I’m fascinated by late poems, in which the poet assays and assesses his or her life in poetry. In this poem by Wallace Stevens, one of his most intimate and poignant, the poet addresses himself as he leaves the room, clearly a metaphor for life. As he prepares for death, he puts his poetic effects in order. Accused so often of writing “cold,” “lifeless” poems, fearing that it might be true, that he has squandered or evaded life, the speaker (who here is clearly identifiable with the poet, referring specifically to particular poems of his) looks back over the body of his work and realizes that it has been alive, has been a life, a part of a major reality. His work has changed nothing, and yet everything has been changed. As Adorno writes, “in a state of redemption, everything will be just as it is and yet wholly different” (Aesthetic Theory).
As You Leave the Room
You speak. You say: Today’s character is not
A skeleton out of its cabinet. Nor am I.
That poem about the pineapple, the one
About the mind as never satisfied,
The one about the credible hero, the one
About summer, are not what skeletons think about.
I wonder, have I lived a skeleton’s life,
As a disbeliever in reality,
A countryman of all the bones in the world?
Now, here, the snow I had forgotten becomes
Part of a major reality, part of
An appreciation of a reality
And thus an elevation, as if I left
With something I could touch, touch every way.
And yet nothing has been changed except what is
Unreal, as if nothing had been changed at all.