THE MAN WITH THE BLUE GUITAR
80 years ago today, October 4, 2017, Wallace Stevens book of poems The Man With the Blue Guitar was published. The year before he had published Ideas of Order and both books explored similar terrain—the role of imagination in shaping reality. One might call it epistemological or even ontological poetry, counterposing “things as they are” with how they “are changed upon the blue guitar,” where the blue guitar is a symbol of the imagination.
Stevens’ poem was inspired by another work of art: a painting by Pablo Picasso called The Old Guitarist, from Barcelona in 1903. Stevens had seen this painting for the first time in 1934 when it was exhibited in Hartford, Connecticut, where he made his living as an insurance executive. The mountain came to Mohammed. The Old Guitarist referred to in Stevens’ poem helped define Picasso’s “Blue Period”.
The painting is striking for three reasons: the haunted, desperate expression of the old man, curled around his guitar; the many shades of blue that are striated throughout—thus defining his “blue period”; and the fact that alone of all the images in the painting, the only one departs from the color scheme is the guitar, which is colored a natural wood shade of brown.
Nonetheless Stevens transformed the guitar into his defining blue that “changes things as they are.” It’s a breathtaking transformation. Instead of “The Blue Man with the Guitar,” in Stevens’ eyes he becomes “The Man With the Blue Guitar.” Stevens’ poem reshapes not just reality, but the work of art that inspires it—in his own image.
Nonetheless, ever since, Picasso’s The Old Guitarist is seen as holding the blue guitar that Stevens put there. In effect, he turned the painting on its head and let the Blue motif color the guitar and redefine the portrait. It made the aesthetic of Stevens’ imagination triumph over the color of reality, as he had in his landmark poem of the year before, The Idea of Order at Key West, where the poetic belief in the woman who “sang beyond the genius of the sea,” begins to shape the sounds of the sea to her own voice. That was Stevens’ fundamental principle as a poet, that the poetic impulse represents the Rage for Order, as New Critic Austin Warren would later extract it from Stevens’ poem.
My journey towards modernism began with a single poem, The Man With the Blue Guitar, where the guitar became the symbol for the imagination itself:
They said you have a blue guitar
You don’t play things as they are.
The man replied: ‘Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
The title had come unbidden to me as I was playing a few chords one morning—searching for something, I didn’t know what. It was an old poem I knew but had forgotten. Shortly thereafter I remembered Picasso’s painting—which I had misremembered as bearing the same title. When I looked it up online, I discovered its proper title—The Old Guitarist—and realized that Wallace Stevens had created the title I remembered—that the two works of art were contiguous, one inspired by the other as an homage. And then I realized that my song was also an homage—carrying on the conversation as it were with both works. I also knew that my song would take the road not taken—it used only the first six lines of Stevens’ poem, divided between the first two stanzas, and then went off in its own direction. It didn’t have a chorus, which most of my songs do, but it did have part of the first verse which repeated at the end—as a kind of substitute chorus.
How wonderful, I thought, that a high modernist poem would contain the central image from my work as a musician. For the first time two worlds—my background in literary criticism and modern literature, which I thought I had left behind me to become a folk singer, would now find a way to become conjoined—through Stevens’ poem. For many years I tried to hide my PhD—thinking it was inappropriate for a folk singer to be an academic. Although even there I always enjoyed Woody Guthrie’s The Great Historical Bum, in which he describes himself as “highly educated.” Perhaps that’s me, I thought, and a PhD did not disqualify me as a “lonesome traveler” in the tradition of Woody and Pete Seeger—who dropped out of Harvard after six months—and Bob Dylan—who likewise dropped out of college (University of Minnesota) after six months. Timothy Leary had told me to “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” when he gave an informal guest lecture at my alma mater, UCLA, but I refused to listen. I went on to earn three degrees at three different universities—UCLA, UCSB, and SUNY-Binghamton. I was supposed to be a professor, not a folk singer.
I was introduced to Wallace Stevens by my first major English professor: Frank Lentricchia, at UCLA, who wrote The Gaiety of Language: The Radical Poetics of W.B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens, just after joining their faculty in 1966. Then when I transferred to UCSB to avoid the draft in 1969, I met my second mentor: Professor John Macksoud, who deepened my appreciation and understanding of Stevens’ poetry and made me see that he also contributed to the history of philosophy. Between Lentricchia and Macksoud, Stevens became my secret guide through the dark labyrinth of modernism—almost like Dante had turned to Virgil near the opening of the Divine Comedy’s Inferno. “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” (in John Ciardi’s translation, 1954) read the sign on the gate to the dark wood that would eventually lead him to Paradise—seven hundred years ago this year, for The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, was published in 1317 (though not completed till 1320):
In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there. —————
These were the words, with their dark colour, that I saw written above the gate, at which I said: ‘Master, their meaning, to me, is hard.’ And he replied to me, as one who knows: ‘Here, all uncertainty must be left behind: all cowardice must be dead. We have come to the place where I told you that you would see the sad people who have lost the good of the intellect.’ And placing his hand on mine, with a calm expression, that comforted me, he led me towards the hidden things.
Dante: The Devine Comedy © Copyright 2000 A. S. Kline, All Rights Reserved
Who knew that thirty-five years later I would return to that dark wood and find my way out with the help of Stevens—and a new connection to my divided self (to use Psychologist R. D. Lange’s evocative term)—which unified them into one higher self.
Now that I had the poem which—like Virgil—would lead me through the dark wood, I decided to find my own copy of Picasso’s painting, to use as a stage backdrop for my CD Release party. I called the Chicago Art Institute, where the original work of art was in their permanent collection, and asked if they had a poster of it they could sell me. To my surprise they reported they had no posters of The Old Guitarist—only small magnets and postcards. You can be sure that if LACMA were lucky enough to have this famous painting they would be selling posters of it as well. “Harrumph!” I said to myself; “That’s why Chicago is the ‘Second City.’”
So, I went to the mass marketplace and ordered a copy for $ 7.00 from www.allposters.com. It arrived in five days and is sitting unopened beside the front door. I’m looking for a frame as I write. (They wanted to charge me $70.00 for a frame at All Posters, but I’ll find one for $15 at a thrift shop.)
At the same time as I was pursuing Picasso, I fortuitously stumbled on a fellow traveler in the field of Stevens: Philadelphia artist J.P. Bohannon, who in 2014 painted the perfect album cover of my new CD—a watercolor simply called Blue Guitar. He also celebrated Stevens’ poem on his blog site and felt like a kindred spirit in his understanding and love for The Man With the Blue Guitar. I contacted him via email and asked for permission to use his painting for my album cover. He very graciously replied “Certainly!” With Bohannon’s blessing, I was on my way. (Here is the link to his website.)
Now that I had a copy of Picasso’s painting, I thought, why not the book itself? I already had the poem from the website, but I wanted to display the original book alongside the Picasso for my stage prop. That’s when I found out the original book is long since OP—out of print—and I’d have to search for it. Every used, secondhand, and even rare book store I used to enjoy browsing through had succumbed to the exigencies of the marketplace and gone out of business—including Gene De Chene’s, the West LA Book Center, Wilshire Books, Papa Bach’s, the Westwood Book Store, Cosmopolitan Books in Hollywood, and all three Dutton’s Bookstores—in Brentwood, Studio City and Burbank. “This is no time to be proud,” I thought, “It’s time to accept reality and do something I had resisted mightily with every fiber of my Being and Nothingness.” I went on Amazon.com.
That’s when I learned to my dismay that a 1st edition of The Man With the Blue Guitar from 1937 would cost over $1,000—$1,365 to be precise—in “Good” condition. “Whoa!” I thought; “What about a copy in ‘Acceptable Condition?’” Beautiful: $100. “OK, now what does ‘acceptable condition’ mean?” “Acceptable,” dear Reader, means that the book has “insect damage” on the pages to the tune of holes that are up to “an inch and a half wide”—though I am assured that none of the holes actually obliterate the text itself. Well, acceptable or not, I did not look forward to bringing a book into my apartment that may already have insects inhabiting its glorious pages. I concluded: “You can’t afford a 1st Edition.”
And that’s when I discovered a curious fact about The Man With the Blue Guitar. There was a 2nd Edition from 1945 that was an exact replica of the first edition—the most rare 1st Edition that was withdrawn after the first 100 copies were printed—due to a printing error on the inside dust jacket. It gets “curiouser and curiouser,” I thought, the memorable phrase from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as spoken by Alice. The printing error was the word “conjunctions,” which in that rare first 100 copies was misspelled “conjunctioning”—not the word Stevens meant.
But guess what? When the publisher reprinted the book for the 2nd edition they deliberately reproduced the error—because by that time they knew that the error-copy was more valuable to book collectors than the corrected 2nd printing of the 1st Edition! And I found a decent copy (no insect bites and dust jacket intact) of that 1945 2nd Edition with the rare 1st Edition error for $100 at Appledore Books in upstate New York (where I earned my PhD in Modern Literature). How fitting and proper! I ordered it on Amazon and it arrived—sent directly from Appledore—with a nice note and business card from the bookstore. It had the “$100” price tag neatly hand-lettered on the front endpaper—along with the original price of $2.00—and sure enough the misprint on the inside dust jacket, along with the exact publication date of the 1st Edition—October 4, 1937. It arrived 80 years to the day on October 4.
Now—only one thing remained. You guessed it: I wanted a blue guitar. And thereby hangs a tale. There were no blue guitars at McCabe’s, or the Guitar Center, or True Tone Music, or Westwood Music, so again I had to look online and widen my search. There were a number on eBay, and one in particular caught my eye, because instead of the usual “no case” or “gig bag” this one came with a WolfPak case—which I had just admired at the Guitar Center on Westwood for $129.95: more than I wanted to spend, especially when I did not yet have a guitar to put in it. The minimum bid on the Ibanez blue guitar was $199.50 + $40 shipping, and after a week there were still 0 bids. Finally, the following day somebody bid $202.50, and the auction was on. The final day to bid was the following Sunday, October 1—and by then the price had shot up to $230.
That’s when I called McCabe’s, because this was an acoustic-electric, with a Fishman pickup. I wanted to find out how much of the price was due to the pickup, and how much to the acoustic guitar. I asked McCabe’s how much they would charge to install a Fishman pickup into an acoustic guitar. The number jumped out at me: “$230.” Bingo! The amount that the bid had reached represented the price of the pickup; the underlying guitar was essentially thrown in for free. Add in the $129 for the nice case (Made in Vietnam—which appealed to me), and the case was being thrown in for free as well. I decided then and there that the guitar with pickup and case was worth not just the $230 of the current bid, but at least $129 more, and realistically another $199—which I had seen a comparable Ibanez going for at the Guitar Center. That added up to $560 at least. By the end there were 13 bids.
The auction closed at 3:00pm, and at 2:30pm, I put in what turned out to be the winning bid of $305, which included the $40 shipping cost. I found my blue guitar. It went out the following day and arrived on Friday at the end of the week—shipped by FedEx ground. Granted, it won’t replace my Gibson J-200 (a precious gift from Larry Abbott)—but for $305 it’s a beautiful Ibanez Blue Acoustic-Electric guitar. It arrived carefully packaged with bubble wrap, loosened strings and hand-written “fragile” signs all over the box from Mike’s Pawn Shop in Tallahassee, Florida.
With my Picasso print of The Old Guitarist, Wallace Stevens’ 2nd Edition of the book, and Made-in-China pawnshop Ibanez, I am now The Man With the Blue Guitar. And I have a CD release date—when I will be performing songs from the new album at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice: December 16, 2017!
I also plan to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy—particularly the first book of the trilogy, The Inferno, published in 1317. The last piece of my stage backdrop is my Goodwill statue of Rodin’s The Kiss—which is based on Dante’s depiction of Paolo and Francesca in the first Circle of Hell—Lust—during their adulterous affair. I pay homage to Rodin in the final song on my album named for The Kiss: “I’ll be your Dante if you’ll be my Beatrice.” At the time, I had no idea Rodin was paying homage to Dante. Picasso, Stevens, Dante, and Rodin—an Italian poet, Spanish painter, American poet, and a French sculptor: good company indeed. For this 70-year-old L.A. folk singer it’s been one sweet ride.
Ross Altman will perform songs from his new CD, The Man With the Blue Guitar, Saturday, December 16 at 8:00pm at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center during the 80th anniversary of the publication of Wallace Stevens’ book of poems in 1937. He will also read Stevens’ title poem and other classics from his Collected Poems , 310-822-3006, 681 Venice Blvd, Venice, CA 90291, admission $10.
Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton; he belongs to Local 47 (AFM); Ross may be reached at email@example.com