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Analysis of Poem "The Man on the Dump" by Wallace Stevens

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Wallace Stevens and a Summary of The Man on the Dump

The Man On The Dump is a packed poem. It is an allegory that starts off innocently enough before taking the reader into the heart of the trash in an attempt to rediscover the reasons why human culture and language need renewal and refreshment of the imagination in order to survive.

  • Wallace Stevens uses metaphor, simile and other devices to throw light on the many images found on the dump.
  • The language is full spectrum, typical Stevens, from the simplest definite article made —The the — to the latin sounding "aptest eve," and including an actual person, Cornelius Nepos, a Roman historian and biographer who lived from 100 - 24BC.
  • But would Stevens have had the inspiration to create such a poem if it hadn't been for a real man living on the dump in the poet's hometown, who was said to be a Russian refugee and a victim of the Depression? The man had even built a shack out of wood and boxes. The future built from the past.

It is so like Stevens to explore and experiment with language, taking the reader into obscure corners of life and culture, teasing with odd sounding lines such as:

Of the flowierest flowers dewed with the dewiest dew.

Stevens is often a little daft, syntactically unconventional, and even ridiculous at times, but always there is the depth of imagination to offset such outrageousness.

What shines through time and again, bringing pleasant surprises and rhythmic delight, is the poet's allegiance to nature which roots the speaker's voice in moon, sun, fresh water, daffodils, elephant, crow, grackle, and so forth.

But it is the dump in the end that provides the base material for these imaginative flights into the purifying change. Stevens takes the dumped waste of a culture and the spent artifacts discarded by society and transforms them into a regenerative energy that will eventually become fresh language, expressed through poetry.

The Man on the Dump

Day creeps down. The moon is creeping up.
The sun is a corbeil of flowers the moon Blanche
Places there, a bouquet. Ho-ho ... The dump is full
Of images. Days pass like papers from a press.
The bouquets come here in the papers. So the sun,
And so the moon, both come, and the janitor’s poems
Of every day, the wrapper on the can of pears,
The cat in the paper-bag, the corset, the box
From Esthonia: the tiger chest, for tea.

The freshness of night has been fresh a long time.
The freshness of morning, the blowing of day, one says
That it puffs as Cornelius Nepos reads, it puffs
More than, less than or it puffs like this or that.
The green smacks in the eye, the dew in the green
Smacks like fresh water in a can, like the sea
On a cocoanut—how many men have copied dew
For buttons, how many women have covered themselves
With dew, dew dresses, stones and chains of dew, heads
Of the floweriest flowers dewed with the dewiest dew.
One grows to hate these things except on the dump.

Now, in the time of spring (azaleas, trilliums,
Myrtle, viburnums, daffodils, blue phlox),
Between that disgust and this, between the things
That are on the dump (azaleas and so on)
And those that will be (azaleas and so on),
One feels the purifying change. One rejects
The trash.

That’s the moment when the moon creeps up
To the bubbling of bassoons. That’s the time
One looks at the elephant-colorings of tires.
Everything is shed; and the moon comes up as the moon
(All its images are in the dump) and you see
As a man (not like an image of a man),
You see the moon rise in the empty sky.

One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.
One beats and beats for that which one believes.
That’s what one wants to get near. Could it after all
Be merely oneself, as superior as the ear
To a crow’s voice? Did the nightingale torture the ear,
Peck the heart and scratch the mind? And does the ear
Solace itself in peevish birds? Is it peace,
Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon, one finds
On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve:
Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say
Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull
The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?
Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.

Analysis of Man On The Dump Stanza by Stanza

First Stanza

Picture the poet walking past the town dump each day, observing the trash, seeing the man who perhaps scrapes a living from the dump. Now picture that man as a poet, re-imagining the images day after day....

The rhythms of the day and night are transformed into images, the images turn to paper, printed matter that could be newspapers or loose sheets. And they all end up on the dump, metaphor and simile and personification join to inform the reader that things are not what they seem to be in the mind of this speaker.

Images come thick and fast as the speaker informs the reader that the moon is a lady called Blanche, a random feminine name popular in the USA at one time, originally french for white (Stevens was a keen francophile). She brings a bouquet and the fun is about to start. Ho-ho..

  • There is an organic feel to this poem's opening stanza. The rhythms are mixed up, the line length and the punctuation combine in short and long clauses. This irregular feel continues on through the whole poem. Rhythms change, there is no steady meter (meter in UK); and the sense of the poem edges towards nonsense at times, is then philosophical, romantic, questioning.

All of this reflects the chaotic nature of the dump which is naturally also full of paper (this poem was written way before recycling became a serious industry). Presumably this is printed paper, newspaper because it comes from a press, so the idea of the printed word is suggested, poetry is implied. And within are sun and moon, masculine and feminine energies, and they join together with every day poems, every day language, the poems of a janitor - someone who is cleaning up.

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The real man on the dump is said to have been a Russian so the connection with that part of the world is made with Esthonia and the box. Stevens loved tea, so it is no shock to see everything coming for tea; or is the tiger chest for tea? Maybe both meanings are valid.

Second Stanza

Nature manages to refresh itself, but the speaker's involvement with things that are stale grows increasingly frustrating. Although the dump is necessarily a part of the whole process of purification - without the perishables, the commodities, there would be no renewables - past history shows that all days more or less, even spring days with a breeze, puff.

This use of puff, repeated, is Stevens being a fun tautologist, saying the same thing in a different way. In the real world it's a spring breeze, a breath of fresh air, variable and airy.

Note the mention of Cornelius Nepos, a Roman historian who wrote a history of the world at a time when all roads led to the capital Rome. Is Nepos another man on the dump, the man, or a facet of the man's personality?

The green and the dew smack, the dewiest dew ending up on the heads and bodies of women; dew jewellry and flowers adorn them. Dew is repeated again, just like puff, and this repetition reflects the hate the speaker has for tired language, for thrown out bouquets, for cliche. The dump is the only place for them.

Third Stanza

The first two stanzas have been an acceptance of things on the dump, all the trash that accumulates in life and language. Change has not yet taken place. The short third stanza introduces the idea of purification, despite the fact that even beautiful flowers have ended up on the dump, almost as an afterthought - note the parentheses with azaleas, repeated - once fresh, green ideas and language and forms, now rotting.

  • So the disgusting, worn out things will eventually decay and in their place will appear a new order. Note the affirmative last four words, split into two lines, ending with trash. The speaker is now rejecting the old language, whilst feeling the pure vibes of change.

Fourth Stanza

Cue music. As soon as this cathartic moment arrives, the music is heard as the moon starts to rise. The evocative bubbling of bassoons perfectly matches this lunar performance. The man on the dump is beginning to see parts of a truth as the metaphorical/figurative is stripped - shed, like a snake skin - and something of a new reality emerges.

  • The use of the word shed is interesting, as when a snake sheds its old skin to reveal a 'new' version that comes from the old. Gone is the former self, back to decay, a discarded image, dumped so to speak.

Fifth Stanza

The man, the poet, still tries to make music from whatever he can find. In this case it's a tin can or a lard pail which is beaten in iambic fashion - the traditional poetic meter - drumming out an individual kind of belief.

But there is some confusion. Questions need to be asked and in this final stanza there are six. These questions receive no definitive answer; they are profound ponderings that involve crows, grackles (blackbirds) and nightingales, mattresses and pots, shoes and grass.

Crows contain no music, are unromantic, yet is there not something about their peevishness that could please the ear? What about the nightingale, the bird of Keats, the romantic prince of verse? Surely this most melodic of birds, this exquisite truth, cannot be found on the dump?

  • The marriage of imagination and reality takes place, but amongst all this debris on the most perfect of evenings?
  • Those blattering grackles, could their noise ever evoke spiritual feelings?
  • And the papers that are like days, and the day a poet might want shredding, preferring the words to form on more durable (philosopher's?) stone?

The speaker is reluctant or unable to bring a satisfactory end to all this musing. It's as if all that has gone before in the previous four stanzas is now aching for an answer to the riddle that is the dump.

Sorting the literal from the figurative, the sound from the sense, the cat from the bag - is it a dead cat, is it Schrodinger's cat? - has to be the work of the man on the dump, the homeless poet who seeks the truth, or the place where he first heard the truth. There's the rub. The man is only trying to recall the place. He knows that truth exists, he just can't pinpoint the exact spot.

And as for The the, the double definite article, it suggests an endless number of things separate from the self, part of the ongoing renewal of language as evolution rolls on. But there is a paradox - as soon as a thing is given a name it becomes objectified, its existence altered, its future on the dump almost guaranteed.

Analysis of The Man on the Dump - Form/Structure

The Man on the Dump is a free verse poem, 48 lines in total, split into five stanzas. There is no set rhyme scheme and no regular meter (metre in UK). Occasional full end rhymes occur but they're not frequent enough to suggest any scheme of rhyme:

Stanza Two - dew/dew

Stanza three - and so on/and so on

Stanza five - ear/ear/ear.

This is very much a Stevens ploy, repeating certain words and phrases to reinforce his point.

Enjambment too can be seen in all stanzas, when a line end has no punctuation and carries the sense on to the next line, it brings a natural flow to parts of the poem. Look out for the second stanza, which has seven enjambed lines.

Together with some unusual syntax, especially in stanzas three and four, this poem is a challenging one to read straight through with ease and conviction. It needs to be handled with care as this is Wallace Stevens, who preferred his poems to resist the intelligence.

  • Note the use of metaphor early on...The sun is a corbeil (a corbeil is a sculptered basket of flowers) and of simile...Days pass like papers from a press.

The Man on the Dump (38 minutes)

Man On The Dump - Sources

100 Essential Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005

The Library of America, Collected Poems, 1997

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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