ENGL 310: Modern Poetry
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ENGL 310 - Lecture 21 - Wallace Stevens (cont.)
Chapter 1. Introduction: Wallace Stevens’s Late Poems [00:00:00]
Professor Langdon Hammer: Today, last Stevens lecture. Late Stevens, Stevens after World War Two, in the late ’40s and early 1950s at the end of his life. That’s my subject, really, the latest writing that we will have chronologically, historically, that we will have discussed so far.
One of the general themes of what I had to say has been modern poetry’s role in a secularizing culture: how the general decay of personal religious belief in practice enters into the way in which these poets imagine what poetry is, what it means for them, what they can do with it. “It is a habit with me to be thinking of some substitute for religion,” Stevens says in a letter. “My trouble and the trouble of a great many people is the loss of belief in the sort of God in whom we were all brought up to believe.”
Stevens, however, responds to this problem vigorously. He tends to see it, as I’ve been saying, as an opportunity. Power and freedom that were formerly assigned to God are claimed for man, for the human, for the poet in particular, but the poet viewed in Stevens not as a kind of exemplary individual but as a kind of model of the human and of, in fact, common properties and powers within us. In general, I would say that the poet stands for a kind of general human capacity to create the world in the act of seeing and describing it, very much as Marie was arguing last Wednesday.
Stevens, as I began by saying, is very much a poet of this world. We are an “unhappy people in a happy world.” The world is, as “The Auroras of Autumn” suggests, without malice towards us. Original sin, what Stevens calls “the enigma of the guilty dream,” this is a kind of exhausted fiction that Stevens throws off. He lives in a world that’s full of sensual, seasonal pleasures and perceptions, including the primary pleasure of perception itself; the seasons providing at once a kind of “climate,” to use his word, a circumstance, as well as a symbol for this way of being and knowing, knowing our experience. The seasons are a kind of answer, you could say, in Stevens, for traditional myth, providing a kind of structure of recurrence and recovery.
Well, how does such a poet imagine the end of life, of his life in particular? Can a vision of the world that’s so focused on happiness really include death and loss? Can it really include in its account of the world that is so right, can it really include grief? Stevens wants not an alternative to religion but, as he says, a substitute for it; in particular, a substitute for the solutions religion gives to death. “Poetry is a means of redemption,” Stevens said in that adage, and he meant it. But what exactly did he mean by it?
Chapter 2. Wallace Stevens Poem: “Large Red Man Reading” [00:04:33]
We’ll look at a number of poems that suggest answers, beginning with, on page 260, a poem called “Large Red Man Reading,” a poem included in – written after “The Auroras of Autumn” but included in the volume called The Auroras of Autumn:
This is a version of the hero-poet in Stevens as a kind of creative force, a figure that appears in Stevens’s poems in many guises, as a “scholar of one candle,” as the single man, as a rabbi, as a giant. In “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” he’s called “the MacCullough.” In what sense is, however, this creative force – this giant, this figure of the poet – a reader? What sense does it make to call the poet a reader? What the poet does here is read the world. Writing is a kind of reading, for Stevens. He reads the world as if it were a poetic text. His poem is a kind of reading. It’s kind of reading in the sense of interpretation and in the sense of reading aloud, as I’ve just been doing. It’s a vocalization of “the outlines of being and its expressings,” to use Stevens’s phrase. It’s a kind of putting-into-speech of the world, of experience. The suggestion is that the poet’s utterance, which is something that sounds, it sounds in the ear, is a kind of decoding of the primary text of the world, suggesting that the world is a kind of poem, something that can be and must be read in just the same way that we read poems on the page. And in fact, it’s one thing that reading poems on the page can help us to do, for Stevens; that is, in a sense, learn how to read the world.
Chapter 3. Wallace Stevens Poem: “The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain” [00:16:12]
Let’s look at this figure a little more closely. The creator Stevens describes, here as elsewhere, is large. Why? Well, Stevens himself was. He was a big guy. He’s large, too, because he’s a parent, he’s a grownup. He’s a kind of consoling and comprehensive figure in this poem and in others. He’s also large because he is an abstraction. He’s in that sense a generalization. When Stevens speaks of the abstract, he doesn’t mean the insubstantial or invisible but rather the general, a kind of representative and summative figure, made out of many parts. In this sense, the large red man is large because he is a kind of abstraction. He is the sum of many parts. He represents, as I say, a general human capacity.
He’s red, moreover, because he’s vital, “primitive” in the sense of primary or aboriginal. He is a Native American, “native” in the sense that he’s a kind of projection of a place, located in and rooted in the place. Adam, after all, means “red clay,” doesn’t it? He’s red also because he is red-blooded. He’s healthy. And keep in mind that all these properties are sort of metaphors or figures for human capacity, for aspects of voice and of soul. And finally, he’s red because he’s a reader. Stevens is punning, he’s suggesting that to be a reader, to read is to be able to recognize and speak the language of the world, and it is in the process to be reddened, to be filled with vitality and life and native strength and blood, what Stevens calls in this poem “feeling.” He “spoke the feeling” for his auditors, “which is what they had lacked.”
Think of those auditors, those ghosts who come to hear the poem, the poem that he’s chanting, as, well, they’re figures of the dead. You could think of them as representing dead parts of ourselves, ourselves living in dead ways. You can see them representing anyone who comes to poetry in some state of death or of deadened feeling, which is of course the feeling that the people in The Waste Land have. Think of them as anyone who comes to poetry seeking to know life and to be creative. Renewal, regeneration: this is what the poem gives them; it’s what Stevens wants. That’s Williams’s theme; it’s Stevens’s too. “Poesis”: that Greek word means “making.” Poetry is a means of redemption because it speaks feeling, and feeling in Stevens is a matter of sense, of sentiment.
Some of Stevens’s detractors – which he has, it must be admitted – view him as a kind of sterile intellectualist. This is not true. Stevens is fundamentally a poet of sentiment and in this way is in quite conventional ways a romantic poet. He has many defenses against the obvious danger of being a poet of sentiment, that is, sentimentality. How does he avoid being sentimental? Well, there’s all that nonsense in Stevens. There’s the impersonality. There’s continually a kind of acute self-consciousness. There’s abstract discourse. Stevens is often called, because of that abstract discourse, a philosophical poet, and he is a philosophical poet. However, we need to understand what that means in Stevens’s case. His work raises philosophical problems and often does so explicitly; that is, problems of knowledge and problems of being, which are problems of epistemology, problems of ontology.
But it’s misleading to focus on these dimensions of his work without also at the same time addressing the question of sentiment. Again from his Adagia, Stevens says, “A poem should be part of one’s sense of life.” “A poem should be part of one’s sense of life”; “sense” in two senses: “sense” in the sense of “understanding” is always implicated in “sense” as “feeling,” for Stevens. The priority of sound in Stevens’s poetry – which is the primary “sense” in poetry for Stevens – the priority of sound in Stevens is emblematic of the priority of feeling in Stevens and emblematic of the priority of aesthetics for Stevens – aesthetics, the domain of the senses and of feeling – the priority of aesthetics over and against philosophy. Stevens is a philosophical poet who includes philosophy as a kind of partial knowledge within the larger total knowledge; that is, a knowledge of feeling that the aesthetic, that poetry, provides and imparts.
Let’s look together at three poems that give a sense of this total knowledge that I’m talking about – a total knowledge representing a kind of unity of mind and body for Stevens that incorporates feeling, incorporates sense. For example, “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain” on page 264. Stevens, like his great inheritor, John Ashbery, I think, wrote titles and collected them and is the author of not just great poems but great titles. And here’s one. Here and in other late Stevens poems – poems that he wrote while specifically having in mind producing or reflecting on his collected poems – and incidentally, this is a kind of dream that Stevens’s whole career is characterized by; that is, the sense of creating a body of work that would be in some sense total. His first book is called Harmonium and it’s an enormous book which he waited a long time to publish, and he imagined perhaps producing a book called The Whole of Harmonium. His poem “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” suggests that ambition to produce, again, a sort of supreme fiction, a kind of total poem, even as that title also admits the impossibility of doing so.
Here, late in life in 1952, he is contemplating his career as a whole and the body of work he has produced, and this is a poem reflecting on that.
Here, producing a poem, producing a body of poetry, living in poetry in the way Stevens has done, is like climbing a mountain; or rather, it’s like both creating and climbing the mountain – both those things, step by step or “word for word.” That’s that interesting phrase that the poem begins with. Usually, we use that phrase to describe what? A kind of transcription; it was a “word for word” transcript or a translation: it was a “word for word” translation. It suggests that the poem that Stevens is talking about is, in some sense, a transcription or translation, word for word, which suggests in turn that the world was, even before it was put into language, already a kind of language, a set of words, a text. This develops the idea that the poet in Stevens is a reader. Writing here is an act of rendering the words of the world, making them over into the poet’s words, and making them in this process available in and through his words.
What is the nature of this translation or substitution? The phrase “took the place of” connotes both displacement and compensation. The poem took the place of a mountain; it displaces it. It also compensates for the loss of it. The world is somehow lost always in experience but then also found again in writing, in the act of creation that Stevens refers to as expressing his need of a place to go in his own direction. “It reminded him how he had needed / a place to go in his own direction.” That could almost be Frost. That’s the kind of phrase Frost might have used. It suggests both a kind of public ambition perhaps, also personal and private escape; some kind of, in any case, claim for independence and originality, eccentricity even. It says that in remaking the world in language, in the act of going in his own direction, the poet has created a certain point of view, a perspective on experience. It’s what Stevens will call “his unique and solitary home”: the world according to himself, which is as it must be for all of us.
Stevens says, “he would be complete in an unexplained completion,” “completion” meaning “the end of the climb,” that his creation must go beyond explanation in the same way that poetry, the aesthetic, must pass beyond philosophy. Stevens says in another poem that poetry “must resist the intelligence, / Almost successfully.” He’s interested in an unexplained completion. He values poetry’s “inexactnesses.” It’s an interesting word. His inexactnesses carry him along as he climbs edgewise – he “edges” – with the implication that, I suppose, on a mountain top, which is a precarious place where the ground is steep and unstable, you can only proceed carefully. You can only proceed by edging along.
Poetry’s path, in Stevens, is oblique. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson said. Stevens’s telling is oblique, slanted. He moves edgewise in his poems. He goes up the side of his high subjects. Yet in this way, he gives poetry in the end a view of the whole. And for all of its imaginings and for all of its celebration of imagining, for all of its celebration of poetry’s power to displace the world and take the place of a mountain, the poem rests on a rock that is real: the rock of the real, which is a metaphor that recurs over and over again in Stevens’s late poetry. You could keep in mind another one of Stevens’s adages, one of his late adages: “The real,” he says, “is only the base, but it is the base.” This could be a kind of epigraph for this poem and many other Stevens poems, and it’s an important idea to keep in mind as you try to think about the relationship between imagination and reality in Stevens.
Chapter 4. Wallace Stevens Poem: “The Plain Sense of Things” [00:25:18]
Along with the idea, in fact, that Stevens is a philosophical poet and a kind of intellectualist, there is the idea that he is an idealist who, because he believes in the power of the mind to bring reality into being, denies the reality of the physical world. This is another mistake, as that adage about the real and the base suggests. Stevens’s last book of poems was called The Rock. There are many images of material reality in late Stevens, and they’re important. Look at “The Plain Sense of Things” on page 266, another late poem. Think of how many of these poems focus on moments of seasonal transition. Here’s another.
And he continues:
Here, Stevens is imagining the end of the fall, imagining what is beyond imagination; imagining, too, where imagination ends, where it tends, and its goal. Compare this to a late poem like “Circus Animals’ Desertion” in Yeats where the poet descends from the ladders of imagination “[into] the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” Stevens is treating this theme himself in somewhat different terms. You could also compare this poem to “Poems From Our Climate” and the will to come to primary terms in that poem, or “The Man on the Dump”; just as in “Poems of Our Climate,” as Stevens does arrive at something like primary terms, what he calls here “the plain sense of things,” what might be a limit or base for imagination, the real. His poem moves to recover and reassert the power of imagination.
Even the end of imagination, he says, “had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge” – an inevitable knowledge: a phrase that equivocates as to whether this knowledge had to be imagined of necessity or whether its necessity had itself to be imagined, which is an idea that reasserts the dominance of the mind even in its defeat, you could say. And in this sense, the poem is a small example of that long tradition of the Kantian sublime, where the mind is somehow checked and awed by natural force or natural powers – something greater than itself – and then recovers its strength as it recognizes that this defeat is itself a kind of mental representation or construction.
Chapter 5. Wallace Stevens Poem: “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself” [00:29:37]
External reality, its endurance and its materiality, is, in fact, a consoling fact for Stevens, which he affirms in another poem, a poem not in your anthology but one of my favorites, placed last in his Collected Poems and in your RIS packet. It’s called “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself.” Again, a kind of – The title suggests a kind of encounter with reality in its primary forms. Placed here, at the very end of his Collected Poems, it was a kind of last poem, though it was not by any means the last poem he would write.
The poem begins with a confusion of inner and outer. The cry that the poet hears, he wants to say is outside him; it’s important for him to say it’s outside him. Why? If it’s not outside him then the sign of life that it gives and the promise of life’s continuance would be his own projection and would be something liable to die with him. He wants proof that the world will go on without him, that spring will come again. The cry is a kind of elemental noise, the noise of the elements themselves and the sound of the seasons changing. It is a complaint, a lament, alarm, exclamation, and shout for joy. It’s the sound of daytime returning, and with it spring at the earliest moment, a kind of emergence from winter and death.
Stevens is a poet of change but of change within regenerative cycles, of which night and day and the seasons themselves are primary instances and symbols. Notice also that the world makes itself known here in and as sound. Life is something you hear. This also is like Frost. The world is again a kind of language. It’s speaking to us. Stevens, in describing it through metaphors and similes and finding words for it, is performing an act of reading again, of transcription, and of translation. In particular, he is providing figurative language for understanding it. He calls the cry “scrawny.” It’s a great word; he uses it twice. What kinds of things are scrawny? Babies are scrawny, right? Old men are scrawny, both. Here both ideas are held together at this moment of seasonal transition when the year is old and the year is new at the same time.
That single bird that gives that cry is the poet’s double, a kind of echo. Maybe each are echoes of the other. The bird suggests an image of how the poet himself is integrated into the creative event that is the simple, ordinary return of the world with dawn. The poet, like the bird, is merely a chorister, a voice among other voices in a kind of harmonium that is total and whole. In this case, his “c precedes the choir”; that is, all the other voices that are going to follow this first one in the morning. That “c” tunes them. Here, alliteration is important. It links the cry and the choir and the chorister and the choral rings and the colossal sun that generates all of them in a series of rings, choral rings and vocal rings. And it’s a wonderful image of synesthesia. This is light coming as sound and sound as light at once, a kind of total sensory experience. Stevens is imaging morning, imagining it as a kind of synesthetic event and as the arrival of a series of linked creativities, all derived from the colossal sun of which the poem’s bold and somewhat simple, playful, and almost childlike alliteration and punning are instances, are simply forms of this choral music.
The poem’s linguistic play, in other words, displays the poet’s power to link the things of the world through sound, to produce connections between them through words, and is itself a kind of model and a case of those choral rings through which the world is coming into being. Steven’s poem, in other words, is a small version of the creative event it’s describing. It is like “a new knowledge of reality,” he says: “new” because refreshed, newly experienced and newly activated. It’s also a knowledge of reality existing exactly in its newness. The real is what is new, what is emerging, and what is fresh, carrying change to us.
Chapter 6. Wallace Stevens Poem: “A Primitive Like an Orb” [00:37:53]
Pay attention to the sun in all of Stevens’s poems but especially in these late poems where the sun is a kind of mythic presence. The poet waits for the sun with the heroine Penelope in the world as meditation. Penelope there is the sun’s bride, Ulysses’ wife. Look at that poem as a kind of late sublime version of “Sunday Morning.”
Another version of the sun, of this heroic creative figure is the giant in the poem called “A Primitive Like an Orb.” This is a somewhat longer poem and I’d like to look at some of its parts with you. The question in this poem, which is in your RIS packet, is really the same question as is posed by “Not Ideas About the Thing…” and that is: what is the relationship between Stevens’s poem and the poems of the world? What is the link between his creativity, or our creativity, in this larger system of creation that Stevens’s poetry evokes? Or in the language of this poem, what is the relationship between Stevens’s poems and the “essential poem at the center of things”?
Let me read the second section first. “The essential poem at the center of things” is the first line. It’s kind of the theme that he will now explore. And he says about it:
You can’t grasp it; it passes. That “separate sense” is the sense that Steven’s poems want to get at in their inexactnesses, sometimes in their nonsense. They’re gesturing towards it. It’s the existence of that separate sense which is a sense of the whole, of a kind of totality, and is affirmed precisely through its invisibility, its non-existence. “It is and it / Is not and, therefore, is.” It exists in its inaccessibility, in the fact that it is always gone. It was always just there. We feel it only ever in its parts, which are synecdoches linked to the whole, like the scrawny cry and the choral rings of the colossal sun. They are parts that point to a whole.
Stevens carries this idea forward then in section four. Here he is rewriting Theseus’ lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “The poet, the lunatic, and the lover are of imagination all compact.” Here he says:
Rather, it exists down below in all of its component parts.
Let me read now sections seven and following. It is one of the great sentences in modern poetry. The poem begins with a declaration: “The central poem is the poem of the whole.” This might seem to say it all, but rather, this declaration, this principle is a generative one that will now go on generating verse, much as this principle in the world goes on generating the world that we experience.
And again, by “poems” he means individual poems; he also means individual perceptions, individual creative acts. All are forms of making in the world. “The miraculous multiplex of lesser poems” are brought then:
It’s a wonderful vision. It calls to mind the great appearance, the great spectacle of the appearance of the world seen here suddenly as a kind of majestic giant figure approaching us with the folds of royal garments. That’s what appearance is like for Stevens. And I think of the weather, the hills of Connecticut – a Sleeping Giant itself – as Stevens imagines a kind of experience of the landscape and of the world as humanized, a kind of humanized totality. That is, it’s like a kind of generalized and abstract image of the human; an image of the human that is realized for Stevens in and through play. These garments, they’re something that pleasure children and that pleasure us as children are pleasured. The giant is a kind of image of the essential poem, as he calls it, and he will go on to describe it a little bit further. He now says:
Here, man is not created in God’s image, but rather this image is of God created in man’s, brought into being through play and through all the senses of sense, representing a “definition with an illustration” – a picture in word: again, abstract and concrete, an aesthetic whole that includes a kind of philosophical knowledge in it. This is what all art for Stevens aims at. He says simply:
“That’s it,” meaning, that’s the end of imagination. It’s the sense of its ending, its terminus, and its goal. But it turns out to be no ending at all but rather an experience of a whole that is ongoing, that is an experience of change that includes death, and includes our own deaths, in a kind of totality that is ever changing and living precisely in change.
Well, we’ll go on to a very different poet on Wednesday – W. H. Auden.
[end of transcript]
Wallace Stevens, “The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain,” 1954; “The Plain Sense of Things,” 1954 and “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself,” 1954. From the Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens by Wallace Stevens, copyright (c) 1954 by Wallace Stevens and renewed 1982 by Holly Stevens. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
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