The Letter Project

December 20, 2009

Special Delivery(46)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 12:54 am
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In this letter to me, Ryan Wilson travels into Wallace Stevens’ poetry.  The letter came about as a result of an offhand remark I made to Ryan on the Internet about teaching Stevens and wishing I had more insight into the man and his work. 

Ryan Wilson holds an MFA in poetry from The Johns Hopkins University, where he won the Sankey Fellowship in poetry, and an MFA from Boston University where he won the Schmuel Traum Translation Prize. His most recent publications are in Unsplendid, Measure, and The Lyric. –TW

 Dear Theresa,

I hope this finds you healthy and happy in Ohio. It’s good to be back in touch after so long. Autumn has almost finished splashing its paints around down here, and winter is breathing deeply in the wings, eager to assert its Malevichian supremacy. Autumn in Georgia, unlike up north, is a graffiti spree, an act of rebellion that lasts for, seemingly, a few days, ruining the summer gaucheries overnight and stealing away hurriedly before winter arrives in its august uniform to perform its corrective offices. As I remember, up north, autumn is a season of languor, slow and methodical in temperament, a slow pageant of crepuscular colors, the taste of wood-smoke and a ghost of apples on the tongue. Not so, here. In Georgia, autumn is an act of juvenile delinquency.

I’m happy to hear you’re teaching the poems of Lawrence, Frost, and, most especially, the exquisite Edward Thomas, whose Classical restraint I find unparalleled among the catawampus figures cut by all those great Moderns… “Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved, / Cold, and yet had heat within me that was proof / Against the north wind, tired, yet so that rest / had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.” Wonderful…But I told you I would write regarding Stevens.

Let me begin by saying that, as you know, I am not a “scholar,” nor, in particular, a Stevensian scholar. So the following remarks will be, by and large, the impressionistic commentary of a possibly insane mind which has found Stevens perpetually stimulating. Secondly, I should add that the following notes will be concerned, primarily, with presenting the mind-set from which I approach Stevens, and from which, I believe, it is necessary to approach Stevens in order to appreciate both his successes and his failures.

Stevens’ work presents the attempts of a man, in my opinion, to unify the Classical world and the world of the moderns; it is a unique, in America, attempt to unite the cosmopolitan ideologies of the French Symbolists with the timeless concerns of antiquity upon which all modern civilizations have been built. In order to sympathize with this weltbild, we must start with the Symbolists. Baudelaire, in his extraordinary “Correspondences,” proclaims, Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se respondent … [1]  For Baudelaire, the state of reverie in which the mind finds in dissimilarities similarities was a state of holiness, an approaching of the mind of God, which unites all things.

If we examine what this state is, this state which blends the seemingly arbitrary together in Proustian fashion—the madeleine evoking a childhood—we see that this is the state when we evacuate our consciousness’s premises. When we no longer attempt to perceive what is immediately around us, when we approach non-existence, we suddenly find this unity overtake us. And this is why I would, despite his career and its lucre, and despite his snazzy suits, argue Stevens looked at Dionysus as his divine σúμμαχος . [2]

There is a myth about Dionysus, that he was torn to pieces by his followers, who then ate him. Later, yet still centuries before Jesus, he was resurrected. If we understand Dionysus to be that which is wild, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, we might perceive Dionysus to be the world before it is seen. He is the “nothing that is,” which we cannot see, unless we become snow-men, or dead things. When the mind enters the state of reverie, it approaches Dionysus, the unseen world. When we enter this state, the delineation of objects—which we rely upon to construct reason, to establish order, and to build all the myriad systems of thought which have served as foundations to civilizations— disappears. We realize that the world outside the self is one stuff, and that we are alienated from that stuff by consciousness, as the tale of the Garden of Eden, and the tale of Prometheus, and a great number of similar tales indicate. That is: Dionysus is the world before consciousness shapes it. That there is a world prior to the world of consciousness implies that the world of consciousness is fraudulent. When we perceive the world, rather than perceiving its unity, we see it piece by piece and, in seeing it, we take it into ourselves. That is: we rip Dionysus apart and ingest him, piece by piece. The great artist is the artist who can resurrect him, who can communicate the disordered and the wild which is the real, a circumstance which, of course, presents us with a paradox, as it requires speech to speak silence, presence absence.

Stevens borrowed from the Symbolists the techniques they used to attempt such a resurrection. Often, Stevens uses sound for the sake of sound, disregarding the signified which his signifiers point to in favor of music (for instance, when Stevens says people “will not dream baboons and periwinkles,” the primates and that actual light blue hue are irrelevant…the sense is in the sound: folks won’t dream strangely, or, as Anthony Hecht later and aptly put it, “Nobody will fly or turn into a moose”). It may be useful to keep in mind Pater’s edict: all arts aspire to be music. That is, music can communicate without representation, and all art forms, eventually, try to communicate without objective representation: they become expressive. Stevens is an expressive poet, and he attempts, like Mallarmé and Lewis Carroll before him, to make nonsense sense. To appreciate these sonic maneuvers, one must abandon the imminently useful techniques of the New Criticism and simply experience the poem, as if it were a painting, or a sonata. One’s first, almost unconscious, response is more likely to be correct than one’s 25th, reliant upon reason and systematic thought.

The reason Stevens employs these sonic techniques is that, by abandoning the material world tethered to our sounds, he attempts, and often succeeds, in escaping the material world, which is nothing if not our refuge in reduction. Stevens tries to reconnect us with the wildness before our lines are drawn. In this, he is the consummate poet. One way to understand this is that most of our language has been corrupted and diluted… Vernehmen wir und reden viele Worte , [3] as Hugo von Hoffmansthal commented… The words, “I love you,” which can, on occasion, be the most powerful three words in English, when spoken over and again, lose their meaning. One must come up with new ways to say this phrase to revitalize it in order to make the sentiment real again. Such a resurrection would be a pretty good definition of poetry, and it is a definition of what Stevens’ work tries to do. He wants to estrange the things we think we know in order to connect us to their primeval origins, their wildness, their power, their reality.

Along the same lines, Stevens also uses narrative in a lyric fashion, or makes external events symbols of the internal. A poem like “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” presents a narrative dramatic monologue that is ultimately a lyric, in that it is a narrative of the soul. The external or material elements in Stevens are rarely anything other than Emersonian correspondents for his interior reality because, for Stevens, there is no way to reach outside the self. Of course, Stevens was not a solipsist, and he saw the dire philosophical repercussions of such an inability to escape the self, and he explored those repercussions in poems like “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts.” But, ultimately, this was Stevens’ fundamental starting point: that one cannot know anything other than the self. And he explored the subsequent duality: one can either live in fear and trembling (as in “Domination of Black”) or one can exploit the richness of the self and attempt the “supreme fiction.”

Finally, Stevens, for all his philosophical doubts, generally presents clarion-calls to leave the material world of presence and to enter the abstract world of absence. The oompa-loompa short lyrics, the great blank verse poems like “Sunday Morning” and “Ideas of Order…” are all calls to us to embark upon inward journeys, to wander around that internal island of Innisfree, to seek the truth.

The problem with Stevens is not really a problem with Stevens. The problem is that he has been misinterpreted as the High Priest of Quirk, and he has “inspired” a few generations, now, of poets to assume that quirky content is the way to poetry. Let me put that delusion to rest. Content is, to paraphrase Eliot, something like the meat you throw to a dog while you burgle the house. The subject matter is almost irrelevant in Stevens; what he is concerned with is the way of looking at the subject matter. Kazoos and hoola-hoops do not a poem make, but the preposterous sonic evocations of kazoos and hoola-hoops can stand in for the absurd, the way “baboons and periwinkles” stand in for the strange. This is Stevens’ move; to alienate sound and literal sense, to let sound BE the sense, to paint with sound…ut pictura poesis , [4] as Horace exquisitely put it. Bloom has argued Stevens is Whitman’s descendant; true, but only insofar as Stevens’ inclusivity is understood to be symbolic and sonic, not political or substantial (that is, based in things themselves). Certainly, he employs image patterns, his light and dark, his cats and his more exotic beasts, but these all conform to rudimentary Nietzschean philosophy and its dualism of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. But what makes Stevens a poet, and not a philosopher “gone in the teeth” (to borrow from Pound), is that the images are secondary, or even tertiary to the music and the idea…the way that in a Picasso the subject is barely relevant in the sweeping gusto of the vision. Stevens’ truth is in his vision, not in his subject, and this vision is the sight which sees sight sees nothing. Consequently, in Dionysian fashion, he seeks to abolish the entity called the “self.”

This Dionysian desire for self-obliteration, for negation as a means of returning to the source of life, explains a great deal of Stevens and of the Symbolists too. Stevens says that “death is the mother of beauty,” not a far cry from Rilke’s das Schöne ist nichts / als des Schrecklichen Anfang …, [5] and this sort of conceptual peripeteia comes from a vision that sees all things unified, a vision that has given paradox visceral power from Sappho and Aeschylus to the mystics to Oscar Wilde. And it is what gives Stevens’ vision power. Consciousness arose from darkness and chaos, but that chaos never went away. It is still the origin of humanity, and it has continued to govern people from before the beginning of time to the present day because people, in their desire for civilization, repress the chaos. Instead of denying it, Stevens, like the mystics and the Bacchae and a great many of the Existentialists, knows that we must acknowledge the chaos and the darkness, and we must work through it to attempt transcendence, or even to be, in any meaningful sense of the word. If we are not to be defeated by chaos, we must give in to it, and work toward a light on the other side, find the other side of the sun. Such a journey, if ever completed, would, of course, be the creation of a new species: man, as we know him, would not exist. He would become god, or übermensch, or nothingness. And that is where we strike pay-dirt in Stevens, real truth.

Truth is not what can be proved. Truth is that which we know inside ourselves and are unable to express. As Lao Tzu says, “The man who claims to speak the truth can never know it; the man who knows the truth can never speak it.” The truth is the internal and the irreducible. And it is forever in flux. Consequently, Stevens’ poems often seem a hodge-podge, or what the critics called Horace’s early work, a satur. There is no self. The contemporary idea of authenticity is absurd: authenticity is a trope. There is no reason things happen. There is only a hopeful little boat called reason on a sea of chaos. There are no lines, no shapes, no colors: these are only ideas. The real is the place where these all blend together, the place we cannot reach because we are alive and conscious, the place to which we will all return when we die, and in which we will live forever, unseen, unseeable, but there, haunting the living who know we’re there and yet out of reach. The present world is an illusion. It is absence that unites all things, since all things are doomed to disappear. And because absence is where all things become one, absence is god. To touch god, you must only open an empty hand. You must have empty hands, like a vagrant, like god, like a juvenile delinquent.

With hopes of utility and with goodness and warmth,

P.S. I’ve attached a little critical essay on Stevens, with hopes that it will, as I hope this epistle might, be of some use to you.

P.P.S. It occurred to me to translate some of the quotations enclosed herein because I don’t know which languages you read.

[1] The smells and colors and sounds blend together…

[2] “summachos”: “ally in battle” (Sappho 1…in reference to Aphrodite)

[3] “We hear and speak countless words” (“Ballade des äusseren Lebens”)

[4] “As it is for painting, so it is for poetry” (Horace, “Epistle to the Pisos”)

[5] “Beauty is nothing except the start of terror” (Duino Elegies, “Die Erste Elegie”)


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