The Poem

“The Man with the Blue Guitar” is a long poem consisting of thirty-three rather short sections in four-beat couplets, most of them unrhymed. The title, which reminds the reader of a Pablo Picasso painting by the same title, suggests a musical piece, though more in the sense of an improvisation than a formal musical composition (something that Wallace Stevens imitates effectively in “Peter Quince at the Clavier”).

The poem starts out in the third person but switches to the first person, so the piece becomes a dialogue between the guitarist and his audience, which acts as a kind of chorus. The chorus seems to pose certain idealized questions about its own place in poetry. Rejecting those overtures, the guitarist says that he plays things “as they are,” although things “Are changed upon the blue guitar.” He then goes on to improvise in various ways about how this might be done—in essence, about how poetry is related to the audience or to the world in general.

Stevens himself was an insurance executive, so he knew the world in a practical sense; yet he was also a poet, a creator. Though he did not confuse the two worlds, he saw them as coextensive. In “The Man with the Blue Guitar” he takes the reader into the world of the poet and asks the reader to see, feel, or improvise about the world from the poet’s perspective.

Sections I-VI set the stage for the musical drama. Stevens tests out various interrelationships...

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Forms and Devices

As the title suggests, “The Man with the Blue Guitar” is similar to a musical piece, specifically an improvisation. There is no poetic precedent for this form, so the poet employs a loosely knit structure to fit his theme. The use of thirty-three (an odd number) parts suggests that there is nothing set about the overall composition. Similarly, in each part the number of couplets, usually five or six, varies from as few as four to as many as seven. Nor is the rhyming consistent, though certain sections do rhyme, giving the illusion of finality.

The poem is filled with musical terms to reinforce the aesthetic nature of the exercise; it is “a tune,” a “serenade.” At the same time, the musician is a creator, so Stevens employs images more appropriate to a carpenter. The guitarist’s “bang” suggests violent action, where things may be “destroyed,” but at the same time the guitarist (or builder) is “a mould” to shape things—ultimately “to evolve,” or recreate, man himself. This is a mammoth task, involving “mountainous music,” but it is still music and, therefore, temporary—always “passing away.” While the “leaden twang” continues, however, it is like “reason in a storm,” suggesting that all reality, including the listener, is caught up in the rhythms of the improvisation.

In addition to being musical, the poet is an artist. Like Pablo Picasso, the guitarist becomes an abstract expressionist,...

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Ford, Sara J. Gertrude Stein and Wallace Stevens: The Performance of Modern Consciousness. New York: Routledge, 2002.

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