Literary critic Harold Bloom once called Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) “the best and most representative American poet of our time.” In this video from Boston College’s Guestbook Project, Bloom recites a poem from Stevens’s first book, Harmonium, which was published in 1923:
Tea at the Palaz of Hoon
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.
“The palaz of Hoon is sky and space seen as a gaudy and ornate dwelling,” writes Bloom in Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate; “to have tea at the palaz is to watch the twilight while conversing with the setting sun, who is hardly lonely since all the air is his and since all directions are at home in him. He is himself when most imperial, in purple and gold, and his setting is a coronation.”
The video concludes with Bloom reciting the opening stanza from a later poem by Stevens that echoes the earlier one, a poem regrettably titled “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery”:
In the far South the sun of autumn is passing
Like Walt Whitman walking along a ruddy shore.
He is singing and chanting the things that are part of him,
The worlds that were and will be, death and day.
Nothing is final, he chants. No man shall see the end.
His beard is of fire and his staff is a leaping flame.
“Whitman, like Hoon,” writes Bloom, “both contains everything else and is an idea of the sun, not as a god but as a god might be. Hoon is himself the compass of the sea whose tides sweep through him; Walt encompasses worlds but himself is not to be encompassed.”