December 22, 2011

The writer as creator: Wallace Stevens, part two

Wallace Stevens

Last week 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.

First here is the poem  “Tea at the Palaz at Hoon,” the first poem I discuss in detail here in part two.

Tea at the Palaz at 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 inside 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.

                                    Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, p. 65

Here is the full text of the second poem, “On the Road Home,” discussed here as well in part two:

On the Road Home

It was when I said.
“There is no such thing as the truth,”
That the grapes seemed fatter.

You . . . You said,
“There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth.”
Then the tree, at night, began to change,
Smoking through green and smoking blue.
We were two figures in a wood.
We said we stood alone.

It was when I said,
“Words are not forms of a single word.
In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts;
The world must be measures by the eye”;

It was when you said,
“The idols have seen lots of poverty,
Snakes and gold and lice,
But not the truth”;

It was at that time, that the silence was largest
And longest, the night was roundest,
The fragrance of the autumn warmest,
Closest and strongest.

                        Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, pp. 203-4

In this and following posts, I will discuss Stevens’ essays and five poems (“Tea at the Palaz at Hoon,” 1921; “On the Road Home” and “The Man on the Dump,” 1938; “The Auroras of Autumn,” 1948; and “The Planet on the Table,” 1953) covering his early, middle and late work in both forms. I do not pretend that this is a comprehensive overview or that I may even presume to be conclusive in this large undertaking. And certainly five poems are not representative of Stevens’ enormously impressive body of work. But, within the confines of this blog, certain limits and caveats are necessary.

            Frank Kermode notes that “Stevens thought of his poetry as a world, which to distinguish it from the ‘real’ world, he called his mundo.”[1] Stevens’ nonsense language, images and assertions create this world. Helen Vendler, in the introduction of her study of his work, notes that she does not focus on Stevens’ imagery because “[it] is not particularly obscure once one knows the Collected Poems: It is a system of self-reference, and is its own explanation.”[2]

            The title, “Tea at the Palaz at Hoon”[3] , is an example of Stevens’ unusual language, his world. The poem seems to have nothing to do with having tea anywhere and “Hoon” is nowhere to be found in the poem. I believe there is some purposeful nonsense in this title. And Dana Gioia appears to agree; he says, “Nonsense can be serious stuff, and from this point of view, Stevens is the finest nonsense poet in American literature, an Edward Lear for epistemologists, and later Gioia quotes the first stanza of this poem and says that Stevens, after his day at the office, let “himself go by inventing foreign-sounding word and names, prizing paradoxes, and giving his difficult poems brilliant but mysterious titles.”[4] Stevens’ play with language here and elsewhere creates his world.

            Gass notes that “it is impossible to imagine that the language of literature is not ontologically of another order than that of ordinary life, its chronology, concerns, and accounts.”[5] In this same essay, Gass plays with nonsense: “And roses are intolerably frivolous too, and those who grow them, snowmen and those who raise them up, and drinking songs and drinking, and every activity performed for its own inherent worth”—a fragment of poetic prose to make his point that the writer, “is villain, who puts words together with no intention of stating, hoping, praying or persuading . . . only imagining, only creating. . . [Gass’s ellipses].”[6]  But in contrast to Gass who makes no pretense toward the spiritual, Stevens seems to assert that whatever is spiritual comes out of the mind:

            Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
            And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.

            His choice of the words—“ointment,” “hymns”—is far from the nonsense in his title; these are words from the vernacular of religion placed now in the speaker’s consciousness. Harold Bloom explains the poem this way: “[The poem] is directed against what is absent in the reader, which is the imagination or a felt potential of the reader’s own power of representation.”[7] Moreover, Bloom calls the title “Sublime” (his capital letter ‘S’ in mid-sentence).[8] Bloom seems to imply in these comments that Stevens is confronting the absence of the Absolute, but how then can the title with its nod to the absurd be also Sublime with a capital ‘S’? I am not saying that Bloom is wrong; I am saying that Stevens has in the confluence and paradoxes of his title and his text (his choice of religious words) placed the absurd in the context of the spiritual. Am I to read the poem’s stanzas ironically? Perhaps so.

            In 1936, before the publication dates of the next two poems I focus on, Stevens addresses spiritual belief and poetry. He says that “while it can lie in the temperament of very few of us to write poetry in order to find God, it is probably the purpose of each of us to write poetry to find the good which, in the Platonic sense, is synonymous with God.”[9] And certainly Stevens affirms the spirituality that I see placed in “Tea at the Palaz at Hoon” when he says, in this same essay, that poets “purge themselves before reality … in what they intend to be saintly exercises.”[10]

           These assertions, tentative as they are (and, in my view, to his credit that he is tentative on this score) are not the assertions of Gass—Stevens goes further than Gass here. He, in fact, approaches Ozick’s view in this same essay; as if with the same breath that he asserted the saintly work the poet does, he seems to place in perspective with his use of the word “seductions” the discovery of the unknown through the irrational: “We accept the unknown even when we are most skeptical. We may resent the consideration of it by any except the most lucid minds [and I assume that he is not referring here to himself]; but when so considered, it has seductions more powerful and more profound than those of the known… . The poet cannot profess the irrational as the priest professes the unknown.”[11] I must admit that I do not find Stevens clear here. I find his words in the essay somewhat obscure, elliptical, if you will.

            I do, however, find him quite clear in the poem “Tea at the Palaz at Hoon” when he says in the first stanza that the speaker’s words are discovered in “The loneliest air” and that the speaker found himself there, in the mind or, as Stevens puts it, “what I saw/ Or heard or felt came not but from myself ... more truly and more strange.” The speaker in loneliness and not entirely from himself, but from his mind, has found something of the spiritual. It is a gorgeous poem from its nonsense title to its beautiful and, I think, quite regal opening line: “Not less because in purple I descended.” But I also think that this poem and others come perilously close to literature as idol.

            Moving on to Stevens’ middle years, I choose the poem “On the Road Home”[12] (1938) because I believe it indicates that Stevens is aware of the idolatry possible in the search for “truth.” The poem begins, “It was when I said,/ ‘There is no such thing as the truth,’” and continues, “You . . . You said,/ “There are many truths,/ But they are not parts of a truth.’” Vendler says this poem represents “Stevens’ unresolved wish that the sum of the parts should be more than the parts.”[13] This is, in my view, a brilliant synthesis, in one brief sentence, of all of Stevens’ work, of the nature of his search through poetry and prose. It contrasts with Frank Doggett’s more specific reading of this poem in the context of William James’ comment, “The Truth: what a perfect idol of the rationalistic mind.” Doggett asserts that “Stevens, too, finds the truth falsely enshrined.”[14] Doggett is referring to the last stanzas of the poem:

            It was when you said,
            “The idols have seen lots of poverty,
            Snakes and gold and lice,
            But not the truth”;

            It was at that time, that the silence was largest
            And longest, the night was roundest,
            The fragrance of the autumn warmest,
            Closest and strongest.

           Much later, the post-modern critic Ihab Hassan also discusses Stevens in the context of James’ book Pragmatism, but his gloss is different from Doggett’s, as I see it; Hassan says James’ pragmatism “or rather she,  as he often calls pragmatism, ‘widens the field of search for God... . She will count mystical experiences if they have practical consequences. She will take a God who lives in the very dirt of private fact—if that should seem a likely place to find him.’ ”[15]

          Hassan goes on to stress the differences between Stevens and James: “However widely Stevens cast the net of imagination, it remains a collection of intricate holes stitched together with verbal twine. It simply lacks the feel of belief as we experience it in marrow or mind.”[16] I not only agree, but also go further in asserting that Stevens in “On the Road Home” is acknowledging the potential, as Ozick might see it, for his own words to become “idols.” I say this because, in the penultimate stanza of the poem, the line, “It was when you said,/ ‘The idols have seen lots of poverty ... but not the truth’ ” is an answer to the speaker’s words that precede: “It was when I said,/ ‘Words are not forms of a single word ... .’ ” My point is that Stevens is not only, as Doggett wisely points out, expressing the danger of the Truth, he is also here speaking of the power of his, the poet’s, words, and acknowledging what Ozick might call the seductive nature of those words as idol. And I am saying that he has not yet in his work confronted the implications of this discovery.

Coming: Part Three, next week

[1] Frank Kermode, Harmonium  and The Ideas of Order, Wallace Stevens (New York: CHIP’S BOOKSHOP, Inc., 1979), p. 25.
[2] Helen Vendler, On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), p.9.
[3]Wallace Stevens, Harmonium, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), p. 65.
[4] Dana Gioia, “Business and Poetry,” Can Poetry Matter (Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1992), pp. 129-30.
[5] William Gass, “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses,” The World Within the Word, p. 304.
[6] Gass, The World Within the Word, p. 300.
[7] Harold Bloom, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 64.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Stevens, “The Irrational Element in Poetry,” Opus Posthumous, p. 222.
[10] Ibid., p. 227.
[11] Ibid., pp. 228-9.
[12] Stevens, Collected Poems, p. 203-4.
[13] Helen Vendler, Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1984), p. 22.
[14] Frank Doggett, Stevens’ Poetry of Thought (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1966), p. 211; Doggett’s footnote here is unclear on which essay of James he is using, but earlier he refers to James’s book Pragmatism and later to the essay “Pragmatism and Humanism.”
[15] Ihab Hassan, “Imagination and Belief: Wallace Stevens and William James,” Rumors of Change (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1995), p. 122.
[16] Ibid., p. 124.