of music in the soft kiss,
our mind holds a filled dance card,
a wild card of tomorrows,
a tarot card of a fool in love
wearing awkward ballet slippers
ready to swan-leap
into the orchestra pit of love
or twisted tubas of divorce.


The sun is a terrible moan.
The land is eroded by tides,
Silence before us is unexplored.
The intestines of roads betray us.
We try to escape the labyrinth.

There's a black hole in our heart
where the music should be.
Dark birds migrate into our faces
lifting the night canvas,
but our heart will not be starless.
The universe is alive with secret language.

~ . ~

( Martin Willitts Jr.'s piece, "Before Drawing," another in this series, appeared in the magazine's May '02 feature, Poems on Paintings. Other work appeared in Sep '02, Dec '02, and Jan '03. Mr. Willitts is a Children's Librarian in upstate New York. Just awarded the 2003 John Cotton Dana Award for library publicity, he is the author of three chapbooks.)