an appreciation of Wallace Stevens

I wonder where Wallace Stevens came from? Born in 1879 to conventional parents in Reading, Pennsylvania, he attended Harvard for three years after high school; eventually, he got a job with an insurance company in New York, later ending up in Connecticut. My wondering has little or nothing to do with genealogy and geography. So where did he come from?

What early concoction of abstract elixirs settled into such a perspective as his, that state of powerful poetic ambivalence? As a boy, did Stevens stand transfixed while watching a hi-wheel cyclist in magical balance between the horizontal and the vertical, gravity and will, substance and imagination, mechanics and wonder?




Is it surprising that his later, regular profession had to do with actuarial uncertainty?

Stevens’s soul was dialectical. On the one hand, he pointed with astonishment toward the fact of nature — forms and substances. That great fact is something almost everyone takes for granted or about which obliviousness is the default. We’re so planetary that we forget we’re on a planet, on a heaving, moody world of dark energies.  On the other hand, Stevens realized there’s a metaphysical necessity quivering in human beings — without a god, another “supreme fiction” is required, a way of coping in which consciousness gets imperfectly reconciled with the wild fact of nature.

Wallace Stevens, at some point, realized that only poetry can reconcile consciousness with nature, or make tenuous treaty between them. Poetry fills that role of supreme fiction. Only its questing metaphors and hallucinatory incantations give written shape and succor to human experience. From the natural world, he took colors, textures, sounds, and fragrances, using them as icons to make quasi-sacred his poetic worlds.

Why we love and how we love are questions that biology (nature) provides only a squishy, extrusive answer. Poems vibrate with “truer” information; they hold and project our abstract fables of being, our necessary dreams of time (myths of consciousness). And even when we’re not aware of a wounding spiritual absence, it’s always there. Poetry overlays onto that absence an abstract order conjured from the fictive resources of language. Poems absorb our existential pathology, metabolize it into shapes of deep significance, then radiate it back out as a lyrical metaphysics.

Who knew that poetry is so powerful? A lot of people wrote, continue to write significantly about poetry. Stevens is one of the few who wrote penetratingly about poetry and whose own poems are examples of that necessary fictive transcendence.

Stevens’s poems are large, effulgent riddles. Stevens liked the enigmatic paintings of Paul Klee.



Fish Magic (1925)


We are, I think, significantly affected by a poem — any work of art — that has a haunting, ambivalent quality. And that word “ambivalent” is important. Stevens said that imagination of itself is not sufficient. The power of imagining (in poetry, the making into metaphor) must be consonant with reality. The distance between imagination and reality is lessened according to the power of abstraction. Imagination is too fairy filled, reality too there. Significant art transforms wishes and graves into a new, hybrid mode: a dynamics of quasi-religious abstraction.

In his essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” Stevens quotes Wordsworth and then says something:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning, silent bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky,
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air;

This illustration must serve for all the rest. There is, in fact, a world of poetry indistinguishable from the world in which we live, or, I ought to say, no doubt, from the world in which we shall come to live, since what 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.


I had said in my prelude to this essay that I would try to weave my own thoughts about poetry into Stevens’s thoughts. I’ll try to be brief.

I think the word “abstraction” can be misleading in connection with poetry. I’ve read many poems that, lacking images and organic metaphors, are a series of expelled abstruse verbal gases. Maybe you know what kind of poem I’m talking about. I think, in contrast, that Stevens’s idea of poetic abstraction has to do with lifting the sense of experience into a register of altered atmosphere. Such poems cast or recast time and substance into a new order — almost infinite and metaphysical.

I like poems that are theaters where the tragic gets edified into beautiful abysses. This is not about regular abstraction. When you read these worlds, you feel an unusual and cool breeze drifting across your brow.

When I read poems by Wallace Stevens, I seem to be reading an expansion of the world into those ghostly coordinates. I’m transfixed, even as I move through the shadows of his lines. For a little while, poetry gets to perform its aesthetic and spiritual work of abstractive redemption.


Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.
This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one…
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.




Posted by Tim Buck



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