Joseph Riddel

Joseph Riddel: On "Of Mere Being"

"What are we to make of this late Stevens? Is he a man satisfied with his edgings and inchings, with the swarming activities of "statement, directly and indirectly getting at"? … Coming upon one of Stevens’ last edgings and inchings, a poem cryptically entitled "Of Mere Being," the critic is hard put to place his man. Does the "mere" of the title mean "simple" or "pure"? and does Stevens at last transcend (or inscend?) the physical to discover a central, the thing itself? [Here is quoted the poem in its entirety.] Beyond thought, beyond reason – here in the intuitive moment one perceives "mere being" but still perceives that one is perceiving. What he knows of mere being is a "palm" (a form, a faith?) beyond the physicality of tree and a bird’s song without meaning. Unreal, yes! – but that is Stevens" word for the reality of poetry, the "one of fictive music." What one knows of mere being is an image on the edge of space. at that point where being becomes nothingness. Is this not to prove the ultimate creativity of self, of the mind which must always conceive a reality beyond form or metaphor, beyond thought, but nevertheless at the end of, not outside, the mind?"

Joseph Riddel: On "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, Book I"

"Asphodel". . .speaks from a plane beyond differentiation, from the site of memory where "all appears/ as if seen/ wavering through water," perspectiveless like the time of beginning itself. It is a "cry/ of recognition" which penetrates the veil of history to connect his "Approaching death" with his origins. Interestingly, it has been the poem most praised by critics because of Williams' late breakthrough, presumably like Stevens', to a new lyricism. And this signifies not simply an advance beyond Paterson but a reversal, perhaps, ironically, a return to the tradition. But the tradition to which "Asphodel" appeals is that of the "rituals of the hunt/ on the walls/ of prehistoric// caves in the Pyrenees." As was suggested earlier, the caves offer man a present entry into time and place, of the primordial origins of art itself. At the impending moment of his own death, the poet sings of origins: the "cave" which is both beginning and end, and the "hunt" or quest to which man is compelled in his desire.

"Asphodel". . .comes very near to suggesting a poetics no longer resigned to failure or to the hermeneutical circle. It comes very near to insisting that the "secret word" has been possessed, the son reconciled with the father, and thus a language fully achieved--that the "place/ dedicated in the imagination/ to memory// of the dead" has come to be more real than the world. . . .It is not a poem of quest or effort, but a dream of virtue recovered and held "against time."

From The Inverted Bell: Modernism and the Counterpoetics of William Carlos Williams. Copyright © 1974 by Louisiana State University Press.