#18 “A Postcard from the Volcano” (Wallace Stevens)

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.

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13 responses to “#18 “A Postcard from the Volcano” (Wallace Stevens)

  1. In this poem the “Children picking up our bones” to me, means that the children of those no longer living were just generations following some of their footsteps. The children did not know that at one time certain things happened at certain places. Those no longer living left behind many memories. They left behind traditions. They left landmarks and such. The part that says “Children, Still weaving budding aureoles” makes me think that the children are headed to the same place those long gone are eventually, that is why they are “budding aureoles.” People leave behind many things, whether it is concrete, a trait, morals and values and/or memories. We do not know that we might be doing the exact same thing one of our relatives did. It is a generation after generation.

  2. I think the most peculiar part of this poem was that the title didn’t seem to match the poem itself. The author wrote the poem and then title completely separately and then just picked them out of a drawer and put them together, so it seems as though they don’t go together. After class discussion, I would argue there is some significance to the title of the poem; writers seem to usually have a purpose in everything they do. I thought the comment in class “ashes to ashes” seemed to make sense with the message of the poem.
    I think the author gave the perfect image for the idea and situation he was trying to portray with the image of the children, and their being naive. It is very interesting when it is put into perspective to look at something and wonder where it came from; who put it there, why, how, when, and what they thought of it. I thought it was interesting how the author said “left what we felt at what we saw,” giving the idea to me that they put their heart and soul into something, and whatever they thought about it would shine through in the way it was created.

  3. It’s funny the way our language is, and how it’s formed of the years. Some of our words have origins from centuries ago and some of them are incredibly recent. More interesting is how language can change over the years also, meaning one thing back then and meaning something entirely different now. This is the point that Stevens touches on in his poem. The blog post says we are the custodians of language, its keepers, yet to me it seems like Stevens conveys that language is like nature, wild and untamable, only giving the illusion of bending to our will before growing wild again. Like the post says also, it’s our culture and traditions that keep more the same. They may change over time to adapt to their modern needs but they keep the same spirit. Like Stevens says in the poem we “left what we felt”. While our language may change our traditions are passed down, and through them our children our able to connect with us, so while they “pick at our bones” and “speak our speech and never know” they will know by our culture who we were and how we felt, and be able to pass that on to their descendants.

  4. “A Postcard from the Volcano,” reminds me of the many ways the mortal can put on immortality. Although a person’s life from birth is dynamic in its essence and designed to come to an end, it can be captured and retained from generation to generation. Sometimes it is captured in the form of a time capsule, a photo, a song, a journal, a piece of jewelry or simply by word of mouth as mention in Michael Blumenthal’s poem, “Inventors.” We all have the ability to put on a measure of immortality. Last week, I came face to face with this revelation via Langston Hughes. Every year the public schools nationwide participate in a week long program to emphasize the importance of being drug free. The grand finale of “Drug Free Week” is the best poster contest. The class with the most unique slogan or message would win a pizza party. Well, in an “Elementary School Classroom in a Slum” free pizza is a big deal. I tried and tried to come up with an innovative approach to an old idea, but my mind kept drawing a blank. I had to do something because twenty fourth graders were depending on me to take the lead. As fate would have it, I discovered an old book of poetry in the bookroom. It was in the furthest back coroner of the bookroom covered with a layer of dust. I opened the book gently, so that I would not tear the worn, tattered, dingy pages. As I glanced at the copyright date, I was amazed. That book had been in the bookroom for over fifty years. It belonged to a teacher who died many years ago. It just laid there forgotten as generation after generation of children entered and exited the school. I dusted the cover off and began to read the different poems. To my surprise, I found a poem by Langston Hughes called “Dream.” The poem was from a collection of poetry titled “The Dream Keeper.” In the poem, Langston Hughes wrote, “Hold fast to dreams, For if dreams die, Life is a broken-winged bird, That cannot fly.” At that moment, I felt an incredible rush of adrenalin because I knew I had stumbled upon the inspiration I needed for the contest. I rushed back to class and shared the news with my anxious students. The class and I created a Venn Diagram of his poem using his metaphor about a broken-winged bird to illustrate the dangers of drugs. Well as they say, the rest is history. My class won the contest, and we ate pizza grandiosely. So, the children and I say, “Thank you, Mr. Hughes for leaving us your marvelous language.”

  5. kursteilnehmur

    People are quite content to live quiet lives in peace; others start wars, strife and unrest across the world. It is human nature to react to life in both ways. Sometimes one can want nothing more than to be remembered, and other times one can wish to fade into oblivion. Some live their lives one-sided and only live either in peace or conflict. We create statues to commemorate those who have used the language before us. We build bridges, houses, towns, cities, and nations. We can see the imprint man has made across the face of the earth, and there is evidence of a culture that thrives on dedication all across the globe. We have books dedicated to people, statues of heroes, great cities named after presidents, and ships bearing the name of the famous and infamous. Some say it doesn’t really matter which side you are on as long as you make your mark upon the world. Others say taking the road less traveled makes all the difference. Legends are passed down from generation to generation about all kinds of things. Children pick up all kinds of bones. Round ones, flat ones, funny ones, skinny ones, dry ones, thin ones, and some that just feel plain evil in your hand. Children learn the language from us, but they also have the same predisposition to act as their parents do. We can see evidence of this in our culture through many different examples. People whose parents are prone to alcoholism or smoking are susceptible to the same habits. Families with a medical history of cancer have a larger chance of contracting it in the future. Children are influenced by everything they see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. We have the power to influence these perceptions. It is up to us to make sure the right tools are being used. Language is one of the most important tools in the world. Words hold many meanings that can be taken many different ways. A mistake in one word can spark conflict across the world for decades. Conversely a beautiful sonnet can bring cultures together around the world. There are those who will “speak our speech and never know.” Can one really figure this variable into the equation of life? A wild card with no training in language or manners has many different purposes. They too have a choice. They can pick which side they will uphold, and perhaps they can show the world exactly how the mansion of language can be beautiful again. The poem speaks of a mansion that is dirty, gutted, and tattered realm of filth. I see it as an instrument of trust. Our ancestors have built this “mansion of language” that will be entrusted to us to preserve, tend and care for. We must raise the manor of language to its old splendor, or be razed with the fall of language. There are many languages across the world and one that seems to keep cropping up in our class is Latin. It’s a dead language, and yet its house is still standing… After all, it does make up a lot of the English language… 15%, 28%, or 50% depending on which expert is consulted… Words hold exponential power over our lives. Language is built on the principle of obtaining truth. In the end the truth will set you free. “Veritas vos Liberabit”

  6. This would have been a perfect poem for Halloween. It is such a spooky piece and although it has been said that the poem is about the how easy it is to be forgotten when we die and how the meaning that we once had when living suddenly becomes nothing, for me though this poem also describes a haunted house. I know… “Where did that come from?” After initially reading the poem and then going back over it again, I just kept thinking of how spooky the descriptions were. I mean it talks about bones that children are playing with and how the clouds are rolling up in the sky as one looks above the shuttered mansion. Kinda makes me thing of Michael Jacksons Thriller when the girl was about to run into the old house. He then describes the folklore that goes with the mansion and how people had talked so long about what happened to the house that it just became part of it. Stanza 7 describes the ghost that lives there and how it carries on in the dirty mansion. I just thought about all of these things and immediately thought about Halloween and a haunted house. Maybe the two are tied together somehow, maybe not but it just struck me that way.

  7. I found hits poem interesting because of how abstract the title is from the rest of the poem although I do feel like there must be some sort of connection, we just cant see it, only the poet would know. Like one student said in class, “ashes to ashes” it could tie in like that. But we’ll never really know.
    I found it interesting how the poet//speaker used “Children picking up our bones” as a start to the poem, I found it interesting because to me “children” are the beginning of life and the ones that carry on your genes/tradition/culture and “bones” represent those that are long gone, so long gone that they are forgotten. Live and death basically.
    Another interesting thing I thought was, again, where words we use today and where they originate. Its always intrigued me.

  8. Not only does languege itself change through time by the mouths of those who have spoken it but the very idea or concept of “what is” changes by the perception previous generation have had on it. For example: although there was a hude social and cultural revolt/revolution from the early 60’s through the 70’s in America the very cause of the revolution was the ideas of parental and authoritative figures, so although during the midst of the shift it was a direct reflection of the ideology of the previous generation. I do feel that the effect the speaker is speaking about is much more direct and not merely a link in the long chain of time. He may be referring to the fact that for a whole generation him and those of his era shaped the time, environment. They wrote history made discoveries and so on.

  9. This poem didnt really have a meaning to me or an understanding. The language is quite different from the others we have read. I think the children represent a new generation of things to come. I think the author did a good job on the different type of language he used.

  10. Perhaps there is a significance to the title of this poem and the actual meaning. For instance, the postcard from the volcano could be an allusion to the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. Because this poem is written in future tense, buried underneath the volcano ash, the city and its society were very well preserved just as the lost city of Pompeii was. The memory of this city in essence serves as a postcard for the civilization that came after Pompeii which we now study and reminisce on what once existed, just as this postcard from the volcano is a representation of what Stevens believes future generations will remember. However, Stevens is not pleased by what the children will remember. I believe Wallace Stevens is saying that we seldom think about, our “children” will one day be picking up our bones and studying our society our society like we study Pompeii. Also, as expressed in the poem in various ways, Stevens feels that our children will never quite understand many things about us, such as “the smells we smell in autumn.” He says they wont realize the things we left behind for them like the language we speak. Furthermore our cities will become just as lost and forgotten as the city of Pompeii was. There will be nothing left in the minds of our children but ash and an undiscovered society.

  11. I felt that Wallace Stevens’s poem was very well written. At first I had a tough time understanding it but its message became clear to me once I read it a couple of times. I find it interesting that it was compared to Larkin’s “Arundel Tomb”, I thought of this poem as well when reading Stevens poem. Today we are a society that is not aware of the past or its implications. Is it because we don’t care? I believe so. Today we are a generation that doesn’t take an active role in learning about our past. We have come to the point of not understanding who we once were and by learning who we once were we can learn who we will become. I can’t agree more with the view that we are custodians of language, what we choose to protect from our culture is of the utmost importance to future generations.

  12. I think this poem is very interesting because the title and the content itself does not match. In my opinion I think that the title was meant as an attention grabber because when you look at it, it makes you look again just to try to make some sense of it. The poem talks about how people are trying to think what their children or people who will live after they are gone will think of how they lived. It almost like they are trying to make sense of things in their life and they are trying to leave things behind so that those after them can know who they are even though they will have their own way to interpret things.

  13. I liked the poem becuase it reminded me of what great men want which is to be remembered. We go though life as fast as it comes and at the moment that we slow down and find out how much is behind us , we begin to wonder of what we are leaving behind.Our children are our greatest commodities that we leave behind for the world. Many men try to leave material things behind to be remembered by future generations. Here the person feels like the next generation is ignorant or simple minded to fully grasp the past generation. That the past generation has become part of the foundation in which they now stand.The poem was simple but had a lot of depth. I enjoyed it.

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