Table Talk by Wallace Stevens explores the random nature of life, how people like different things without reason. It focuses on the inexplicability of life, how we all die and everything before is just chance.
Stevens’ Table Talk ruminates on how the only thing that is certain in life is death. Indeed, before that all events, likes and dislikes are totally random, with Stevens going through different things he just happens to like. He concludes that while everything is random, that doesn’t even really matter, things are just things, events just happen. You could either analyse this poem with the message ‘Nothing Matters’, or more positively, ‘Nothing matters so don’t care too much about little things’.
Table Talk by Wallace Stevens is split into five stanzas, each one of these stanzas measure three lines. Across these three lines, there is an ABA rhyme scheme, with the first and third line of each stanza being connected. This sense of connection could be a reflection of the idea that things just happen, there is no method to the madness of life, but there are links that flow throughout. The b rhyme of each stanza could reflect the uncertainty of life, each stanza containing one seemingly random element.
You can read the full poem here.
As this poem is more so focusing on answering a question, a train of thought of such, and is therefore heavily fractured by the use of caesura. Throughout Table Talk there are caesuras running throughout many of the lines, little interjections in subordinate clauses showing Stevens’ mental deliberation around the subject of ‘why’ people like certain things.
Another technique that Stevens uses in writing Table Talk is repetition. Throughout the poem, key words such as ‘happen’, ‘one likes’ and ‘should’ chime frequently. In doing this, Stevens creates a cyclic narrative form, going over ideas many times as he ponders them. This adds to the sense of Stevens thinking out loud, his poem reflecting his thought patterns.
Table Talk Analysis
The first stanza instantly begins with a word that suggests internal-conversation. ‘Granted’, therefore insinuating that Stevens is working through an argument, taking some things as obvious. This initial statement, ‘we die for good’, is emphasised by the caesura after ‘Granted’, enforcing the blunt nature of the statement. Stevens, although talking through very philosophical ideas about life and death, is not beating around the bush. This first sentence cements his practically, just trying to get to the bottom of the self-proposed ‘Why’ one likes something but not another thing.
Stevens uses caesura to disrupt the second line, ‘life, then, is largely’, the alliteration across ‘life’ and ‘largely’ further separated due to the caesura clause. In doing this, the meter of the poem is slowed down, with Stevens reflecting the act of pondering the philosophical question as he writes.
The focus on the conditional ‘happens’ compounds the sense of unpredictability of life. Stevens is arguing that nothing ‘should’ be liked, in life it is just that one ‘happens’ to like one thing more than another.
The second stanza echos the structure of the first, with the first line using caesura to disrupt the meter. In doing this, the metrical breaks again reflect the idea that Stevens is thinking about this happenstance, pondering slowly.
The focus on the three images in this stanza, ‘red bush’, ‘Grey grass’ and ‘green-grey sky’ are all slightly nonsensical. It seems that Stevens is making the argument of why couldn’t the world be these colours – indeed, things just ‘happen’ to be that way. He also suggests that there is no reason for liking one thing over another. Why would you like ‘green bush[es]’ more than ‘red bush[es]’, Stevens is pointing out the random nature of life.
He begins to use rhetorical questions towards the end of the second stanza, and conns this technique into the third. Table Talk is an exploration of a question, with Stevens conversing with himself and therefore uses rhetorical questions to develop this own thinking.
The question ‘why?’ Is central within this paragraph, both spatially and thematically. Stevens is trying to explore why ‘red, grey, green’ are the way they are, delving further into questions of why the world is as it is.
He questions himself ‘those of all?’, then answers directly to himself, ‘That is not what I said’, the poet breaking into a modernist style with his self-conscious writing.
This stanza uses repetition throughout, ‘those’ appearing twice in the first line. This is followed by an anaphoric ‘one likes’, repeating across the second and third line of the stanza. Stevens is arguing that ‘one happens to like’ what ever ‘one likes’, it is completely random and therefore a strange idea that Stevens wants to break down.
The idea of ‘grows’, compounding a sense of growing and changing is also introduced here in Table Talk, Stevens suggests that likes and dislikes can change with age, as one grows their taste in almost everything can grow and change within them.
Stevens argues that ‘it cannot matter at all’, insinuating that because everything is random, one cannot be annoyed or take offence at different likes and dislikes, because there is no reason behind liking something. This is firmly stated, with the boldness of ‘cannot’ harshly defining Stevens’ ideas.
At this point ‘happens’ is written again in Table Talk, Stevens always gravitating towards the conditional possibilities that just simply occur. The poet is always returning to the random nature of life, this being the core concern of the poem.
The final rhyme, connecting ‘all’ with ‘fall’, compounds the sense of uncertainty. ‘Fall’ has connotations of something randomly drifting towards the ground – Stevens using this metaphor of placement to suggest that likes and dislikes are completely random. By linking ‘all’ and ‘fall’, Stevens ends Table Talk by focusing on how ‘all’ the different things one ‘happens to like’ simply comes down to a complete sense of accident – nothing has any reason, everything is irregular.