Poets: Wallace Stevens

When I consider the education I received in American literature, what is more notable to me is not, as you might suspect, the particular writers and poets we were directed to study, but those we were not. In a sense, the stronger effort in the late United States towards propaganda has been more towards forgetting than reinterpretation. (For example, many Americans, especially Christians, can tell you a lot about a desire to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem; what they cannot tell you is that this would not be the first time that was attempted.) In the so-called “Dark Ages”, much had been forgotten, not necessarily on purpose, but because of a loss of the infrastructure necessary to preserve, transmit, translate, and study the texts the western Romans would have been familiar with. It should be a warning to us that our present infrastructure is even more complicated, and in its way in total, more fragile.

We, on the other hand, have lost a lot of texts, partially from neglect (the political bent of most academics and teachers guarantees this without need for a coordinated effort) but also from effort to dis-remember or no-platform certain texts. For example, all of us read The Great Gatsby (1925), The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and A Separate Peace (1959). Now, you may have had a different selection of books if you were raised in a different region, but yours will be similar in quality (decent) and content (modern liberalism with communist-pacifist sympathies.) Likewise, we were familiarized to Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and Maya Angelou. We were even given a glimpse of Yeats (for reasons I outline in my essay on him, he created an exception for himself) but not only had I not read, but I had not even heard of Pound or Stevens. Certainly, if you had heard of Eliot it was because of Cats and perhaps the Hollow Men; but never because of Four Quartets. We could read criticisms of capital from the Left in Updike (we did not read The Jungle, but were prominently pointed to it) but never from the right (Pound’s Usura). It goes on.

The result of this process is strange, in that it means that when I began to dig for poets that I hadn’t read or heard of, I almost always find treasure; for as a person of reactionary sensibility, it is almost certain that if a poet or writer is good and buried, it is because they are a persuasive conservative of some kind.

Such is the case with the American Poet Wallace Stevens. A conservative Republican in the USA is not going to be in the literature-producing class, and if he is, he will find himself, as another I had never heard of without a recommendation from Bowden, Robinson Jeffers, eventually running afoul of the Cultural Power in his poetic role (which in its nature must intersect with the political) and be buried like the Germans starved by the “Allies” after WW2. How DID he do it? Close your eyes and make ONE guess — and then read the rest of this sentence. (If you already read his biography above, you will know it.) He attended Harvard and came from New England.

It’s always good to remind people from the North-East about this fact; there is a certain belief that the reason they produce most literature is because they are the best at it, but this is absolutely not the case, at least not anymore. The authors you love are probably selected from the best among the liberals of that region, but their prominence is linked to prior successes of that region (especially its political influence) — so you could, relatively speaking, based on a survey of verbal IQ scores across the country, be reading trash and not know it because it is all you know. Writers who are guaranteed a book deal for their next work are known to fall into a lazy rhythm; probably the whole North-East itself has long bathed in the vinegar of cultural hegemony and is quite thoroughly pickled with it.

Lest we fall into simple resentment, it’s good to demonstrate the obvious slip in ability by looking at the people from the region itself who ought to be far more prominent than they are; it’s therefore obvious that not mere talent and skillful execution result in prominence, but social connection and ability to produce the proper cultural and social signals to maintain connections and satisfy other prominent people in the world of literature’s desires. I have no general opinions on literature in general, but in poetry, this is mostly what a poet has to do, save some weird miraculous event, and unless the prominent people value talent and craft, they are totally optional and likely to be discarded sooner or later.

If indeed, as the literary critic Harold Bloom said, Stevens was the “best and most representative” American poet of the time, how is it that we do not know about him? (From my last essay on Dryden, there seems a pattern here.) Does it then surprise you to hear the Poetry Foundation stating that “by the early 1950s Stevens was regarded as one of America’s greatest contemporary poets, an artist whose precise abstractions exerted substantial influence on other writers.”? At this point, no. While the Gell-Mann effect is not a slam dunk way to tell us that popular publications are missing what is really important and deeply influential simply because we see it in what we know, it should mark a good starting-point for an investigation. We keep turning things up!

Stevens is known for being a modernist (but then, given the poets in the 20th century we’ve seen so far, it would seem to be a distinction without a difference; there appear to be no non-modernist poets) and perhaps this is simply a distinction made people who have an awareness of non-modernists but no inking of their impossibility. What is more interesting, therefore, is to look at what Stevens did with his poetry and what inspiration and lessons it can offer us.

One of the most interesting poems by Stevens is “The Idea of Order at Key West“. It is a moderate length and I will re-post it here for your reading pleasure:

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Like other blank and free verse poems, there are actually rhymes here, as well as internal assonances, consonances, rhythms, and so on; some seem probably accidental, but their appearance can be seen to still be relevant to the poem, as their power gives certain parts of it a different effect; thus like atonal music, it ends up proving that rhyme and meter is an essential part of poetry by its near-absence. Personally, although this poem is great in content and in sound and feel, the ending to me is flat. You will notice also the evocation (Oh! Blessed rage for order) which to me marks this poem as an ode. For indirectly, Wallace Stevens is singing to the closest thing to a deity he can come to; man’s imagining order in the meaningless roar of reality; perhaps creating order by his imagining and perhaps that is the only order there is.

You will notice how far we have descended from even Coleridge, but there is certainly a clear path IF you trace a line from Milton’s Puritanism, to Coleridge’s Dissenter views, to the Unitarianism of someone like Poe, down to pure humanism where God has disappeared from view because he has become unbelievable. Stevens, although he believed that imagining was the way man came into contact with reality, yet, reality remained inaccessible to him (this seems to be a line drawn from Plato’s cave metaphor through Kant — ) which is itself an agnosticism about truth in general.

It’s worth remembering that Chesterton warned that when people stopped believing in God they would not become more reasonable or rational, but also lose belief in reason. Certainly in the history of Western philosophy God is positioned as the highest truth; and when you cut off the head, the body soon falls. Additionally, what we call modernity (“the ceaseless onset of the new”) tends to de-sensitive men to the experience of God’s presence, combined with the tremendous wealth and comparative ease and the arrogance of scientific thinkers who believed they could know truth without reference to any explicit first principles that desacralized man’s understanding of his experience. Notable however is that although the poet stops believing in God, he has not stopped believing in poetry (And its child, fiction.)

Many of his poems are on this topic, and you can peruse them if you wish. On this descent from the sacred to blind madness I wrote a poem some time ago called, like the French poet who inspired it, “Correspondence“. There are some other interesting works of his, which are considered less famous, such as this, called “Fabliau of Florida”:

Barque of phosphor
On the palmy beach,

Move outward into heaven,
Into the alabasters
And night blues.

Foam and cloud are one.
Sultry moon-monsters
Are dissolving.

Fill your black hull
With white moonlight.

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

Another, which inspired the name Curtis Yarvin gave to Urbit’s programming language, “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”:

Not less because in purple I descended
The western day through what you called
The loneliest air, not less was I myself.

What was the ointment sprinkled on my beard?
What were the hymns that buzzed beside my ears?
What was the sea whose tide swept through me there?

Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.
I was myself the compass of that sea:

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

Notice here the contrast but similarity to Borges; the topic of identity or self. To Borges, there was alienation between himself and himself, which in Stevens is resolved not by contracting himself into his self-knowledge, but transforming the whole world in which he inhabits into part of himself. But this seems effected by discarding the possibility of actual knowledge of reality, in that to him it remains a senseless roar that he is imposing order upon by perhaps simply his act of perception, but which does not inhere it in anyway. (He does not seem to doubt the existence of himself; but this is a philosophical quandary I won’t get into here.)

We can also see another answer to the question above, “how did Stevens become so influential?” — his agnosticism (Although it seems possible he was baptized Roman Catholic at the end of his life) and his meditations upon agnosticism and his sincere attempt to make it a meaningful and powerful thing somehow were no doubt inspirational to the people of letters in his time. What probably has caused him to be buried, other than his conservatism, is the fact that his resolution of agnosticism is in fact a kind of egoism — a theory more consonant with the agnostic dissident Right of the past fifty years than anything to do with liberals or the culturally central Left. If anything, the Left is practically egoist while being strongly anti-egoist in theory. That is, it tries to ruthlessly remake the world in the image of its ego, while denying that their self even matters and claiming the process as more of an inevitable historical “dialectic”. Wallace gives us too much of the truth about the nature of forgetting God.

Indeed, Stevens goes further and reaches what is in fact a form of Platonism; he believes the power of imagination to “create reality” is nothing other than its adherence to “what is real”. This could be interpreted as a tautology, but he makes it clear he doesn’t mean that “the imagination must adhere to what it creates or causes:”

The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real. When it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, while its first effect may be extraordinary, that effect is the maximum effect that it will ever have.

A whiff of the essentialism of Heidegger can be detected. Indeed, though Stevens concludes that God is a human creation, yet, if he is an object of the imagination that is supremely satisfying, he must in fact be to some degree real, or there would be no force to this imaginative creation. There is certainly a truth to this, which C.S. Lewis says, that God is in one sense the ultimate iconoclast because he continuously destroys the internal image we have of him by his reality. So Stevens is right in a superficial sense (and his strange notions of the self seem to echo Meister Eckhart) – almost every idea man has of God is indeed simply man’s creation. But to Stevens this does not make them false, for even as creations (like icons) if they adhere to the real, they are living and real themselves, even if not the actual thing.

I will leave you with an interesting pairing, and a criticism of modernism but a compliment of Stevens, by yours truly. Here is his poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. You will notice our “vortex” from before appearing clearly here again, and in Stevens’ characteristic way according to J Hills Miller: “A great many of Stevens’ poems show an object or group of objects in aimless oscillation or circling movement.”

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

III
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

IV
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

V
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

VI
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

VII
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

VIII
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

IX
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

X
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

XI
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

XII
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

XIII
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

And here is my reworking of the poem into strict forms.

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One Comment

  1. I discovered Wallace Stevens by way of a friend in college who was an English major. She called me up one day to practice reciting a poem for class. I mistakenly thought it was a poem she had written. As she recited the lines of The Snowman, I was amazed. I hadn’t realized my friend was so talented! I found out later it was actually written by this poet named Wallace Stevens, who worked as a lawyer for an insurance company. Wallace Stevens quickly became my favorite modern poet.

    Since it’s appropriate for the season, here it is:

    One must have a mind of winter
    To regard the frost and the boughs
    Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

    And have been cold a long time
    To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
    The spruces rough in the distant glitter

    Of the January sun; and not to think
    Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
    In the sound of a few leaves,

    Which is the sound of the land
    Full of the same wind
    That is blowing in the same bare place

    For the listener, who listens in the snow,
    And, nothing himself, beholds
    Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

    Reply

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