"Anecdote of the Jar" is a typical Wallace Stevens poem in that what happens within the poem is easy enough to figure out, but how to interpret things is much more ambiguous. In fact, much of Stevens's poetry questions this need for interpretation in the first place—asking where it comes from, what role it plays in the human mind, and what purpose the insistent desire for meaning serves.
For the most part, the poem's tone and diction are strikingly simple. The first word is the first-person pronoun—"I"—but, after this, the speaker makes no more self-references. The speaker places a jar on a hill in Tennessee, and so ends the speaker's active role in the poem! The jar is placed on a hill, and, of course, the jar is round.
So far nothing seems out of the ordinary, but there's already a lot to unpack here:
- A jar is a human-made object, whereas a hill is of course a natural environment.
- In one small gesture, then, the speaker creates a kind of tension between something artificial and something natural: jar vs. hill, civilization vs. nature.
- Perhaps the jar is a kind of challenge to the natural world, beckoning Mother Nature to prove her power by reclaiming the jar from its human-made status.
- Or maybe the jar represents the speaker's desire to impose human will upon the natural environment. In truth, it's too early in the poem to say—and arguably such questions can never be fully answered!
Note that the poem itself is a human-made object too, and these opening lines use perfect iambic tetrameter (a meter with four iambs per line—four feet with an unstressed-stressed, da-DUM, beat pattern):
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
This is a very common meter, and gives the opening—for want of a better phrase—a very poem-like feel. Things already are very rigid and constructed.
The speaker's statement of the obvious—that the jar was round—and the somewhat awkward caesura in line 2 perhaps further signal that the poem is also about the human desire to make order and art out of the surrounding world.
Most people would just assume the jar was round, but it's as though the speaker needs to state this in order to do justice to the fact that this is artistic writing. The grammatical inversion of "round it was," rather than "it was round," is also almost self-consciously literary. Perhaps, then, it's fair to think of the speaker as performing two actions—the placement of the jar on the hill, and the action of telling the reader about it through the medium of poetry.