I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
The poem is like Keats’ ode to the Grecian Urn but only on the face of it. The jar is here a symbol or not a symbol depending upon the reader’s own thought.It can be just a jar in a painting surrounded by wilderness as if it is a hillock and a wilderness is growing around it . The jar is round and gray as everything else in the poem is , devoid of nature. Keats’ Grecian Urn contains ashes of time , with the evanescence of human existence caught immortally in timeless art. This one is empty , both inside and on the outside. On the outside it is bare and gray,containing no art.But it does sport nature in the form of a slovenly wilderness that rises up to it. But once it rises up it it is no longer wild but is just stays sprawled around as if it is art or stillness painted on a two-dimensional plane.
The jar is round upon the ground and tall and of a port in air. But unlike a hill it does not give of bush or bird. It essentially remains art although it imitates nature. Keats’ poem was an ode .This is a mere anecdote- a narrative told by a poet as part of a conversation. The poet is not praising anything. He is merely illustrating whatever he is saying by a story, which is what this one is.
On the face of it the meter seems in a mess with lines spilling out of four iambs in some . There is order dealing with art and lack of it as we deal with nature -“slovenly wilderness” .There are lines of four iambs and lines going beyond this structure exactly as it would happen in art and nature.
The interesting thing about the poem is the anecdotal nature of the poem-the way some one narrates an event to illustrate a point. The scene of action was Tennessee with the narrator placing a jar on a hill in Tennessee.What made the slovenly wilderness surround the hill? Imagine you paint a jar and in the background is a hill, bare and round. Will not the wilderness rise up to the top ,sprawled around and become less wild?
There is fun and attempts at parody by different critics on the apparently disjunctive syntax and the reader’s difficulty of making overall sense out of the poem. Like for example the two negatives in the last two lines -they send you in a spin. A sneaking suspicion comes as to if Wallace is actually pulling your legs. Surely it cannot be a jar of pickles with Wallace laughing about it behind your back.
Supposing if that were to happen, would it detract from its merit as a poem? I do not think so. The poem stands on its own merits in the beauty of the imagery. May be it is a poem about poem writing or any art. May be, it is a post-structuralist perspective in art or even a spoof on deliberate obfuscation resorted to in contemporary poetics. It may even be a regret of an American poet who feels cut off from the rich classical traditions of Europe like for example in the ode to a Grecian urn.