The trees were plucked like iron bars
And Jumbo, the loud general-large
Singsonged and singsonged, wildly free.
Who was the musician, fatly soft
And wildly free, whose clawing thumb
Clawed on the ear these consonants?
Who the transformer, himself transformed,
Whose single being, single form
Were their resemblances to ours?
The companion in nothingness,
Loud, general, large, fat, soft
And wild and free, the secondary man,
Cloud-clown, blue painter, sun as horn,
Hill-scholar, man that never is,
The bad-bespoken lacker,
Ancestor of Narcissus, prince
Of the secondary men. There are no rocks
And stones, only this imager.
from Parts of a World (1942)
One way to try imagining the kind of mind that could produce this poem--or for that matter, to try to understand what that mind was getting at--is to type it out yourself, as I just have.
At the very least, such an exercise makes you more aware of the delicate phonic, lexical, and rhetorical balances that make up a good deal of the poem's structure.
Stevens was the lead pioneer of a certain brand of self-reflexive modern lyric, in which the poem refers to itself referring to parts of itself, and those parts in turn refer to the large loud general of the whole. At the risk of abusing a much-abused term, he is one of the first poets we might think of as modern lyric deconstructionists: poets, that is, whose use of paradox and pseudo-reference moves past exercises in "metaphysical" wit and into an re-thinking of the very metaphysical categories upon which such wit is based.
This poem, like many of Stevens' poems, takes the form of a series of philosophical speculations on imagination and artifice. They are philosophical, however, almost purely by virtue of vocabulary and phrasing; they do not pose logically paraphrasable problems and propositions. Or, if they do, the sources from which they are derived are so obscure as to ensure that only a very small percentage of the poems' readers will recognize them, and out of that percentage, an even smaller percentage will be able to venture an interpretation that maps Stevens' poem onto a coherent philosophical position, and even then, that interpretation is bound to satisfy only a very very small percentage of other "experts."
And yet, Stevens continues to be one of the most popular modernist poets, among academics and casual readers alike. I see the reason for this as evidence of both Stevens' genius and his shallowness, which are inseparable from each other: the poems work as philosophical candies, mouth-poppable sugar snacks in a phenomenological wrapper. This kind of shallowness is of course a defining element of what we generally recognize as postmodernism.
Stevens is one of the most "suggestive" poets of all time. He is almost nothing but suggestion. I'm always amazed when I look at books and journal articles that spend pages and pages hammering away at what they suppose to be the poems' "significance," placing them in various intellectual contexts, arguing for their importance as parts of a larger, coherent thesis. (Even more astoundingly, critics make the same assumption about and expend similar amounts of energy on the poems of John Ashbery, who is Stevens' most obvious heir in this regard.
What I hardly ever see (though I may just not know where to look for it) is commentary on how nutty Stevens is. "Jumbo"! Some crazy damn philosopher/general/poet-type circus elephant running amok!
More than being an "intellectual" poet, Stevens confounds the intellect by luring it into what looks to be intellect-friendly territory and then bringing out the clowns and funny noises and slapstick pratfalls. I've always felt slightly disappointed that O'Hara didn't like Stevens, when he seems so clearly to me to be one of the most important anticipators of the New York School (although, admittedly, more for Ashbery and Koch and others than O'Hara).
But back to the poem--the signal Stevensian gesture made by this poem is the introduction of a vivid yet irrational image early on, that then dissolves into increasing abstraction and language-play. Jumbo only exists as something like a concrete physical figure for the first stanza, before the oblique meditations take over. You could make a case that the "musician" of stanza 2 is not Jumbo at all, but the poet--Stevens himself, perhaps--who came up with him, and who continues to be the subject of the remainder of the poem.
But--and this is what I like so much--the reader (this reader anyway) is a bear of very little brain who never really gets past the amusing novelty of "Jumbo." "Jumbo"! The poem remains a poem about a rampaging circus elephant in a general's suit regardless of its divagations into high-flown musings on aesthetics.
In fact, all the stanzas after the first could be paraphrased by saying what I've been saying: "'Jumbo'! Haw! That's great!"
Stevens goofing on his own great riff....