Anthony Whiting

Anthony Whiting: On "The Plain Sense of Things"

Instead of evoking the plain sense of things by creating a construct, Stevens evokes the outer in "Plain Sense" by imagining not simply the absence of any construct, but the absence of the faculty that creates the constructs. Paradoxically, though, the imagining of the absence of the imagination is itself a powerful expression of the creative activity of the imagination, "the absence of the imagination had / Itself to be imagined" (CP 503). The poem seems to uncover the plain sense of things through a kind of creative anticreativity, the imagination imagining its own absence.

From The Never-Resting Mind: Wallace Stevens' Romantic Irony. Copyright © 1996 by the University of Michigan.

Anthony Whiting: On "Study of Two Pears"

Stevens undermines a single, reductive point of view again in a later poem, "Study of Two Pears." . . .

. . . the speaker of the poem is the reductionist. The speaker insists that pears are unique natural forms that have no resemblance to anything else. "The pears are not viols, / Nudes or bottles. / They resemble nothing else" ( CP 196). And the poem ends with the words, "The pears are not seen / As the observer wills" (CP 197), which can be read as a final assertion that the pears resist the observer's will to transform them into something else through resemblance. Stevens writes in "Three Academic Pieces" that ''as to the resemblance between things in nature, it should be observed that resemblance constitutes a relation between them since, in some sense, all things resemble each other" (NA 71). He goes on to discuss resemblances between things in nature and things of the imagination, and he comments that "Poetry is a satisfying of the desire for resemblance" (NA 77). In denying that the pears resemble anything else, then, the speaker of "Study of Two Pears" takes a decidedly antipoetic stance. But it is a stance that the speaker unknowingly subverts. In the process of defining what the pears are not, the speaker creates resemblances between them and other things in nature (viols, nudes, bottles), and between them and artistic representations of them. . . . In trying to define the pears by excluding everything else, the speaker shows us that it is impossible not to relate the pears to things in nature and to things created by the imagination. Ironically, the speaker's attempt to eliminate resemblances results in a "satisfying of the desire for resemblance."

. . . In "Study of Two Pears," the speaker's attempt to describe the pears by denying their resemblance to other things results in showing us how many things they do resemble. The centripetal force of reduction and exclusion becomes the centrifugal force of differentiation and dispersion as, through resemblance, the contexts in which Stevens presents the pear expands.

From The Never-Resting Mind: Wallace Stevens' Romantic Irony. Copyright © 1996 by the University of Michigan.

Anthony Whiting: On "The Snow Man"

The opening lines could almost be an imagist exercise. At the least, they avoid the "don'ts" that Pound laid down in his 1913 essay on imagism: "Use no superfluous word," "Go in fear of abstractions," "Don't be 'viewy.'" The landscape depicted in these lines, however, is far from being stripped bare of the self. The highly decorative language used to describe the landscape suggests that sight itself is a mode of self-projection. The pine trees are crusted with snow; the junipers areshagged with ice, and the spruces are rough in the distant glitter. The landscape that is seen is the landscape that the mind beautifully "decorates" with language.

This self-projection is stripped away in the next six lines, which shift from a visual to an aural mode:

                            and not to think 

Of any misery in the sound of the wind, 

In the sound of a few leaves,

 

Which is the sound of the land 

Full of the same wind 

That is blowing in the same bare place.

The shift from sight to sound is telling. Stevens often opposes human language to the language or speech of nature, which, being inhuman, is to us pure sound. In "The Idea of Order at Key West," for example, Stevens writes,

Whose spirit is this?

. . . . . . . 

If it was only the outer voice of sky 

And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled, 

However clear, it would have been deep air, 

The heaving speech of air, a summer sound 

Repeated in a summer without end 

And sound alone.

We hear the "speech" of nature again in "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction," and there, as in "The Idea of Order at Key West," the language spoken by the "fluent mundo" is pure sound, what Stevens calls "gibberish" (CP 396). The sound of the wind "blowing in the same bare place" in "The Snow Man" anticipates, how-ever, not the "summer sound" of "Key West" but the "desolate sound" that is heard "beneath / The stillness of everything gone" in " Autumn Refrain" (CP 160) and "the cry of the leaves" that "concerns no one at all" in "The Course of a Particular" (OP 123, 124). The movement in "The Snow Man " from a visual mode to an aural one, then, signals a further reduction of the mind's presence in the landscape. By stripping away its decorative projections onto the landscape through the language of sight, the mind is left with the sound of bare nature.

Yet even sound in "The Snow Man" can be a vehicle for self-projection. Stevens does not directly attribute misery to the sound of the wind. He says that one must be cold a long time not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind. What Stevens is asking is whether one can be cold enough to hear the language of nature and not turn it into human language by attributing misery to it. The final lines of the poem suggest that this degree of cold can be reached.

For the listener, who listens in the snow, 

And, nothing himself, beholds 

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

To behold nothing that is not there is to behold reality stripped of all that the self attributes to it. Since misery is not part of nature but something that the self adds to it, to behold nothing that is not there suggests that it is possible not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind.

The reduction of all concepts from nature in "The Snow Man" turns the mind's attention from the world created by the self to the larger universe. This redirection of the mind's gaze is expressed in part through the subtle change in perspective from the particular and located to the unspecified and vast that occurs in the poem. Stevens begins this shift in perspective with the change from the very close detail of the "pine-trees crusted with snow" (CP 9; emphasis added) to the particular but more remote "spruces rough in the distant glitter" (CP 10; emphasis added). In lines 7-12, Stevens drops spatial metaphors altogether, and he shifts from the distant glitter of the spruces to the unlocated though particularized "sound of a few leaves" (CP 10). The particularity of the "few leaves" is dropped for the less specified "sound of the land," which in turn gives way to a "bare place" (CP 10). And even this bare place threatens to evaporate in the repeated "nothing"s of the final two lines.

Stevens' use of the word "behold" also contributes to the sense that the mind is apprehending the larger universe at the end of "The Snow Man." "Behold" suggests in addition that Stevens views this apprehension as an extraordinary moment of heightened intensity. As well as expressing a sense of possession, the word "behold" also expresses a sense of revelation, in the biblical sense of the revelation of extraordinary things. We "behold" acts of God, miracles, mysteries. "Behold," God said after creating the world, "I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree" (Gen. 1:29). As "The Snow Man " moves toward its reductive extreme, the perspective widens and the tone of the poem becomes elevated and more serious. At the poem's conclusion, "the nothing that is," pure being, is beheld, magisterially "revealed" and "possessed." . . .

"The Snow Man" also points to the need for creative activity. It sets itself against the modernist impulse, seen in Pound and Williams, that would restrict the mind's activity to selecting and arranging experience but not adding to it by showing that without the active contribution of the mind, the world can only be apprehended as "the nothing that is." It is a point that Stevens will return to thirty years later in his discussion of "modern reality" in "The Relations between Poetry and Painting." "She [Simone Weil] says that decreation is making pass from the created to the uncreated, but that destruction is making pass from the created to nothingness. Modern reality is a reality of decreation, in which our revelations are not the revelations of belief, but the precious portents of our own powers" (NA 174-75). In Stevens' usage, decreation has two aspects. The first, seen at perhaps its most extreme in "The Snow Man," is "making pass from the created to the uncreated." By decreating its projections on to the world, the mind beholds not "nothingness" but "the nothing that is." This reductive process leads to a recognition of our creative power, that is, our power to create what Stevens says painters such as Cezanne and Klee create, "a new reality" (NA 174).

From The Never-Resting Mind: Wallace Stevens' Romantic Irony. Copyright © 1996 by the University of Michigan.

Anthony Whiting: On "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon"

For Hoon, as for the Hegelian and Kierkegaardian ironists, the world is both created by and an aspect of his ego. "I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw / Or heard or felt came not but from myself" (CP 65). Nothing, as Bloom observes, is exterior to Hoon. "Seeing, hearing, and feeling find objects only from his own self, and nothing through which he moves is outside him." The sea sweeps through Hoon, but since he is the "compass" of the sea, its movement has direction only in relation to him. Whatever hymns he hears are hymns he creates. The sprinkling of ointment on his beard is a parody of the ceremony in which God's elect is anointed with oil or ointment. Hoon dissolves the distinction between anointer and anointed, elected and elector. "What was the ointment sprinkled on my beard? / . . . Out of my mind the golden ointment rained" (CP 65). There can be no distinction in Hoon' s world between himself and what he sees or hears or feels or between himself as anointer or anointed because, finally, everything is an aspect of his ego. Dressed in purple, the color of royalty, Hoon, like the romantic ironist portrayed by Hegel, is "lord and master of everything" (A 64).

Stevens describes Hoon in a later poem, "Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz," as

that mountain-minded Hoon, 

For whom desire was never that of the waltz,

 

Who found all form and order in solitude, 

For whom the shapes were never the figures of men. (CP 121)

For Hoon the shapes are never the figures of men because it is his will alone that is expressed in his world. Though Stevens describes Hoon as finding "all form and order in solitude," yet Hoon denies at the beginning of the poem that his solitude is a lonely one. "I descended / The western day through what you called / The loneliest air" (CP 65). "You" and not Hoon call the air "lonely." Part of the reason that his solitude is not lonely is suggested in Stevens' comment that for Hoon "desire was never that of the waltz." Desire, that is, has no social or interpersonal component. Though it is not directed outward toward another person or toward society at large, yet desire is not unfulfilled. Hoon finds the world as himself, and in doing so, desire is turned back to and finds satisfaction in the self. The air is not lonely to Hoon because the pleasure he takes in himself eliminates the need for anyone but himself. Hoon's enclosure and the sense of pleasure that he takes in discovering the world as the self recall Hegel' s description of romantic irony as a " concentration of the ego into itself, for which all bonds are snapped and which can live only in the bliss of self- enjoyment" (A 66).

Both the sense of creativity and the sense of pleasure expressed in "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon" differ from the kind of creativity and pleasure expressed in the irony of skeptical engagement. In the Ozymandias canto of "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction," for example, the mind marries the world through the fictions it creates. And because the process of creation is ongoing, the mind's experience of the world is seen as becoming richer and more diverse. To create in "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon" is to turn the world into the self and hence negate the world. This narcissism stands in opposition both to poems such as "The Man with the Blue Guitar," canto XXIV, where the self, through art, takes pleasure in reality, and to "The Snow Man," whose reduction of all fictions to "nothing," a reduction in which the self turns away from itself and beholds the universe at large, can be seen as Stevens' most severe criticism of the self-love expressed by Hoon.

From The Never-Resting Mind: Wallace Stevens' Romantic Irony. Copyright © 1996 by the University of Michigan.