Blessay 18: A Self in the Rock

Wallace Stevens is often regarded as notoriously ‘difficult’. Yet Stevens’ ‘difficulties’ are all part of the challenge and appeal of this great poet. He is dense, rhythmically taut and playfully ambiguous. His poetry and poetic method can be best summed up by the opening lines of the poem Of Modern Poetry.

‘The poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice / What will suffice.’

You really need to tackle Stevens head on and unpack the rigor of his word patterning. The patterns are meaningful and also wonderfully self-sufficient. The contradiction between the musical power of his words, that resist full meaning, and yet invite so much interpretation, proves, for the reader, to be a lot more fascinating than exasperating. You have to trust Stevens. Flow with him and realize that his writing isn’t a loose or showy abstraction. Stevens has an incisively observed, if very interior view of the world. By his detractors Stevens has been called, over-cerebral, obscure, a poet’s poet and ‘worse’ that he was unpatriotic.

All this is untrue and a smoke screen to hide his concerns. His poems have lots of Americana hidden, or obvious. He is no more forbidding than T.S.Eliot or Robert Frost – both poets perhaps more universally loved than Wallace Stevens. I’ve been reading Stevens for many years and I still don’t fully get all of him, but maybe that’s the point. He is an irreducible mystery case. His poetic thinking is very much concerned with a pure state of being. Not being in an existential sense but more an aesthetic one.

Stevens tends to view the idea of reality, as more interesting than the reality itself. Is he just being playfully, and seriously, philosophical? Yes, often. But he’s not a philosopher, but a literary guy.

‘The philosopher proves that the philosopher exists / The poet merely enjoys existence’

That’s from an essay called ‘The Figure of the Youth as a Virile Poet.’ It’s part of a book of collected essays called The Necessary Angel published in 1951. (I urge all poets to read this book. It contains, alongside the criticism of Coleridge, some of the most insightful comments on the relationship between poetry and philosophy ever written.)

Let me make it clear, Stevens is not a cold poet. You will find much warmth and humanity behind his abstractions. He is tender, funny and deeply sensitive in his highly original attempt to comprehend things. One of his most well-known poems is Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction. The first section called ‘It must be abstract’ has these lines.

‘You must become an ignorant man again / And see the sun again with an ignorant eye / And see it clearly in the idea of it’

For me this echoes Blake’s powerful warning/declaration in The Auguries of Innocence.

‘We are led to believe a lie / When we see not thro ‘the eye’

I think Stevens is often saying that the creative mind is endlessly making images. Images that are meant not to pin things down as a fixed set of thoughts or reflections. But an opening up to multiple ways of observation that remain fruitful and expansive. This activity is beautifully expressed in these lines from The Sail of Ulysses.

‘In the crystal atmospheres of the mind / Light’s comedies. dark’s tragedies. / Like things produced by a climate, the world / Goes round in the climates of the mind / And bears its floriasons of imagery.’

I love the use of the French word floraisons – meaning blossoming. It suggests a natural growth, or evolving, of the mind. It also makes me think of the old word floriated – having ornamentation based on flowers and leaves. Stevens enters the mind a lot in his poetry. There is a constant looking at the world through the prism of his interior landscape. But this is a truism. It’s what all good writers do. Yet what matters to Stevens is also what you also imaginatively journey towards. How the idea of that perceived external reality is then shaped into words. And in the case of Stevens and Blake it’s a constantly new possibility or visionary shape. Back to The Necessary Angel.

‘The real is constantly being engulfed in the unreal…(Poetry) is an illumination of a self in the rock.’

Wallace Stevens is illuminating, full stop. Read him. Penetrate the rock.

One thought on “Blessay 18: A Self in the Rock

  1. Thank you for this excellent Blessay. I have dipped (though a toe only) into Stevens over the years and have always intended to “follow him up” (ah! these intentions). I’m intrigued that he is considered to be a “difficult” poet. I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that he’s an easy versifier, but, speaking as someone who often struggles with “modern” poetry, I have always found something immediate in Stevens: that is to say, that I don’t find him forbidding in the way that, say, Eliot, can be (and I speak as someone who loves a great deal of Eliot’s work).

    There is something in Stevens (again, I am speaking as someone who has only dipped a toe, albeit the big one) that reminds me of the so-called Metaphysical poets of the 17th Century – George Herbert and Henry Vaughan in particular (both of whom can sound surprisingly “modern”). I feel that there’s something of a shared sensibility there even if their thematic preoccupations were quite different.

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