Floral Decorations for Bananas
Well, nuncle, this plainly won't do.
These insolent, linear peels
And sullen, hurricane shapes
Won't do with your eglantine.
They require something serpentine.
Blunt yellow in such a room!
You should have had plums tonight,
In an eighteenth-century dish,
And pettifogging buds,
For the women of primrose and purl,
Each one in her decent curl.
Good God! What a precious light!
But bananas hacked and hunched...
The table was set by an ogre,
His eye on an outdoor gloom
And a stiff and noxious place.
Pile the bananas on planks.
The women will be all shanks
And bangles and slatted eyes.
And deck the bananas in leaves
Plucked from the Carib trees,
Fibrous and dangling down,
Oozing cantankerous gum
Out of their purple maws,
Darting out of their purple craws
Their musky and tingling tongues.
- Wallace Stevens from Harmonium
Wallace Stevens' poem "Floral Decorations for Bananas" is refreshingly irreverent. Stevens has taken the simple banana, a fruit fraught with innuendo, and explored the possibilities of said innuendo to its darkest conclusion. Not particularly profound, the poem is a delightful example of the poet's gift for evocative language and his oft unappreciated humor.
The form is slightly restrictive, but not excessively so. The first two stanzas have six lines and the last two have seven. This may reflect the privileging of the second half of the poem, but is far from conclusive. The rhyme scheme is extremely regular, extremely noticeable, yet also sparse. Only the third and second to last lines of each stanza rhyme with each other. This musically ties the whole poem together, and although the meter is far from regular, it anchors the poem as a unified whole. Particularly of interest is the assonance. There is a deliberate shift between stanzas 1 and 2, and 3 and 4. The soft l, s and sh sounds prevalent in the first two stanzas are contrasted with hard k sounds of the third and fourth, reflecting the shift in the focus and style of the stanzas. There is considerable additional assonance within each stanza, particularly centering around t and g and vowel sounds, which further tie the poem together musically. There is also a tonal shift in the two halves of the poem as the first half is full of contractions and direct address by the speaker, using ''you'' and exclaiming. The second half of the poem is uninterrupted by such insertions, and slips into considerably less distracting third person description.
The four stanzas of the poem form a tension between the ''propriety'' of the first two and the ''impropriety'' of the last two. The language of the first two stanzas is fussy and old-fashioned, a little artificial. Nuncle is an archaic colloquialism which certainly no longer conveys respect. (ll. 1) Eglantine is perhaps most famous from Shakespeare, and is here a pretentious way of saying ''rose.'' (ll. 4) Pettifogging is uncommon enough to almost be recursive, instilling a sense of nonsense in its use, and not just to what it censures. (ll. 9) Purl is another archaic usage, and is determinedly poetic, drawing attention to an almost too prettily turned phrase ''the women of primrose and purl.'' (ll. 10)
What comes through is sarcasm over the inappropriateness of the banana in a civilized dining room. The banana is oddly shaped, inharmonious, vulgarly colored, and somehow indecent. It is contrasted to the plum, that popular poetic fruit, idealized on an antique dish. The flowers which would appropriately dress the plums are ''pettifogging buds,'' inconsequential and petty. (ll. 9) The language used to describe the women whose company would be appropriate for plums is one of excessive propriety. Primrose resonates with the roses of eglantine, while 'prim' is echoed by decent in the next line. (ll. 10-11) ''Each one in her decent curl'' suggests that each woman is self-contained, tightly packaged ''curl,'' both in self-hood and in coiffure. There is no looseness, no openness, and the word curl inevitably suggests that the women are also pettifogging buds. The stanza is closed with ''Good God! What a precious light!'' which is an excessive sentiment for discussing the effect of pretty fruits on a special plate adorned with insignificant flower buds and placed in perfect interior decorating harmony with the wallpaper, napery, and dinner guests. (ll. 12) Precious takes on a negative tone, and with all the other archaic terms already extant, its own obsolete definition of ''overnice" comes to the fore.
In contrast to the plums and the prim women, the banana begins the poem as insolent, linear, sullen, hurricane, serpentine, blunt yellow. (ll. 2, 3, 5, 6) These are extremely strong physical terms and in marked contrast to the lack of description given to the plums. The plums are not described, only named. The weight of their appropriateness is assumed rather than explicit. However, the bananas are described not only in characteristics, but in character. Many of the traits are not physical, but aspects of personality, reflections of behavior. They are signs of resistance to conformity and of transgression. This is reinforced by the use of serpentine. It is not only deliberately phallic, but also deliberately suggestive of Eve and the serpent. If it was not clear before why the banana is out of place in the nuncle's polite dining room, then it is certainly apparent now.
This is made more clear in the third stanza. The description of the appropriate dinner party setting for bananas is determinedly base. In opposition to the previous stanza about plums, the banana is point for point contrasted. Just as the plums are suitable for the prim, the banana is suitable for the loose. The bananas themselves are described in violent, unattractive terms; ''hacked and hunched.'' (ll. 13) The table is ''set by an ogre'' rather than the harmless sounding ''nuncle'' (or perhaps nuncle's servant). (ll. 14) The appropriate setting for the table is outside in an uncomfortable and odorous locale, and the bananas are suitable for a ''plank'' rather than a ''dish.'' (ll. 17) The women described are vulgar as well. Shanks is suggestive of short skirts and an immodest display of leg, indecorously out-thrust. (ll. 18) Bangles and slatted eyes suggests an excess of cheap jewelry and the sideways glances of the coquette. (ll. 19) Slatted is an odd verb to use, meaning 'to thin,' but also 'to beat or cast down.' It also echoes with ''slattern,'' which reinforces the looseness of the women (in both morals and dress) and the contrast with the groomed, ''curled'' women of the previous stanza.
The appropriate garnish for a plank of bananas is not paltry flower buds, but the leaves of tropical trees, perhaps the very trees that produced the fruit. And finally, as if to leave no room for mistake, the phallic qualities of the banana and the garnishing leaves are made explicit in the last stanza; dangling, oozing, purple, musky. It is more than phallic, it is blatantly sexual and overtly anthropomorphized. Perhaps ''animalistic'' is more appropriate, as the ''purple maws,'' ''purple craws,'' and ''musky and tingling tongues'' suggest beasts or bestial humans. (ll. 24-26) Instead of the pretty metaphor of the flower, the Carib trees are mouths and tongues, and less directly vulva and phallus. The metaphor of consumption and devouring is reinforced by Carib, which refers to Caribbean and the tropical nature of the banana, but finds its origins in the Carib Indians, from whom the term ''cannibal'' derives.
The language of the poem inevitably privileges the earthy power of the last two stanzas over the insipid propriety of the first two stanzas. The banana is more dangerous than the plum, more exotic and more wild. In this respect, it is more powerful, more evocative, and more interesting. It may even be a sly hint that the plum has had enough poetic attention. However, the deliberate link to the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is heavily ironic. It teases with the idea that this is all about a perception of sin.
The fruit is not itself the cause of prurient thoughts, after all. It is a human apprehension of the fruit which gives it its dubious connotations. It is easy to lose sight of the absurdity of the central idea, as the poem shifts from open mockery to extremely lush and powerful imagery couched in vivid terms. However, the core of it is there and Stevens makes it explicit by turning the idea of what causes meaning upside down. In the poem, instead of the people determining the character of the fruit, the fruit determines the character of the people. Even this demonstration is framed by the poet who controlls how the banana is read, layering the innuendo so deeply as to be unmistakable and yet still not explicit, and illustrating once again that it is the organization of the imagination which creates meaning.
The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, Vintage Books Edition, 1990: pp 53-54. Originally published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1954. Harmonium first published 1923.
Written for a class on Williams, Moore, and Stevens, spring 2004.
CST approved 5/6/04