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 

Combing.

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.

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Criticism Overview
Title Mark Halliday: On "Of Modern Poetry" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Mark Halliday Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Dec 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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