Wallace Stevens was the greatest poet/lawyer in American literary history – not that he has a lot of competition. He was exceptionally successful at both professions. You can read more about Wallace Stevens’s life here. Most of his great poems are either a little too long for the Countdown, or a great deal too long for it. But here and there, he wrote masterpieces in a shorter form. “A Postcard from the Volcano” is perhaps his greatest short poem, and one of his most accessible.
“Postcard” takes the long view. A very long view. Dwelling on the past might seem morbid, so Stevens dwells instead on the future. He imagines future children as ignorant of their past as we are ignorant of today’s past. We have seen, in Larkin’s “Arundel Tomb”, that the relics of the long dead can have an inscrutable quality. Stevens looks in the other direction, at those who will look at us when we’re as long dead as the earl and countess in Larkin’s poem.
It’s not just that these future children will be puzzled by our remains or our artifacts, of course. “With our bones / We left much more”: we will leave our language as well as the shape we’ve given the world. And that language, that culture, in fact, will be more persistent than bone, or canvas or film, or brick and mortar.
We are custodians of language. It’s there before us, we use it for a while, and then we pass it along to others who will watch over it in their turn. But we change it somewhat on our watch. Poets change it more than others: or, at least, what they say of things becomes more a part of those things than the ordinary person’s saying.