Mark Halliday

Mark Halliday: On "Of Modern Poetry"

His Collected Poems is not the book a reader might expect from the author of these appealing lines about what modern poetry requires:

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.

It has to face the men of the time and to meet

The women of the time ...

                                    It must

Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may

Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman 


Admittedly, to quote only these lines from "Of Modern Poetry" is to distort the poem by avoiding the lines where Stevens stresses the subjective and solitary quality of the poetic event as it occurs wholly within the mind, performed by and for the mind. Nevertheless, the lines quoted above have crucial force in the emotional effect of the poem. They seem to propose a tenderly accurate perception of the lives of individual human others as an obligation of the modern poem, an obligation whose respectful fulfillment will lead to satisfaction. Surely it is hard to hear those lines without feeling that the satisfaction to be derived from the kind of poetry thus recommended will involve, or will at least facilitate, some amelioration of the relations between people, between the poet and the men and women who are to be faced and met. Stevens undoubtedly knew, and intended, that such encouragement concerning interpersonal relationships (as a matter beyond the scope of the solitary mind's satisfaction with itself) would be a palpable component of the poem's emotional impact. He knew, moreover, that to give this lovely emphasis to poetry's capacity for the imaginative encountering of other persons was to invoke an available tradition in English and American poetry distinguishable from, though often co-present with, the tradition of the lyrical "I" who contemplates his own relation to life (Nature, time, memory, love, death) and distinguishable as well from the tradition of the representative speaker who can use the word "we" in uttering something true for all human beings. One kind of great precedent, in the work of achieving penetrating awareness of the lives of persons different from the poet, is of course provided by the dramatic monologues of Tennyson and Browning. But Wordsworth and Whitman are the poets whose efforts to recognize other persons give the cited lines of "Of Modern Poetry" their most resonant ancestry.

From Stevens and the Impersonal. Copyright © 1992 by Princeton University Press.

Mark Halliday: On "Mozart, 1935'

In"Mozart,1935," "The snow is falling / And the streets are full of cries." How shall the poet respond?

Poet, be seated at the piano.

Play the present, its hoo-hoo-hoo,

Its shoo-shoo-shoo, its ric-a-nic,

Its envious cachinnation.

The job to be done is not an attractive one, as Stevens indicates by nonsense syllables whose vulgarity testifies to the miserable gulf between 1935 and the delicate sounds of Mozart. The nonsense syllables, moreover, erect a blank wall of sound between the poet and the real human cries in the street. To summarize those cries as "hoo-hoo-hoo" and equate this noise with "shoo-shoo-shoo" is to postpone the human seriousness of those cries. Notice that the noise of the present is characterized as "envious". If the "cachinnation" (loud harsh laughter) emanates from people who can't find work and can't feed their children, people whose "cries" fill the streets, the adjective selected seems tellingly unsympathetic. (Notice also the inclination to meld cries with laughter, as if from the poet's distance all human noises sound the same. More on this point later.) The poet-pianist is estranged from the street people, at least so long as he devotes himself to Mozart's "lucid souvenir of the past":

If they throw stones upon the roof

While you practice arpeggios,

It is because they carry down the stairs

A body in rags.

Be seated at the piano.

The poem, especially in the above stanza, provides a startling intimation of a need for political relevance in art--startling, that is, from Stevens, who vigorously opposed demands for such relevance in many letters and in "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words." The pianist is summoned to "Strike the piercing chord" of a new music which will express the suffering of all those people whose losses have been symbolically aggregated into "A body in rags.""

There is an urgency in the summoning of the poet-pianist to his new work, urgency caused by the importunate quality of suffering when we cannot look away from it. We can dodge the apprehension of severe pain in others--and most of this chapter will examine methods for such dodging--but when it is immediately before our eyes, it produces not only fascination but also an instinctive (at any rate, deep and prerational) sense of imperiously required response. (In this respect the apprehension of suffering in others is like sexual desire for another person--a second kind of importuning of the self which generated great anxiety in Stevens. This will be the focus of chapter 2.) Admittedly our range of responses to vivid suffering in others includes noncompassionate responses, such as flight from the scene, passionate denial of the reality of what we have witnessed, and even sadistic desire to prolong or intensify the suffering. But none of these is a calm, relaxed response; my point is that severe pain undergone directly in front of a viewer normally jolts the viewer into a sense that something must quickly be done. In "Mozart, 1935" the stress of this sense of obligation is manifested both by the baldness of the terms of confrontation with suffering and by the effortful didacticism with which Stevens tries to control and cool the inflamed problem of injured others:

[Halliday quotes lines 16-24]

A different poet--one more like Thomas Hardy, or more like William Carlos Williams, or more like Kenneth Fearing (a significant poet of social protest in the thirties)--having turned to face the "angry fear" of people, would feel that his poem's project must be to explore "this besieging pain" and to show forth its lineaments. Stevens, however, is interested not in writing about the street, but in writing about the problem of writing about the street. "Mozart, 1935" is a poem about poems that will do the work it does not itself undertake. Stevens' earnest wish to maintain a distance from the turmoil of others' experience is reflected by his stern insistence on the word "thou," which is repeated four times in the two stanzas just quoted and returns as the final word of the poem. Stevens does not want the poet to be one person among others, a "you" among "yous." Indeed, he judges that for the poet-pianist to perform the new work, to strike the piercing chord, it will be necessary for him to adopt a status and a role larger and more central than mere individual selfhood: "Be thou the voice, / Not you." Stevens requires an artist abstracted from--and thus, we may suggest, protected from--the mess of injured egos and competing claims out there where "the streets are full of cries." When such a distance is preserved, a satisfactory outcome of the poet's effort to respond to those cries can be much more readily imagined by Stevens; the poem can arrive at "a starry placating" just five lines after "this besieging pain." The arrival can come so soon because the poet, functioning austerely as a "thou" (not a mere "you"), has stayed in generality, abstracting countless instances of suffering into simple terms--a body in rags, fear, pain, cries--whose generality renders them swiftly manageable.

But what then does Stevens' poet-pianist manage in response to the social conditions of 1935? What is a "starry placating"? Educated by other Stevens poems, we may presume it is a spirit of acceptance, in which the people's longings are calmed, though perhaps only provisionally and temporarily, that is, they are placated. It is acceptance of the human lot through acceptance of the natural universe--"Merely in living as and where we live," as Stevens puts it wistfully in the last line of "Esthétique du Mal" (CP 326)--this acceptance to be nurtured by the supreme fictions of poetry. "Starry" seems to mean "imaginary." We notice that this achievement of a starry placating is not to involve any attempt to change the social conditions that have brought others' pain to Stevens' attention. Sorrow is not to be remedied, nor even alleviated, but "released, / Dismissed, absolved . . . " We should wonder why suffering would need absolution--is it sinful? Has suffering come from a spiritual failure on the part of the suffering people? The poem is elusive about this, but it is sure that what the people need is a new way of thinking, not just food, shelter, jobs.

From Stevens and the Impersonal. Copyright © 1991 by Princeton University Press.

Mark Halliday: On "Peter Quince at the Clavier"

His most convincing expression of sexual desire, though, is in "Peter Quince at the Clavier," where the red-eyed elders are bewitched into a dissonant concerto of yearning by the sight of Susanna bathing. Does this poem endow Susanna with human identity? Is she more than just an attractive shape beside a garden pool? She at least has a name, which is more than can be said for the other beauties referred to so far (except Ursula). It is true that in section II of "Peter Quince" Susanna is given a point of view. Her thoughts, though, are awfully nebulous:

She searched

The touch of springs,

And found

Concealed imaginings.

She sighed,

For so much melody.

So nebulous that we are certainly not encouraged to think of her as a particular woman with a particular personality. Meanwhile, it is easy to overlook the fact that the poet's reverie about Susanna is apparently stimulated by the beauty of another woman, a present woman:

            what I feel,

Here in this room, desiring you,


Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk, 

Is music. It is like the strain

Waked in the elders by Susanna.

As I will explain later, I don't think the mere attribution of a blue garment to this present figure (blue being associated with the imagination in Stevens' oeuvre) suffices as proof that the "you" is an aspect of the speaker's mind rather than a woman, nor can I believe that Stevens intended us to hear the passage only in that way. When the poet informs the woman in the blue dress that what he feels for her is music, she might be forgiven if she replied, "Oh, is that so? Does this mean we won't be going to bed together?" Also she might be wise to wonder whether this lover who claims to be thinking not exactly of her but of her blue-shadowed silk will be able and willing to give her the kind of personal attention she deserves.

Such thoughts on her part would, one feels, be unlikely to please Mr. Stevens (or Mr. Quince), if she were to voice them. Here I think it is apposite to quote a reminiscence by Naaman Corn, who was the chauffeur for the Stevenses on family outings:

He didn't carry on any conversation with Mrs. Stevens much about something. She wouldn't talk on account of he would snap at her quickly. So she got where she just went in a shell, and she wouldn't say anything. One time I thought she couldn't talk because she never did say nothing, but I found out why. If every time you say something to a person, you're going to snap at them, they quit talking. They go underground. You could hear that, and you figured that's the reason why she clams up.

With no one to help her in her victimization except "simpering Byzantines," Susanna has no chance to make her case against the guilty elders; trapped in a poem controlled by Peter Quince, she can only clam up and go underground.

By being so attractive, Susanna causes a lot of trouble, for the elders and for her Byzantines as well as for herself (even though "The fitful tracing of a portal" is a lullingly cleansed way of alluding to rape fantasies). The very simplicity and clarity of her appeal make her alarming, an unavoidable disturbance of the peace. In situations when our poet, or his male speaker, cannot for some reason commit himself to a decisive, simple sexual response to such a woman's appeal, he is inclined to propose revisions of her behavior, or reconceptions of her nature, so that her appeal will not be so bluntly sexual in its impact. . . .

Stevens himself would perhaps disdain my literal-minded argument on behalf of the actual human women glimpsed in his poetry. He would feel amused pity for readers who find the wrong kind of solace in his "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour." Readers who worry about the strength and value of their love relationships with other people feel a powerful attraction in the matching of the word "together" with the word "enough" in the poem's ending: "We make a dwelling in the evening air, / In which being there together is enough" (CP 524). Alas, it is not a man and a woman who live together in this poem; it is not two persons; the title of "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour" makes this clear. Note, however, that if the poem is looked at without its title, a reader can justifiably feel invited to think of two persons who have joined in love. And in many Stevens poems, including those I have discussed thus far and most of those I will soon speak of, the female lover is not so decisively dehumanized, nor the idea of an actual human lover so firmly repudiated, as the title of this particular poem requires.

I think we are wrong to so readily accept the notion that Stevens can evoke a beautiful "woman" in poem after poem and mean "only" an idea, a conception, an attitude, a principle, but not an actual woman. My argument is that you cannot describe something as "a woman" without meaning something about actual women. Metaphors are not innocent in either direction. When you say that A is like B, you reveal something about your sense of A and your sense of B as actualities in your experience. Stevens' critics, fascinated by the metaphysical meaning of his female presences, have indulged him too gently in accepting them as only metaphysical. Critics sometimes go to absurd lengths to let Stevens escape from moral implications in this way. Here, for example, is Eugene Paul Nassar on "Peter Quince at the Clavier":

"Peter Quince" is really a poem about the imaginative faculty, its seasons and its value. It is not a poem about love between the sexes, nor in any way about relations between people. It is, rather, about the poet in solitude carrying on his sometime love affair with his "interior paramour," she who brings forth each "spring" children of desire that of necessity must be raped in "autumn." "Peter Quince" is an "amoral" poem in that it does not deal with moral problems at all, but with the inevitable cycle of creation and destruction that is the life of the poetic mind. The skeptical poet has his own obligations to his poems, the "Susannas" he creates, which are antithetical to the obligations that obtain in the love of one person for another.

To some extent, I'm afraid, Stevens would endorse Nassar's rather repellent interpretation. Yet consider: Stevens knew perfectly well, when he was writing his stanzas about Susanna and the elders, that he was causing us to think about (among other things, yes, but first and most vividly) an actual vulnerable woman and actual lustful old men and actual sexual molestation. Stevens was choosing to affect our ways of thinking about such people and such events. If he tells us the story of an attempted rape in an imaginative context that guides us toward accepting the event as inevitable and even conducive to poetic creation, as Nassar suggests, then Stevens is doing something that has moral implications for which he bears some moral responsibility. Similarly, whenever he speaks to us metaphorically in terms of romantic love, sexuality, or femininity, one of the things he is doing is describing, and influencing (or seeking to influence) our understanding of interpersonal love, actual sex, and real-life women. When he writes in "Adagia" (OP 165), "A poet looks at the world as a man looks at a woman," he proposes to explain something about the relation between poet and world by analogy with what he assumes to be the more obvious relation between a man and a woman. A sexually desirable woman? The analogy doesn't explicitly include this meaning but does deliberately call it to mind. Stevens' confidence in the analogy, and his tone of approval, are not shaken by the fact that the analogy locates all human subjectivity and agency in the male hero. As before, whether he encourages us to focus on this truth or not, Stevens is partly writing about people.

It is on that basis that I have seen fit to discuss Stevens' habitual failure or refusal to present images of mutual love or two-way relationship between individual men and women; and on that basis I maintain that my point is not vaporized by the objection that Stevens does not (primarily) intend to refer to real women in many of his references to femininity. Besides, as Helen Vendler has persuasively argued, Stevens' veiling of his references to sex and love has hidden his study of sexual desire and romantic/sexual emotions more effectively than he himself ultimately must have intended.

The pattern I have shown is one of consistent failure by Stevens to describe the female other as a fully human individual, as a separate subjectivity, an independent actor and perceiver outside his own mind. This has held true across a spectrum of attitudes toward love, from aggressively candid sexuality at one extreme to ontological mystery at the other extreme. Stevens is not inclined to pay steady attention to real women in writing of romantic/sexual love. Real women cause problems; they impinge. They impinge upon the male poet's freedom by exciting an animal desire which is too simple and vulgar, unimaginative and therefore deathly, or by calling for delusory romantic revisions of desire, which are also deathly when they pull him too far from reality.

From Stevens and the Impersonal. Copyright © 1991 by Princeton University Press.

Mark Halliday: On "Floral Decoration for Bananas"

In a more mischievous mood, he gives instructions in "Floral Decorations for Bananas" whereby the too obviously sexual bananas – "These insolent, linear peels" – ought to be either replaced or disguised. The danger of blatant sexuality, however, turns out to be focused here not in hungry masculinity (as those phallic bananas might have indicated) but in teasing femininity: "The women will be all shanks / And bangles and slatted eyes." While this is a humorous poem, it is nonetheless a palpably uneasy expression of Stevens’ fear of the force of female sexuality. He goes on to recommend an accommodation of those bananas which will make them less drastically noticeable, but the floral decorations meant to surround them have a moist vigor of their own which takes over the poem’s last stanza and gets the last word:

And deck the bananas in leaves

Plucked from the Carib trees,

Fibrous and dangling down,

Oozing cantankerous gum

Out of their purple maws,

Darting out of their purple craws

Their musky and tingling tongues.

Female sexuality is felt to be something that can get out of hand, and drive a man crazy. Stevens’ sense of feminine attractiveness as a terrible threat to a man’s composure is reflected in this alarmingly discomposed remark from [Stevens’ essay on poetry entitled] "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words": "Democritus plucked his eye out because he could not look at a woman without thinking of her as a woman. If he had read a few of our novels, he would have torn himself to pieces."

From Mark Halliday, Stevens and the Interpersonal (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 48.