January 11, 2012

The writer as creator: Wallace Stevens, part three

Two weeks ago, I began an in-depth study of Wallace Stevens’ work that I deeply admire and my contention, despite the great love I have for his work, that he did not confront, perhaps not until close to his death, the primary issues of faith: a subject he deals with again and again through his view of the imagination as all, his view that whatever is spiritual comes out of the mind.

To review from the end of part one of my essay: I do not believe Stevens confronted the absurdist implications of his philosophical stance. One cannot have it both ways: If the writer who creates in words and whose subject is the nature and meaning of existence—and I believe this is Stevens’ subject—if this writer concludes there is nothing but human consciousness, then he must also, at the very least, confront faith as an insurmountable abyss.

To read part one of my essay, go here.To read part two, go here.


First here is the full text of the poem I discuss next “The Man on the Dump.”

The Man On The Dump
 
Day creeps down. The moon is creeping up.
The sun is a corbeil of flowers the moon Blanche
Places there, a bouquet. Ho-ho ... The dump is full
Of images. Days pass like papers from a press.
The bouquets come here in the papers. So the sun,
And so the moon, both come, and the janitor’s poems
Of every day, the wrapper on the can of pears,
The cat in the paper-bag, the corset, the box
From Esthonia: the tiger chest, for tea.
The freshness of night has been fresh a long time.
The freshness of morning, the blowing of day, one says
That it puffs as Cornelius Nepos reads, it puffs
More than, less than or it puffs like this or that.
The green smacks in the eye, the dew in the green
Smacks like fresh water in a can, like the sea
On a cocoanut—how many men have copied dew
For buttons, how many women have covered themselves
With dew, dew dresses, stones and chains of dew, heads
Of the floweriest flowers dewed with the dewiest dew.
One grows to hate these things except on the dump.

Now, in the time of spring (azaleas, trilliums,
Myrtle, viburnums, daffodils, blue phlox),
Between that disgust and this, between the things
That are on the dump (azaleas and so on)
And those that will be (azaleas and so on),
One feels the purifying change. One rejects
The trash.

That’s the moment when the moon creeps up
To the bubbling of bassoons. That’s the time
One looks at the elephant-colorings of tires.
Everything is shed; and the moon comes up as the moon
(All its images are in the dump) and you see
As a man (not like an image of a man),
You see the moon rise in the empty sky.

One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.
One beats and beats for that which one believes.
That’s what one wants to get near. Could it after all
Be merely oneself, as superior as the ear
To a crow’s voice? Did the nightingale torture the ear,
Pack the heart and scratch the mind? And does the ear
Solace itself in peevish birds? Is it peace,
Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon, one finds
On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve:
Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say
Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull
The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?
Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.

In “The Man on the Dump”[1] (1938), Stevens uses nonsense word play and speaks of the philosopher, the priest and the truth. He gives us nonsense in “Ho-ho ... The dump is full/ of images.” And word play: “With dew, dew dresses, stones and chains of dew, heads/ Of the floweriest flowers dewed with the dewiest dew.” And then “bubbling bassoons,” “elephant coverings of tires.” The powerful last stanza provides a stunning contrast:

            One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.
            One beats and beats for that which one believes.
            That’s what one wants to get near. Could it after all
            Be merely oneself, as superior as the ear
            To a crow’s voice? Did the nightingale torture the ear,
            Pack the heart and scratch the mind? And does the ear
            Solace itself in peevish birds? Is it peace,
            Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon, one finds
            On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
            Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve:
            Is it to hear the blatter of gackles and say
            Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull
            The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?
            Where was it one first heard the truth? The the.

I ask, Why is Stevens posing these questions? Critic Harold Bloom answers my question this way: “The suggested answer to the six not-quite-rhetorical questions turns out to be a unanimous if always hesitant ‘yes.’ Yes, it is oneself, a superior self.”[2] 

With the final “The the” of the poem, it seems to me that Stevens is saying language is “where it is, as Gass says, defining, naming. But Stevens’ subject here is “the truth.” He may very well be rejecting the “dewiest dew,” “the floweriest flower,” and he may very well be saying one must descend to the images of the dump to define and name, but, if Bloom is correct, a superior self emerges with “The the”—a superior self who creates the world.

Stevens speaks to the issue of language in his 1942 lecture and essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words.” But first he places his discussion in clearly theological terms when he makes clear “that art sets out to express the human soul.”[3]  The poet creates a world: “[W]hat makes the poet the potent figure that he is, or was, or ought to be, is that he creates the world to which we turn incessantly and without knowing it and that he gives to life the supreme fictions without which we are unable to conceive of it.” With that said, he talks about the role of language as he will do in later essays: “A poet’s words are of things that do not exist without the words.”[4]

In 1943 Stevens extends the role of the poet further in the essay “The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet”: “In philosophy we attempt to approach truth through reason. Obviously this is a statement of convenience. If we say that in poetry we attempt to approach truth through the imagination, this too, is a statement of convenience. We must conceive of poetry as at least the equal of philosophy.”[5] He then confirms that he is, in fact, creating his own world: “Summed up our position at the moment is that the poet must get rid of the hieratic in everything that concerns him and must move constantly in the direction of the credible. He creates his unreal out of what is real.”[6] And he confirms again that his issue is the nature of existence: “The pleasure is the pleasure of powers that create a truth that cannot be arrived at by the reason alone, a truth that the poet recognizes by sensation.”[7] Here is what I consider to be his most telling statement in this essay of the poet’s role: “What we have called elevation and elation on the part of the poet, which he communicates to the reader, may not be so much elevation as an incandescence of the intelligence and so more than ever a triumph over the incredible.”[8]

Does this not have the ring of the theological, of Bloom’s “superior self”? On my continuum from Gass to Ozick, Stevens moves closer to literature as idol.

In the long, masterful poem “The Auroras of Autumn” (1948), the poem I will focus on next, and which I place in his later years along with the essays, written shortly after, I believe, Stevens tests the limits of language in poetry and questions “the triumph over the incredible.”

In 1948 Stevens wrote the essay “Imagination as Value”[9]; in 1951 he wrote three essays: “The Relations Between Poetry and Painting,”[10] “A Collect of Philosophy,”[11] and “Two or Three Ideas.”[12] In these essays Stevens once again confirms his subject as the nature of existence, but he also begins in my view to question the limits of language. I do not think, however, that he confronts in a significant way the issue of faith as an insurmountable abyss. He does not make what I view as the essential philosophical move forward that all he has written seems to call out for.

In “Imagination as Value” he comes for the first time, closer to the essential question: What do we do when faith is not possible? He does confront his own world, the world he has created in his poetry, when he asks the question, “What, then is it to live in the mind with the imagination ... ?” But his answer is, in my view, anything but a confrontation with the abyss when faith is not possible or seems, at best, doubtful. He says, “only reason stands between it [the imagination] and the reality for the two are engaged in a struggle. We have no particular interest in this struggle ... . [T]he more we think about it the less able we are to see that it has any heroic aspects or that the spirit is at stake or that it may involve the loss of the world (my italics).”[13]

But that is exactly the point—the struggle between reason and reality, the choice of the self-referential world of the imagination does indeed involve a “loss of the world,” of belief in the Absolute, in God. He sounds like Gass when he says “Poetry does not address itself to beliefs.”[14] And he sounds like Ozick when he says, “The constant discussion of imagination and reality is largely a discussion not for the purposes of life but for the purposes of arts and letters.”[15] But he does not do what both Gass and Ozick do, i.e., place the act of writing in the context of belief or its loss. He says, sounding like Gass that “it [poetic value] is not the value of knowledge. It is not the value of faith. It is the value of the imagination.”[16] But then he says this—in striking contrast to Gass—“If the imagination is the faculty by which we import the unreal into what is real, its value is the value of the way of thinking by which we project the idea of God into the idea of man.”[17]  This strikes me as literature as idol because Stevens has not  profoundly confronted what he has rejected. If there is no God, the imagination is not God—it is, at the very least, the absence of God. And that needs saying, I would think.

One might argue that Stevens comes close to saying this in “The Relations Between Poetry and Painting”: “Modern reality is a reality of decreation, in which our revelations are not the revelations of belief, but precious portents of our own powers. The greatest truth we could hope to discover, in whatever field we discovered it, is that man’s truth is the final resolution of everything. Poets and painters alike today make that assumption and this is what gives them the validity and serious dignity that become them as among those that seek wisdom, seek understanding.”[18] Gass, I think, would agree that our revelations are not the revelations of belief, but, because he has confronted the absence of God, he would, I think be troubled by the words “man’s truth,” “the validity and serious dignity” of painters and poets. He has no such allusions, and neither at the other end of the continuum, does the believer Ozick.

Coming, part four, next week.


[1] Stevens, Collected Poems, pp. 210-203.
[2] Bloom, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, p. 147.
[3] Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951), p. 30.
[4] Ibid., pp. 31-32.
[5] Ibid., pp. 41-42.
[6] Ibid., p. 58.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., p. 60.
[9] Stevens, Necessary Angel, pp. 133-156.
[10] Ibid., pp. 159-176.
[11] Stevens, Opus Posthumous, pp. 183--202.
[12] Ibid., pp. 202-216.
[13] Stevens, Necessary Angel, p. 141.
[14] Ibid., p. 144.
[15] Ibid., p. 147.
[16] Ibid., p.149.
[17] Ibid., p. 150.
[18] Ibid., p. 175.