Charles Altieri: On "Of Modern Poetry"
For my example from Stevens I want to skip ahead to a time when the Modernist experiments had been digested, so that an artist might reflect on the entire historical process, distilling the formative years of Modernism into a single abstraction about abstraction. No one lyric quite does that, but, as the criticism it has spawned indicates, Stevens's "Of Modern Poetry" comes as close as we are likely to get to the goal. Whereas Williams, in the essay on Matisse, saw the energy of the compositional act as the means to renew our sense of writing's possible relations to the concrete world, Stevens presents an introspective meditation on the significance of that ability to focus. He is less interested in the world of appearances per se, however composed, than in the way the powers of composition displayed in art afford principles for defining the self and for recovering, within a lucid Modernist consciousness, vital forms of old evaluative predicates such as "nobility" and .'freedom." That quest entails indulging in the same quasi-mystical language as that used by the founders of nonrepresentational art. But Stevens presents his claims so self-consciously, and so concretely, that he suggests the possibility of such diffuse abstractness making plain secular sense. . . .
The poem's concerns are obviously Romantic ones, yet both its vision and the basic means for realizing it are distinctively Modernist. Were this a meditative lyric by Wordsworth or Coleridge, looking within would be a corollary of aligning the self with energies in the natural world, but in Stevens's poem the world beyond the self has no symbolic resonance. That world enters the poem only as the force of historical change, destroying old fictions and making the demands that dominate the third stanza. As the mind tries to respond to all that history contaminates, it locates the necessary resources in its power of self-reflection. Different as these concerns are from Williams's, they still demand a version of his basic strategy: An authentic Modernism must be based on a fundamental contrast with some blocking condition in the very center of our capacity to represent experience. Only by such contrasts can the foregrounded compositional act exemplify a possible cure of the ground. But whereas Williams resists a flawed condition of apprehension (the woman's nakedness cannot be told), Stevens resists a flawed condition of judgment (the old theater's fixed scripts neither match modern reality nor indicate our capacity to fulfill ourselves in adapting to that reality). The new theater must prove itself by developing new ways of handling the baggage of discursive thought. At stake is not simply how we see objects, but how we conceive the nature of objectivity and the powers that produce it: how, in other words, we face the domestic entrapments so horrifying to Duchamp. Stevens's is a poetry about how the mind's eye can represent itself, when it reflects on its acts as metaphoric equivalents to the sun’s.
A lyric with such ambitions must render the mind as simultaneously subject and object of the poem: The essential affirmative content of the poem must reside in the quality of its self-defining activities. Thus, instead of seeking symbolic or dramatic resolutions in some illusionary world, Stevens's poem relies on its own structural and metaphoric processes as its means to express, and to test, its capacity to escape the initial state of bondage. The initial dramatic situation is defined simply by the mind's awareness of change and the sense of lack that this awareness generates. Modernist self-consciousness emerges as a process of negation, orienting itself through the lens of all we have lost or can no longer be: yet that sense of loss is not without compensations. It brings in its wake a harsh realism, no less threatening to our vanity, but nonetheless offering terms by which the mind can take responsibility for its situation. Therefore the poem quickly turns to a list of necessities, which takes form as a strange litany based on the refrain "it has to. " The formal repetition enables the mind to focus its attention on its own needs, processes, and powers, so that it can sustain a sense of responsibility sufficiently intense to inaugurate a counterpressure to the spirit of negation.
Defining that counterpressure poses the poem's most difficult challenge. Stevens must show how reflecting on necessities creates a stage for a responding act capable of a great deal more than contemplating its own victimization:
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation. speak words that in the ear . . .
Notice how the movement of these lines establishes a set of capacities entirely different from the poem's initial entrapment in its own pathos. The introductory theater metaphors had sustained a flat, prosaic syntax of isolated, brief clausal units. Self-consciousness begins in a domain of fact and tired language. With the litany, the language shifts to simple descriptive expressions, charged with syntactic urgency. Now the language once again changes, as we arrive at the need to construct on a stage. Similes and qualifications enter, and direct urgency gives way to a series of slowly unfolding repetitions and aural echoes that suspend the flow of thought into a lush state of reflective self-absorption.
The poem becomes its own subject, in every sense of that term. Its hovering over its own metaphors arouses, and justifies, an increasingly erotic inwardness (in the delicatest ear of the mind), suggesting that we participate on a new stage, where the process of abstraction can withdraw into itself that reality pursued by lovers of truth. Now it must be the words that become our actors, "heroic" by virtue of what they let an audience realize about its own powers. as it listens, "not to the play, but to itself, expressed / In an emotion as of two people, as of two / Emotions becoming one." What this heroism entails is perhaps clearest in the intricate evasions of the repeated ''as." An emotion that is ''as of two people" holds out the promise of also conjoining the two emotions into one, because anyone can share that ''as." Anyone can step back from her activities as an empirical subject in order to explore other forms of intentionality defining possible transpersonal forms that our desire can take. Is this not precisely what the poem is doing in asking us to participate in its own depersonalized structure of internal relations, as if we entered a work of music? When we share the ''as'' of comparison, linking the two emotions, we also share the ''as'' of temporal and qualitative equivalences linking the states of mind produced in, or as, those emotions.
These equivalences return us to Williams's "so." Now, though, the focus is less on the physical space that the equivalences make possible than on the processes of self-consciousness required to negotiate this poem. Stevens's equivalences serve primarily to compose a self-reflexive world that minds must admit they share. For then the poem, an act of mind, can provide concrete testimony for the values that can be attributed to such acts. Because we realize that it is ultimately the audience that gives substance and depth to the ''as," as it reads, we must treat reading as bound to the same stage and capable of sustaining the same process of self-articulation. We enter a strange intentional state in which we must look at our own reading processes as if they were not quite our own, not quite the possession of any one subject, because of the way that they distribute emotional investments, ''as of two emotions becoming one." Not as overtly radical as Duchamp, Stevens nonetheless demands the same flexible imagination in his audience, as it watches itself enter new structures of intentionality. The transpersonality there realized is, at best, potential or virtual, but once we see how the poem refers to its own activity, those virtual dimensions are inseparable from our reflections on the text. And once we allow such virtual states to take on reality , everything that Stevens had said about "nobility, " in his prose statement, begins to make clear sense. Substance has become subtlety, and the actor's composing of this theater has defined "precious portents of our own powers. " Yet these portents owe nothing to the bitter glass. They depend on minimal ideological claims and require no representation. Rather, they depend on our ability to look beyond the contents of our representations to the shareable virtual space produced by reflecting on what we must bring to the representations that can satisfy us. Eloquence itself floats free of its anchors in ideology, to embody powers that we cannot but see enacted in our own constructive activity as we participate in this theater.
Having so constructed this complex stage, Stevens goes on to describe the actor. The hero composed of these processes has the combined traits of the metaphysician and the musician, a blend of the most abstract and the most sensual of properties. Music provides the objective rhythms that physically align our bodies to the becoming of the emotions, and metaphysics adds the metaphoric scope that allows the bodies to inhabit the romance space initially opened by traditional ideals of truth. The hero, then, is anyone able to internalize the language that can make "rightnesses" out of listening to the music that the poem produces within the erotic movements of its own syntax. Because philosophy becomes less a descriptive quest than a means for positioning the mind so that it can appreciate what takes place in the self-reflexive acts that the discipline engenders, the poem's clarity about its own processes ultimately establishes a self-subsuming structure that literally enacts its basic claims. A mind displaced from the fixed scripts of a symbolic theater finds, simply in its own articulate rendering of its condition, a "strong exhilaration / Of what we feel from what we think" (Collected Poems 382).
By identifying itself with these "portents of its own powers, " the mind can reject the dangerous alternatives otherwise inescapable for self-reflexive Modernism. At one pole is the temptation to "rise" to a mystical aesthetics or a translunar paradise, where one imagines oneself dwelling in a realm beyond secular appearance. The other pole is an entrapment in infinite irony, the demonic "other" of transcendence. A mind unable to find a home for its powers descends to violent satiric energies or to self-negating processes as the only remaining authentic or lucid use of imaginative energy. For Stevens, though, the aim is to eliminate any sense that desire requires a specific domain where it can find adequate objects. Desire is fulfilled, not by possession but by reflection: by the satisfaction that comes from feeling that one's imaginative terms are defining the very needs they construct. Then there need be no fear of displacement, because there are no energies of thought that cannot be expressed and understood as potential lyric grounds for engaging self-reflexively in our common humanity at its most intense.
Full "containment" of the mind, however, demands more than this state of participation. Stevens wants us to be able to reflect upon that condition as itself composing a distinct imaginative site, where we see, in concrete figurative terms, what these levels of containment make available. So Stevens turns to another aspect of form, using his conclusion to indicate how the poem's abstract patterns give substance to the self-reflection that they free from dramatic illusionism. Formal structure becomes the means to articulate the ultimate grounds that warrant the poem's status as a transpersonal schema for the experience of value.
First, the climactic "[it] may be," in the last stanza, connects these concluding lines to the earlier pressures imposed by the "it has to" and "it must." The pattern so formed defines a thematic progression from the recognition of external necessity, to an internal alignment of one's choice with one's fated chance, to a resulting freedom to revel in all contingencies. Having accepted his confinement within history, the mind can value all of the particulars that constitute its place and provide it with terms for reflecting on its relation to that place. This acceptance then produces a second, pronounced formal pattern that clarifies the relational principles on which the entire act of mind depends. As the poem steps free at the end into pure particulars, it also steps back, to repeat the sense and syntax of the opening line, thus making "the poem of the act of mind," a physical framework that is literally the ground for the theatrical gestures. That echo, that end in its beginning, insistently refuses all transitive verbs, as if the delicate sonorities of the third stanza were only segments of a finer, more encompassing, quasi-physical space that only words can compose. The framing gestures give the poetic voice the aura of serving as the mind's body, now able to account for the eros charging all of the particulars that enter this action. By syntactically projecting a dimension of the "act of mind" that exists outside of time, the denial of transitivity and the repetition suggest the quality of meditative theater, composed by and hushed for the sounds that can wholly contain the mind as it links author with audience in a site on the margin of history.
To view these static qualities as pure aesthetic form, however, would be to impose contraries where Stevens sees complements operating on different levels. His point is not how space contrasts to flux, but how a constructed space makes it possible to feel one's own activity of mind as physically occupying that space, in way that renders it transpersonal (as if one could not distinguish scene from act) .Therefore Stevens is careful to eliminate all active verbs from the act of mind that sets that scene: Rather than let any specific action set the stage, Stevens wants language to emerge as if the desires underlying all verbs called the poem into being. That is why, when particular verbs finally do appear, they seem in effect to channel those desires into specific permissions. The poem moves from "must," to "may be," to a series of participles that serve as emblems for the continual generating of imagined objects of attention—all poised between the substance of nominalized states and the activities that elicit and satisfy desire. Details such as combing are absolutely casual, and the casualness is never transformed into symbol. The transformation that does take place is on a different level: Casualness itself becomes resonant and reverberates, without ever tempting us to confuse the energies of composition with putative meanings in the world, and thus infectible by it.
As a treatment of objects, the poem inhabits a poetic universe completely defensible before modern analytic thought. Instead of relying on symbols, it depends solely on the energies of perception and construction. Such energies make no direct claims upon the practical world: "Nothing has been changed at all." But, as Wittgenstein suggested in his early works, there can be total transfigurations of the world that alter none of its factual qualities. Simply by understanding that one "must" construct some attitude toward objective processes, Stevens sees that one may be able to envision one's own desires as the very source of the world's vitality (perhaps a secular, subjective analog of God's creative fiat): It may be any particular that becomes "part of major reality, part of / an appreciation of a reality / And thus an elevation, as if I left / With something I could touch, touch every way" (Opus Posthumous 117). As the poet imagines, he performs modes of thinking that are not merely regulative forms or the confirmation of ideas about maturity. Rather, the poet focuses attention on the activities of framing, which allow us to treasure the varied world we have, and he reminds us that in the rhythm of concentration producing dispersals of the self, we find ourselves more truly and more strange, as the possessors of a power we all share.
From Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry: The Contemporaneity of Modernism. Copyright © 1989 by Cambridge University Press.
|Title||Charles Altieri: On "Of Modern Poetry"||Type of Content||Criticism|
|Criticism Author||Charles Altieri||Criticism Target||Wallace Stevens|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||05 Dec 2015|
|Publication Status||Excerpted Criticism||Publication||Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry: The Contemporaneity of Modernism|
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