Chieftan Iffucan is a fictional figure of fun found in Stevens’ “Bantams in Pine-Woods” where he is positioned as a rather pompous, self-important, cock-of-the-walk-type character both literally (in so far as the poem is about squabbling chickens) and figuratively (in so far as the poem is about squabbling poets).
Who is Chieftain Iffucan, Really?Edit
Literally, the Chief is a large (indeed over large) rooster, lording it over a group of Bantam hens. At the level of metaphor, the good Chieftain can be associated with any number of figures in Stevens who stand in for the poet of Fancy (in the Coleridgian sense), i.e. the poet who distorts reality, who unnecessarily, even destructively, gilds the particulars of the actual in favor of some overblown Poetic ideal.
However, Chieftain Iffucan has also been identified with a handful of specific poets, variously: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vachel Lindsay, and Stevens himself. Each identification yields unique readings of the poem. For instance, Mario L. D’Avanzo, who links Iffucan with Emerson by noting that pine-woods serve as the setting for Emerson’s famous essay “The Poet,” argues that the fat fowl serves as a mocking embodiment of transcendental poetics (104-7). Meanwhile, Rachel Blau DuPessis associates Iffucan with Vachel Lindsay and argues that Stevens’ “Bantams” is a “jealous response” to Lindsay’s blackface appropriation of African culture in his poem “the Congo” – a live performance of which Stevens attended in Hartford in April of 1922 (95-97). Finally, Lee Margaret Jenkins argues that Iffucan personifies (roost-ifies?) Stevens’ “tendencies toward the rococo idiom,” and that the poem can be understood as comprising a dialogue between that instinct and Stevens’ other, more austere and “stringent” aesthetic tendencies (11).
What is Chieftain Iffucan Doing in this Poem?Edit
The precise details of Iffucan’s symbolic meaning change based on which identification of Iffucan one assumes. Nevertheless, the character’s dramatic function is generally quite stable: he is a straw man, a comically exaggerated foil for the poem’s shrewd and shrewish speaker, doomed to be defeated by her henpecking harangue.
One may say, then, that, as in many of Stevens’ poems, the dramatic tension of “Bantams in Pine-Woods” derives from Stevens having suspending the poem between two opposed metaphorical poles: Iffucan and the bantam hen. Iffucan is an epic figure, hyper-masculinized, ego-inflated (the chief, “ten-foot poet among inchlings”), and exoticized (hailing from fictional Azcan, rather than real-world Appalachia, from whence the bantams hail). The hen, meanwhile, is Iffucan’s inverted double, opposing masculine with feminine, rank with file, heavyweight (“Fat! Fat!,” etc.) with bantamweight, the exotic with the native, the epic with the lyric, the High Romantic with the humble realist.
As an ars poetica, if it is one, "Bantams in Pine-Woods" appears to make the case for realism over romanticism, for the harsh austerity of the hen over the hooing decadence of the rooster. However, what the antic, yet simultaneously highly compressed "Bantams" may in fact illustrate is that, for Stevens, poetry may not be locatable at either pole, but emerges instead out of the conflict between them.