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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

"Tea at the Palaz of Hoon"
by Wallace Stevens (1879–1955)

Not less because in purple I descended
The western day through what you called
The loneliest air, not less was I myself.
What was the ointment sprinkled on my beard?
What were the hymns that buzzed beside my ears?
What was the sea whose tide swept through me there?
Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.
I was myself the compass of that sea:
I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself:
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

* Jo Sarzotti Comments:
I came across Stevens’ Tea at the Palaz of Hoon recently while looking for a modern poetic tribute to the imagination to bring into my course on English Romantic Literature. What I saw in the poem, coming from a Romantic perspective, was a journey to the interior self conceived of as a ritual descent (“Tea”) into his own imagination (“Palaz of Hoon”), accompanied by a sense of doubt, artfully conveyed in rhetorical questions, asked and answered.  These ritual aspects complement the Romantic theme, and the poem ends in affirmation of the self (“Hoon”) in its relation to imagination as both creator and inhabitant.
In the first stanza, the speaker announces (to another, “you”) and enacts his descent, imaged as a setting sun:  “Not less because in purple I descended/ The western day” (l. 1-2).  He remains “myself” as he sinks through the “loneliest air” of the individual interior in ritual fashion, the color purple also suggesting the ceremonial clothing of kings and priests. The repetition of “not less” is a claim of clarity and will; he was not in a trance or drugged, and yet this insistence itself conveys some uncertainty.  The address to “you” and the use of past tense establish that the descent was completed, safely survived and in the past, even though the poem ends without describing an ascent.
The speaker reveals doubt, or anxiety, about his inner descent in the three questions that comprise the second stanza.  However, these apparent mysteries, the “ointment sprinkled on my beard” (l. 4), the “hymns that buzzed beside my ears” (l. 5), the sea whose tide swept through me there” (l. 6) all provide orienting “hooks” for him:  the ointment as atavistic ritual preparation; the hymns as Christian religious practice; the sea an image that invokes the modern world of Freudian analysis and the unconscious mind as a flooding tide.  His experience, in other words, ranges through a zodiac of rituals or concepts related to probing inner life through sense and feeling.
The third stanza answers the questions of the second.  Whatever doubts the speaker has about the descent, his letting go into the wild imagination, he is able to contain in a strict rhetorical structure, which is as well ritualistic in tone. The source of his sensations of ointment, hymns and sea proves to be himself.  “Out of my mind the golden ointment rained” (l. 7), his ears don’t hear but makethe “blowing hymns,” and he himself is the “compass of that sea” (l. 8, 9).  This awareness accompanies an intensification of the sensations:  the sprinkled ointment becomes “golden” and “rains;” the “hymns that buzzed” are now “blowing.”  He is arrived at the plane of creation, the imagination; not only does the sea, the unconscious mind as source of creativity, flow through him, he is its “compass,” the matter and the limit of it, an image of the total self.
The poem ends with a coda, introduced by a colon:  “I was the world in which I walked” (l.10).  What he “saw, / Or heard or felt came not but from myself” (l. 10-11); it was a product of his imagination.  In this awareness of being both the traveler and the terrain traveled, “I found myself more truly and more strange” (l. 12) – “truly” in the sense of the unburdened self, without quotidian concerns, which is “strange” because it is  unfamiliar and subject to the intensifying effects of  being present in the imagination.  The self presented at the poem’s end both knows itself (‘truly”) and observes itself (“strange”), an intrapersonal dynamic from which creativity is bound to pour.

 About Jo Sarzotti:
Jo Sarzotti is the winner of the 2011 Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize for Poetry for Mother Desert, selected by Carl Phillips and awarded by Middlebury College and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. She lives in New York City and teaches at The Juilliard School.

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