Brief bio sketch

Lloyd Haft (1946- ) was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin USA and lived as a boy in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Kansas. In 1968 he graduated from Harvard College and went to Leiden, The Netherlands for graduate study in Chinese (M. A. 1973, Ph. D. 1981). From 1973 to 2004 he taught Chinese language and literature, mostly poetry, at Leiden. His sinological publications include Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry (1983/2011; published in Chinese translation as 发现卞之琳: 一位西方学者的探索之旅 in 2010) and Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness (2006).

He has translated extensively into English from the Dutch of Herman Gorter and Willem Hussem, and from the Chinese of various poets including Lo Fu, Yang Lingye, Bian Zhilin and Zhou Mengdie.

Since the 1980s he has also been active as a poet writing in Dutch and English. He was awarded the Jan Campert Prize for his 1993 bilingual volume Atlantis and the Ida Gerhardt Prize for his 2003 Dutch free-verse readings of the Psalms (republished by Uitgeverij Vesuvius in 2011). His most recent book of poems (in Dutch) is Deze poelen, deze geest (2008). His newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog.

After early retirement in 2004, for a number of years Lloyd Haft spent much of his time in Taiwan with his wife Katie Su. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. He sings in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Russian Orthodox Keys to Wallace Stevens

Russian Orthodox Keys to Wallace Stevens

by Lloyd Haft

In the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, there is a rather unusual icon of the Holy Trinity by an unknown painter. Unlike the more common Trinity icons which depict the three guests who visit Abraham in Genesis 18, this one is of the so-called otechestvo or ‘paternity’ type. It shows God the Father, the first Person of the Trinity, as a bearded elder sitting on a throne. Sitting on the Father’s lap is the second Person, the young Jesus. The third Person – the Holy Spirit – does not appear in human form at all, but rather as a dove, which looks to be flying forth from the belly of Jesus. (More accurately, I should say ‘through’ the belly of Jesus, since in Russian Orthodox as opposed to Western theology, the Holy Spirit does not ‘proceed from the Father and the Son,’ but only ‘from the Father.’)[1]
        For some years now, that icon has been my guide to one of the most curious poems by Wallace Stevens, and ‘proceeding from’ there, to Stevens’ poetry in general.

        The poem’s title is ‘The Dove in the Belly.’ It is from Stevens’ 1947 collection Transport to Summer, hence must have been written long before his believed-by-some, disputed-by-others deathbed conversion to Roman Catholicism.[2]
        I suppose in 1947 when Stevens’ book came out, if you had asked readers in general what a dove might symbolize, quite a few would still have immediately answered: the Holy Spirit. They were living in an age and a society still conversant with the Gospel stories of Jesus. They would have been familiar with the story of Jesus’ baptism, told in all four Gospels, in which the Spirit is present in the form of a dove.[3]
        I have no idea whether Wallace Stevens ever saw a reproduction of the Tretyakov Gallery’s icon or a similar one. In that sense, I cannot prove that Stevens was directly influenced by this particular portrayal of a ‘dove in the belly.’ I personally do find the image very curiously suggestive and ‘apposite,’ let’s just say. And if, by way of this or some other affinity, Stevens was led to allude to the Holy Spirit as this dove, it would entail crucial things for the interpretation of his other poems as well.
        Why? Because, as a 1940s reader still could have told us, traditionally the Holy Spirit is the bringer of the Gift of Tongues – that is, the power of inspired speech. At least since Milton invoked the Spirit ‘with mighty wings outspread dove-like’ at the beginning of Paradise Lost, that power has been associated with poetry in English.
        Let’s take a look at the poem. Since I worry, no doubt very excessively, about copyrights, I am not going to quote the full text. In any case, much of the text is not relevant to what I am hoping to present here. The text is all over the internet. One fairly recent link is:

The poem begins:

The whole of appearance is a toy. For this,
The dove in the belly builds his nest and coos,

Selah, tempestuous bird...

‘Selah’ means nothing in ordinary English, but in translations of the Psalms it is a very common word used, some say, to mark the conclusion of a verse, or according to others, as an admonition to consider well what has just been said. I note, but without pressing the point, that its pronunciation sounds the same as sila, the Old Church Slavonic word for ‘power,’ occurring during the Orthodox liturgy in the phrase tsarstvo i sila i slava ‘the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory,’ which is followed immediately by Ottsa i Syna i Svyatago Dukha ‘of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.’
        As for ‘tempestuous,’ in addition to ‘stormy, not calm,’ I read this as ‘from, of, or pertaining to Shakespeare’s The Tempest.’ One of the main characters in The Tempest is Ariel, referred to as ‘an airy spirit’ or a ‘bird.’ In his recently republished piece ‘The Shakespearian Superman,’ G. Wilson Knight discusses the ‘spiritual powers’ of Ariel, whom he calls ‘a personification of poetry itself.’[4] ‘Ariel’ was also a name which Stevens occasionally applied to himself. Helen Vendler, writing in her Words Chosen Out of Desire, details the appropriateness of Stevens in his old age calling himself Ariel, whom she calls ‘the airy spirit trapped in an earthly prison.’[5]

Now let us look at another icon. There is a type of Christ icon called the ‘Pantocrator.’ This means literally ‘Ruler of All,’ but Wikipedia suggests also the less literal ‘Sustainer of the World.’ On this type, we often see a halo surrounding the head of Christ. In the halo, there are liable to be Greek letters appearing above and on both sides of the face:[6]

Together these letters spell the Greek term ho ōn, meaning ‘the one who is.’ In the early Greek Old Testament translation called the Septuagint, which has always had great authority in the Eastern Orthodox world, in Exodus 3:13-14 ho ōn is what God answers out of the burning bush when Moses asks him what his name is. I believe ho ōn is also the source of the name ‘Hoon,’ which appears in two well-known poems by Stevens and has been the object of much puzzlement and conjecture. Scholars have called ‘Hoon’ everything from a childish make-believe word to a variant on a Sufi chant. But if ‘Hoon’ is simply...God, a number of things fall surprisingly into place.
        In the early poem ‘Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,’ the name ‘Hoon’ appears explicitly only in the title, but the speaking subject or ‘I’ refers to his own beard being sprinkled with ‘ointment’ and there being ‘hymns’ buzzing beside his ears. He also says

...and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself...

In other words, he is literally ‘the anointed one’ (in Greek, Christos), the second Person of the Trinity, about whom John 1:3 says: ‘All things were made by him.’[7]
        In the poem ‘Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz,’ published in Stevens’ 1936 volume Ideas of Order, Hoon appears in the text itself. He is:

...that mountain-minded Hoon,
For whom desire was never that of the waltz,

Who found all form and order in solitude...

Now...his forms have vanished...

...The epic of disbelief
Blares oftener and soon, will soon be constant.

As I read it, this again suggests ho ōn, the Old Testament God whose commandments were brought down from a ‘mountain,’ who would presumably have disapproved of the sensual frivolity of ‘the waltz,’ and who in the course of the twentieth century was less and less believed in.
        Now back to ‘The Dove in the Belly.’ In that poem toward the end, the speaker addresses the dove as salut, the French word for ‘salvation,’ and closes with

Deep dove, placate you in your hiddenness.

This is an unusual phrase, to put it mildly, but I take it to be saying: creative Spirit that is within, though you tend to be ‘tempestuous,’ please stay calm enough not to fly out and away, please stay in our ‘belly.’
        Why do I say ‘our’ belly, where a moment ago I suggested it was Christ’s? Because after the Resurrection and Ascension, according to the Epistles of Paul, the believers – we – collectively constitute the ‘Body of Christ.’[8] It is a corporate ‘body’ of wider scope than the physical body of any of the individuals who make it up.
        In that wider, collective quality it corresponds to the larger-than-individual group mind or imagination or stratum of psychic potential which plays an absolutely decisive role in Stevens’ poetry. Stevens calls this, among other things, ‘the major man’ of cantos 8 through 10 of the first section of his long poem Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction. Referring to canto 8 in a letter, he explains: ‘...there is an extension of man...a possibly more than human human, a composite human.’[9] He is recorded as having said in conversation that ‘the major man’ is the ‘nearest thing to God there is.’[10] One of its most succinct statements is in his poem ‘A Child Asleep in its Own Life,’ where we read that among all the old men, there is, unnamed, that broods
On all the rest...

and that all those others ‘are nothing, except in the universe/ Of that single mind.’ Here again, there is a closely relevant passage in the Epistles: the so-called ‘cosmic’ Christ of Colossians 1:15-20. One modern translation reads: ‘ him all created things took their being...They were all created through him and in him...and in him all subsist.’[11]

But if all this traditional Christian symbolism is so germane to Stevens’ poetry and contributes so much toward understanding it – why is it ignored or played down in so much of the ‘serious’ literature about Stevens? I think the answer is obvious. ‘Serious’ writers on Stevens are mostly professional intellectuals who would find it embarrassingly undignified for such a sophisticated modern poet as Stevens to have been occupied with anything so lowbrow as traditional religion. Better that ‘Hoon’ should be a nonsense syllable than just plain God.[12]
        Stevens himself was probably not eager to rush these associations into the foreground. Though he answered questions about his poetry, he could be secretive about his ways. In one of his letters, he admitted he never read other people’s poetry because he might ‘pick up something unconsciously’ and did not want to make things easy for readers who were ‘listening for echoes.’[13] In a gloss he gave in another letter on ‘Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,’ he did not directly mention ho ōn.[14] I do not believe this means he was not aware of it. On the contrary, the very phrasing of the gloss suggests that he was! Evasively, he calls Hoon ‘the son of old man Hoon’ – and who else is Jesus Christ, theologically speaking, than the ‘son’ of the one who called himself ho ōn?
        In any case, we should not need to assume that Stevens’ inspiration was either secular-literary or religious, but not both. As he wrote in a journal entry when he was 22 years old: ‘The priest in me worshipped one God at one shrine; the poet another God in another shrine.’[15] Perhaps (and this is what I think) Stevens cherished the dove-like Spirit, Hoon, and ‘the son of old man Hoon’ as objects of reverent attention, and carried on a fervent personal (not just poetic) dialogue with them, but without being, at least till the very end, committed to them in a creedal sense.
        As I have said, I am not prepared to assert that Stevens must definitely have seen and been influenced by Orthodox icons. There are other channels by which he could have had knowledge of these connections, especially of the name and nature of ho ōn. I am sure there must be countless books on theology, Biblical history, and ontology which quote that term in the original Greek. Perhaps it is appropriate to say it was the world of icons and Russian liturgy that awakened me personally to these features, which then seemed almost to leap out of the pages of Stevens’ poetry.
        One must, I know, beware of indulging all-too-private associations. Yet in a fastidious poetry like that of Stevens, we must always be alert for meaning, however recondite, in the least jot and tittle on the printed page – and who shall say where the ‘legitimate’ limits lie? In view of the possible ‘cosmic Christ’ allusion which I have already mentioned, what if we re-examined ‘The Dove in the Belly’ and perceived that in the very first line, ‘The whole of appearance is a toy,’ the word ‘toy’ sounds the same as the Church Slavonic toy, that being one of the words used in the Bible for ‘He,’ i.e. God? What if we then went on, a few lines later, to read is it that
The rivers shine and hold their mirrors up,

Like excellence collecting excellence?

...and then, struck by the repetition of ‘excellence,’ remarked that on many icons the letters XC, an abbreviation of the Slavic spelling of ‘Christos,’ appear in the vicinity of Christ’s head? If we then concluded that ‘the whole of appearance’ constituted a ‘He,’ and that in contemplating His own creation he was merely confirming that it was all ‘created through him and in him’...would some or all of this be ‘legitimate’?
        Alternatively, if we wanted to tone this conjecture down to something similar but more immediately plausible in view of Stevens’ known biography, we could read this ‘toy’ as toi in French, a language which Stevens knew very well indeed, so much so that in his Adagia he wrote ‘French and English constitute a single language.’ Compare the lines from the Lord’s Prayer in French:

car c'est à toi qu'appartiennent le règne,
la puissance et la gloire...

for Thine is the Kingdom
and the Power and the Glory...

In that case, we could paraphrase slightly:

The whole of appearance is a You. For this,
the Spirit builds a nest and coos...

        If all this is nonsense or ‘madness,’ then at least for me personally it is of the kind that, as Stevens writes in the third canto of Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, ‘pierces us with strange relation.’

[1] See image hereunder. I believe it to be in the public domain; see

[2] On this, see relevant material in Peter Brazeau’s Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985. See also the last section of
[3] Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22, John 1:29-34.
[4] Quoted in The Tempest, Edited and with an Introduction by Harold Bloom, Infobase Publishing, 2008, p. 151.
[5] University of Tennessee Press, 1984, p. 37.
[6] It is my understanding that this image is in the public domain. See,_the_Pantocrator.jpg
[7] See also Colossians 1:16, ‘all things were created by him, and for him...’
[8] There are various relevant passages. See the twelfth chapter of I Corinthians; also Ephesians 5:30-32.
[9] Letters of Wallace Stevens, selected and edited by Holly Stevens, New York: Knopf 1981, p. 434.
[10] Recalled by Bernard Heringman; quoted by Peter Brazeau in Brazeau, ‘A Trip in a Balloon: A Sketch of Stevens’ Later Years in New York,’ in Wallace Stevens: A Celebration, edited by Frank Doggett and Robert Buttel, Princeton University Press 1980, p. 124.
[11] From the Knox translation, 1945/1960.
[12] One writer, Joseph Carroll, who does say that for Stevens ‘the poet’s individual fictions derive from...the world-creating mind of God,’ is not even mentioned in the suspiciously selective bibliography of Eleanor Cook’s A Reader’s Guide to Wallace Stevens (Princeton University Press, 2007). I have not been able to consult Carroll’s work but quote it from the discussion in Janet McCann’s Wallace Stevens Revisited: The Celestial Possible, New York: Twayne 1995, p. 116. McCann, who believes in Stevens’ conversion to Catholicism, is also not listed by Cook.
[13] Letters, p. 575.
[14] Quoted on p. 92 of Leonora Woodman’s valuable study of occult, hermetic and alchemical symbolism in Stevens: Stanza My Stone: Wallace Stevens and the Hermetic Tradition, West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1983. See also Letters, p. 871. The tantalizing thing is that this letter is a response to a letter from Norman Holmes Pearson, which is not reprinted in context. Stevens says Pearson was ‘right in saying that Hoon is Hoon although it could be that he is the son of old man Hoon.’ It is not possible to reconstruct from this what Holmes himself meant by ‘Hoon is Hoon.’
[15] Quoted from p. 929 of Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry & Prose, The Library of America, 1997.