Perhaps the most frequently anthologized of Stevens’s poems, “Anecdote of the Jar” reflects Stevens’s preoccupation with appearances or surfaces. “The world is measured by the eye,” he said in one of his many aphoristic comments, and this difficult poem plays with the issues of what the eye measures and how. The poem’s interpretation is far from agreed upon, as any identification of the jar (art? technology? any single point of reference?) tends to limit the poem unacceptably.

The poem’s twelve lines describe the placement of a jar—a mason jar, as one critic suggests? a vase?—on a hill in Tennessee; once placed, the jar reorders the landscape. “It made the slovenly wilderness/ Surround that hill.” The description suggests the distortions of the landscape in the curved sides of a plain glass jar. The new order is only that, a new order; it is not beauty. The jar takes over the scene: “It took dominion everywhere.” Yet it is “gray and bare.” The double negative in the last two lines causes confusion: “It did not give of bird or bush,/ Like nothing else in Tennessee.” If the jar itself is read as the subject of the last line, the statement is clarified, but one might ask whether such a grammatical wrench is acceptable.

Read with as few limitations as possible, the poem suggests that adding an artifact or a point of focus compels a new interpretation of any scene. Moreover, there is a certain arrogance in making...

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