In this episode, Alan reads and discusses the poem "Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit" by Wallace Stevens.

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Poetry to the Brim - Episode 3: “Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit” by Wallace Stevens
In this episode, Alan reads and discusses the poem “Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit” by Wallace Stevens. --- Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/poetrytothebrim/support

Transcript

Hello everyone. You're listening to Poetry to the Brim, a podcast where we explore the fullness of things through poetry.

Today I'll be reading the poem "Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit" by Wallace Stevens. I first read this one in the epigraph to the book A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith; since then I've come back to it time and time again. Although I will try to do the poem justice with my reading, you can find Wallace Stevens himself reading this poem in multiple places online: I'll be sure to leave a few links to those readings in the show notes on the website.

OK. So without further ado.

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"Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit" by Wallace Stevens

If there must be a god in the house, must be,
Saying things in the rooms and on the stair,

Let him move as the sunlight moves on the floor,
Or moonlight, silently, as Plato's ghost

Or Aristotle's skeleton. Let him hang out
His stars on the wall. He must dwell quietly.

He must be incapable of speaking, closed,
As those are: as light, for all its motion, is;

As color, even the closest to us, is;
As shapes, though they portend us, are.

It is the human that is the alien,
The human that has no cousin in the moon.

It is the human that demands his speech
From beasts or from the incommunicable mass.

If there must be a god in the house, let him be one
That will not hear us when we speak, a coolness,

A vermillioned nothingness, any stick of the mass
Of which we are too distantly a part.

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Boy I love how mystical and evocative this poem is.

Before we dive in, for what it's worth, I want to note that for much of Stevens's life, he was an atheist, until he purportedly converted to Catholicism on his deathbed [1].

So the first thing I noticed in the poem is the repetition of the word "must." It is repeated five times, like an incantation almost, and I think it helps to emphasize the speaker's convictions about his claims regarding God.

At the beginning of the poem, the speaker says that God—if a god indeed exists in the house of existence—must be allowed to move like light, like "Plato's ghost" or "Aristotle's skeleton," to move as if of another order than us mere humans. In other words, I think Stevens is suggesting that while humans often project what we believe onto God, it is wrong to do so because doing so assumes a separation between God and us. Here, one may have doubts about what Stevens is saying: he seems to reify a separation between humans and God in order to make his claims about God, but I think the separation he makes is a perceptual one that indeed exists: where one believes that he or she is separate from his or her true nature, which is Being or God itself.

Anyways, so we try to grasp God intellectually, but we should let Him be and let ourselves be. All we can do (as with light, color, and shapes) is see God as He is. In science, we try grasp such things objectively: this cannot be done with God. This reminds me of the difference between knowledge as what happens when you grasp something versus knowledge as what happens when something grasps you. These are very different movements of understanding, and I believe the speaker thinks that knowing God comes about by way of the latter—when God grasps you, and you accept His grace.

In the last four stanzas, the speaker goes on to talk about "the [alien] human that demands his speech / from beasts or from the incommunicable mass," but that God "will not hear us when we speak." Again, God does not respond to simply what we desire or assert or want to believe. Rather, God is "a coolness, / A vermillioned nothingness, any stick of the mass / Of which we are too distantly a part." God is any part of the mass "of which we are too distantly a part." This last homophone is incredible. Instead of "apart" as one word, Stevens uses "a part," as in two words.

Now what does "too distantly a part" mean? How can you be a part of something but also be distant from it? So here, I think we have to do something we often need to do when we read poetry, which is sort of suspend the logical, left-hemisphere of our brain, if you will. What I think Stevens means here is that everything is a part of the "incommunicable mass": we are Being itself—we are not separate from Being, although we may feel alienated or very distant from it at times.

God is everywhere and inside everything, but cannot be truly spoken about. In speaking about God, we reify the perceptual sense of separation and alienation. The Dao that can be named is not the true Dao. Or as the Zen poem goes, "When you speak, it is silent. When you are silent, it speaks." God is this "incommunicable mass": the wordless humming, the silence and the fullness we feel after reading poems like this.

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"Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit" by Wallace Stevens

If there must be a god in the house, must be,
Saying things in the rooms and on the stair,

Let him move as the sunlight moves on the floor,
Or moonlight, silently, as Plato's ghost

Or Aristotle's skeleton. Let him hang out
His stars on the wall. He must dwell quietly.

He must be incapable of speaking, closed,
As those are: as light, for all its motion, is;

As color, even the closest to us, is;
As shapes, though they portend us, are.

It is the human that is the alien,
The human that has no cousin in the moon.

It is the human that demands his speech
From beasts or from the incommunicable mass.

If there must be a god in the house, let him be one
That will not hear us when we speak, a coolness,

A vermillioned nothingness, any stick of the mass
Of which we are too distantly a part.

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Thanks for listening to Poetry to the Brim. If you read the poem differently and would like to share your thoughts, or you have general suggestions about the show, I'd love to hear. Feel free to message me on Twitter (@acyanlight) or Instagram (@acyanlight), or email the show at poetrytothebrim@gmail.com.

Also, you can find a full transcript of the episode on the website at podcast.poetrytothebrim.com. There, you can also subscribe to stay up to date by email for when I release a new episode, and find ways to support the show.

Alright. Thanks again! Until next time.

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Show Notes

Wallace Stevens reading "Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit":

Citations

[1] Letter from James Wm. Chichetto to Helen Vendler, September 2, 2009, cited in a footnote to "Deathbed conversion".