Charles Altieri

Charles Altieri: On "Skunk Hour"

The possible redeeming qualities of domestic life enable the starker context of "Skunk Hour" to provide a somewhat satisfactory conclusion to the volume's spiritual journey. In the context of the entire Volume, "Skunk Hour" articulates a ground of values that make it possible to endure, if not to overcome, the anxieties of contemporary life and the loss of traditional grounds for value. The poem first of all embodies the ultimate lucidity, the denial of all imaginative evasions, which Lowell has been seeking. This then brings him to a dark night of the soul, a traditional religious image he takes now as "secular, puritan and agnostical." There he encounters the ultimate nothingness or absence of meaning, which is perhaps the result of all pursuits of sheer lucidity (I am thinking of the nineteenth-century novel, particularly of Flaubert). For Lowell the absence is dual - an emptiness he witnesses in the scene of perverted love among the love cars, mirrored by a horrifying sense of his own inner emptiness, "I myself am hell; / nobody's here." Hell here is the ultimate prose - a profound sense of the absence of all sources of meaning and value in the public world represented by the landscape and in the private realm where one defines his personal identity. Yet Lowell has not lost his imaginative sense of redemptive archetypes; having fallen to the depths of despair where the ascent beckons, Lowell turns to the skunk - the figure of whatever possibilities Lowell can find for a secular redemption from his despairs. . . .

Thematically the skunk resolves several problems in the volume. By returning to the prereflective natural order symbolized by the many animal images, Lowell makes the skunk embody the determination and self-concern of all living beings and beyond that, as mother, a willingness to face danger in order to accept the responsibility of her role. (Family existence once again has value independent of all fictive or interpretative frames.) Now one sees both a parody of the Eucharist and, on another level, a genuine moment of communion, for, as the skunk swills from the garbage pail, Lowell finds precisely the image of endurance and survival he had sought in vain in the rest of the volume. In fact, Lowell's evening service to some extent reverses one of the final images of his father's impotence. For Commander Lowell's lettering his garbage cans was a pathetic alternative to Sunday church service he saw as beneath the dignity of a naval man. Here the very order his father so stupidly rejected is recovered precisely through those images of modern emptiness.

As the skunk makes her way beneath the "chalk-dry church spire" reminding the reader of the dead vertical world, she embodies whatever possibilities Lowell can find for restoring a context of value within secular and biological necessity. These possibilities are not very encouraging; man may learn to endure, but it must be with a dogged single-minded concentration that omits much of the old humanist possibilities for human development and enjoyment of the world. And the poetic process itself calls one's attention to these reduced possibilities. The skunk here plays the resolving role performed by Christ in much of Lord Weary's Castle. Christ as a resolving figure functions "metaphorically"; he pulls into himself all the disparate strands and adds an element that completes them and develops their meaning. Thus Christ's suffering both gives Lowell a personal- meaning and adds to it a value not evident within secular experience. Lowell imaginatively participates in the same metaphorical project as poet by having the details he uses in describing Christ, particularly the name kingfisher and the redeeming fire, both define and give value to Lowell's pulsing blood and his resistance to the mud. (Only because Christ evokes an entire mythic structur, a structure of metaphors, can such specific details do so much work.) The skunk, on the other hand, functions metonymically. The analogy between man and skunk now creates only a partial continuous resolution, so that the summary remains incomplete and ambiguous in relation to the conditions being explained. The presence of the skunk, in other words, forces on the reader a solution to the poem's despair, but it is a solution that does not incorporate the human and religious terms in which the despair had been framed. The analogical link, then, between Lowell and the skunk's not-quite-human resolve to endure can only be known sympathetically. The relation is too complex and diffuse for analysis, and the identification of man and skunk too foreign to one's sensibilities for there to be a completely affirmative resolutions Finally, Lowell's identification with the skunk provides an emblem for the confessional style in the volume. Lowell learned in "Words for Hart Crane" that self-analysis and debasement were the preconditions for salvation in the American Wasteland. Now the skunk summarizes what it means to search for value and self-definition when all the sustaining fictions have failed. One is left only with the garbage of one's own past, which he must have the determination to explore and the courage to endure.

Charles Altieri: On "Power"

[The task of "Power"] is to reverse traditions expectations of the role of myth in poetry. The first lines echo Kore myths as the poet thinks of a bottle of medicine unearthed from a construction site. Rich, however, quickly shifts from medicine to the making of medical cures, from passivity to activity, and hence from mythic associations to a specific historical figure, Madame Curie, whose legacy can take concrete form in discursive language. Curie is not quite a model. Instead she establishes a different kind of authority. The poet need not locate single models from the past but can try to construct a sense of community with a variety of women who appear in memory. Even the differences that prevent the past from passing on models become potentially productive by demanding a reciprocal dialogue. Sympathy with another's problems can lead to understanding features of one's own condition, and efforts at self-definition can become instruments for appreciating the problems oppressing others.

In this exchange there is considerable sustenance for Rich's hopes to overcome several dichotomies, especially that between private and public lives. As a community forms with the past, and as sympathy produces self-knowledge, it is possible to imagine poetry as a form of action. In poems one aligns oneself with other women and one tries to dramatize one's capacity to take power through and for them. If Curie died "denying / her wounds came from the same source as her power," then one can use her life to see how the two aspects might be united. And one can use one's sympathy as the contrastive term directing and dignifying the poet's quest to explore her own wounds as potential sources of power. Her project can depend not on a fantasized self but on grounding the imagination in history and then testing oneself against its realities. Once we have this historical consciousness, it is possible to give poetic voice a concrete focus. Instead of a person's being absorbed within scenes, scenes become challenges to the poet to produce a discursive poetic framework adapting them to the concerns of a society. Now Rich's greatest liability becomes an important source of strength. Her obsession with victimhood and her various forms of self-staging become states she can offer within a version of Augustine's confessional community.

Charles Altieri: On "Beneath My Hand and Eye the Distant Hills. Your Body."

Particulars blend not only with one another but with the infinite energies beyond and "below". . . .

Even the words themselves (through the awkward device of the quotation marks) seek to burst out of their nominal functions to participate in those energies leaping forth to meet the poet's hand as it traces the line where love through desire generates form and gathers all the burning into a collective and expanding "'we.'"

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:

                                                                    It has 

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.

Charles Altieri: On "Study of Two Pears"

"The title establishes the new space abstraction must explore, a site between art and perception, while also suggesting the basic problem that such exploration must face. I take it that the "study" refers to a painting, which in turn affords us an opportunity to study how we go about seeing in a vital way. Yet the very framework of the study may eventually prove as limiting and self-mocking as the Latin pedagogy that sets the scene. For as we become aware of how our attention becomes vital, we may feel trapped by the frames that reward its visual orientation. … Realization represents, but what is represented is not a world of ordinary objects and conventionalized vision, Indeed, once the process begins it soon exceeds the object eliciting it. So in the central stanzas we move from specific negations and sharpened attention to what must be taken as purposive aspects of appearance. We think of a modeling will. But then the will quickly leads to grounds beyond the subjective maker through Stevens" remarkably inventive use of the clichéd metaphor "flowering." As perception becomes active, and especially as it comes to recognize a dynamic principle at work in eliciting its activity, straightforward names must yield to metaphor if they are to be at all adequate to the situation. Stated this baldly, however, we find ourselves making an observation which would hold true of any intense situation. Stevens" specific metaphor complicates matters considerably. Up to this point the poem had relied on a presentational movement but had not sought an abstract situating – quite the contrary. Now the action shifts from seeing to reflecting upon one’s seeing. As the pear becomes most fully itself before the eye. It must become something else: the fruit must act as a flower does if the mind is to appreciate fully its appearance as a fruit. Then, as flowering seems to capture the particular act of emergence, we recognize that the term applies to a good deal more than the pear. The flowering is also a process of the mind’s own blossoming within a world formerly perceived as only from a distance. The painting brush, the writer’s recasting, and the observer’s attention all here flower, suggesting that when the mind too becomes fully itself it must at the same time become other, must take on an identity that no perception qua perception can register. Perception at its most intense requires our entering the order of metaphor, requires the intensification of art. This indeed is why we need a painting to learn how to see a pear.

From Charles Altieri, "Why Stevens Must be Abstract, or, What Poets Can Learn from Painting," in Wallace Stevens: The Poetics of Modernism, ed. Albert Gelpi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 97-98.

Charles Altieri: On "An Egyptian Pulled Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish"

The first step in defining the qualities Moore establishes for her authorial energies is to turn to "An Egyptian Pulled Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish," the poem that most clearly differentiates her model of composition from Williams's . . .

Here we have thirst 

and patience, from the first, 

    and art, as in a wave held up for us to see

    in its essential perpendicularity;


not brittle but 

intense—the spectrum, that 

    spectacular and nimble animal the fish, 

    whose scales turn aside the sun's sword by their polish.

This is no Romantic plea for unity with nature; it is as insistent as Williams on the willfulness, or resistance to the given, that is necessary for the site art composes. Moore, however, is careful not to turn such resistance into a self-sufficient "masked ball / attitude" that might impose on the quest for personal identity "a hollowness / that beauty's light momentum can't redeem" (86). There are hollownesses or gaps that are necessary to beauty, and to redemption, but one must be careful not to fill them in too quickly with one's own self-image. Rather than turn back on a representable will, Moore makes the movement of the poem itself the only possible definition of ethos. There she can establish a willfulness that can be kept in public circulation, available for any consciousness willing to recapitulate the control giving this work its polish.

The result is a polish that extends beyond any social connotations, to the most intricate and intimate relations between life and art. Notice first the two nouns that initially define the poem's "here," and thereby establish some of the qualities giving art an "essential perpendicularity" not translatable into any simpler, more naturalistic terms. What other site could so combine the physical and psychological properties of thirst and patience? "Here" we see the bottle's shape and function; we see the thirst it should alleviate strangely connected to the fish it represents; and we observe the traces of craft that ultimately align patience with another mode of thirst that only this play of forces might satisfy. No wonder these appearances so quickly transpose what we see, from physical object into the more abstract defining of the art itself as a wave, which we can envision cutting against the planes that pure perception must occupy.

All that the wave implies immediately takes psychological form in the second pair of adjectives syntactically linking the two stanzas. "Brittle" describes the glass, but, in conjunction with "intense" (and after the oxymorons of the first stanza), the adjectives expand to refer also to the activity (and thirst) of both the artist and the viewer. Yet the temptation to turn all of this into mere metaphor—into what the farmer might keep in his head—is denied, by the fact that the poem is also speaking about the spectrum of light growing inseparable from the movements of the fish. Now the fish begins actually to swim, although in an element that the artist has composed for him. And that light becomes something quite different from the "sun's sword," something whose polish does transform that sword into the perpendicularities of the poem's own prismatic waves. Language makes us see a new object. In fact, the movement of this language so fuses the abstract and the concrete that it becomes an example of that polish which, in the visual object, literally gives the fish a different medium.

Moore’s celebration of art brilliantly combines the presentational forces of the two media, glass sculpture and language, showing how each transforms a world of thirsts into a world where the dynamic properties of the artistic acts compose a perpendicularity considerably more satisfying than any physical shape. Moore reveals no hidden symbolic forces and works out no deep psychological conflicts. She does, though, define modes of activity where it may be possible not to have to live in the sets of oppositions that are generated by those conflicts. "Egyptian Glass Bottle" suspends the claims of realism, in order to create the effect of liberating the self and language into an awareness of how the world can be contained by what our arts can make of our care and attention. There is no denying Williams's insistence on the artist's will as antagonist to the sun's sword, but there is also no need, with such intricate objective displays of what language can do, to turn that will into a specular icon of itself, which threatens to become a thirst that no mode of polished play will be able to satisfy.

From Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry: The Contemporaneity of Modernism. Copyright © 1989 by Cambridge University Press.

Charles Altieri: On "Silence"

That "nor was he insincere" marvelously fixes a prevailing tone defining the emotional burdens that demand a daughter's Modernist refusal of all of the old representational securities. Facing a father who so willfully manipulates the powers that language confers, the daughter's primary task is to appropriate those powers to her own mode of restraint, which must grapple with the task of fixing him and freeing herself. Such needs, however, also bring extreme risks. Should she either overestimate her power or underestimate the task, she is likely to trap herself in poses of hatred and obsessive resistance that only confirm his victory. Ironically. that is why the father's advice is so compelling. One in her situation must refrain from any self-staging—either as Elinor Wylie's self-pity or as Sylvia Plath's fantasies of revenge. Instead, virtuality becomes a vital weapon, and Modernist formal strategies establish a possible psychology. All of the care that attracts the unicorn or preserves traces of the basilisk here goes into investing herself in the father's sources of strength, without fixating on either his deeds or any single fantasy of her own projected response. This empathic distance becomes formidable power as she replaces melodramatic rhetoric with a withering precision, whose formulated phrases capture in the simple double negative of "nor was he insincere" the essential inhumanity of his reticence. Moore's speaker is by no means immune to the power of his control over language, but this "nor" superbly positions her attraction against the background of a deeper, unspeakable negative, which casts his self-control as bordering on the margin of a terrifying monstrosity. It is no wonder, then, that once the daughter's imagination is released by an extended simile, it dwells on the morbid scenario of the mouse in the cat's mouth, an objective correlative for life with father.

For Moore, however, and for her Selected Poems, that terror must not be allowed to prevail or to generate a counterviolence sustaining a similar self-absorption. The first thing necessary to resist his authority is to do him justice, by acknowledging the style and insight that make his idiosyncratic ways come to exemplify values that she seeks in her own poetry. But one must test what one has made from those beginnings by exploring both the poet's and the daughter's ability to transform the strengths of her internalized father figure into a precursor for her own sense of individual power. In order to understand, she must identify with him, by continuing to quote his characteristic utterances; but in order to conquer, she must be so supple in her identifications that she maintains her own difference, her own perpendicularity, without having to project it into the terms such fathers love to deconstruct. What better way to do that than to use her metamorphic abilities to appropriate the phrase most characteristic of her father's strengths and her fears, "Inns are not residences."

An emblem that she continues to hold in this strange mix of awe and fear becomes, through the testimony of this volume, also the expression that best characterizes her own capacity to make language a provisional and fluid mode of dwelling. There remains the risk that even this degree of accepting the father's formulation will make playing at differences only an evasion of remaining at heart the dutiful daughter. But for her poetry, that risk becomes part of the implicit background, part of the contrast that reminds us that thinking in such global categories either misses or denies precisely what gives Moore her claims to independence. Were one to avoid that risk, one would have to reject the entire culture shaped by such fathers. By quoting that authority, on the other hand, Moore can create a highly complex site where we observe language playing out a drama of affiliation and difference that is basic to life within a culture. Yes, her language then remains dependent on his. But that dependency is a beginning, not a final state. It resounds as an implicit contrastive context, testing her own ability to make language precise and fluid enough to appropriate what it echoes. As Pound would try to do, on a much more theatrical scale, Moore uses her mobile shifts simultaneously to confirm her banishment to a life of inns and to make that instability a residence in its own right—a home won by the power to control virtual identifications with such grace that they need never be tied to forms that invite either the mirror or the dump.

From Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry: The Contemporaneity of Modernism. Copyright © 1989 by Cambridge University Press.

Charles Altieri: On "Poetry"

No Modernist poem makes better use of the resources of virtuality than Moore's final version of "Poetry":

I, too dislike it. . . .

    Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one 

discovers in 

    it, after all, a place for the genuine.

This is not Shelley. Indeed it is not much of anything, until we find ways of locating where its poetry lies. But once we adapt the strategy necessary for noniconic art—once we see that much of the force of the work depends on its refusing to be something else—we can begin to understand what its exclusions make present. First, we must ask why the poem refers to poetry only as "it." What other options are there, and how does this choice establish the possibility of gaining authority for specific claims about the "genuine" that the poem wants to make? Suppose something about the ontological status of art—its tilt, perhaps—demands so indefinite a pronoun, just as Dante's Bertrand de Born does, when he stands facing the poet with his head in his hands. Perhaps it is only by treating poetry as so indefinite a category that one can see how its content depends on the specific processes of disclosure set in motion by a linguistic intricacy that puts relation in the place of substance.

These hypothesis are not wrong, but they are severely limited by the Romantic framework in which they are cast. Moore pushes against those limits by refusing to be content with the moment of negation that sets perpendicularity against reference. The force of the perpendicular must make possible a strange, yet evocative, positive characterization of that site. In this case, the main vehicle for fleshing out the content of the "genuine" is her note on the poem, which shows us what she cut from previous versions. For then we have a contrast to the "it," which motivates its strategic indefiniteness. Indeed, we have a complex set of virtual forces, leading both back, into Moore's past, and forward, into a more dynamic sense of how contempt and genuineness may be closely linked, mutually reinforcing states. Once we feel the pressure of all of these images that rush in to provide names for poetry, but actually displace it, we begin to understand that those indefinite pronouns both reflect highly intelligent choices and orient us toward the kind of negotiations necessary if poetry is to provide alternatives to those images. So long as one needs these supplemental metaphors to define poetry , one is condemned to the distance of attempting to explain the genuine -the site of perpendicularity and polish—in terms of merely illustratory materials, which are thus necessarily only partial realizations of what they attempt to instantiate. Such images turn the positive into positivity, preparing metaphors for the dump that so fascinated her friend Stevens. But as we realize the failure of images, we also get a glimpse of the deepest efforts of poetry—the quest to find, within the transient, a sense of the genuine that is abstract enough to allow for a range of contents, and fluid enough to merge into the state of grace achieved by individual poems.

If we were to make generalizations about this sense of discovery, we would have to say that the point of the poem is to show that we must conceive the genuine in poetry in terms of forces, rather than of things or images. Poetry must be abstract in order to focus attention on the genuine concreteness of its processes that tend to be subsumed under the narcissistic substitutes imposed upon them when we create scenic contexts and thematic interpretations. But, as we make even that generalization, the deeper point of Moore's poem begins to become clear. Generalization itself must take the role of indefinite pronoun. Rather than explaining anything, it too becomes a means of tracking this sense of the genuine, which resides less in anything we say about the poem than in what we do, as we try to cut through the images to the mobile inventiveness that underlies them and gives them a "place."

Moore's poem, in other words, is not about the genuine so much as it is the literal action of attempting to locate "it" in the only way that the "it" can be given significant content. Rather than proliferating names for the pronoun, we must let it lead us to reflecting on the forces that it gathers within the poem. These comprise what can be genuine about poetry. At one pole, the poem shifts from images to the force that the authorial process embodies, as it works out what is involved in Moore's epigraph, "Omissions are not accidents. " Omissions are, or can be, an author's means of asserting control over the complex energies of negation that we have been observing at work. Omissions are not accidents because they are perhaps the only way of negotiating between the accidental and the essential. Thus they lead us to the complex framework of memories, needs, and cares that provides the background that poetry must rely on and bring into focus. The poet's powers of negation are her richest means of showing what motivates her quest and abides within it to prepare for the satisfactions that poetry's perpendicular presences afford. Such demonstration also calls attention to the other pole of readerly activity. The virtual background that the negations evoke is ultimately not abstract at all, since it takes specific form in the reader's own efforts to transform an initial befuddlement (not unlike contempt) into a momentary realization of all that the "it" comes to embody. Reading this poem engages us in precisely the process that the poem describes: Puzzled by the "it," we must recover what the early drafts offered and understand why that fails to define poetry. In its stead, we must put the realization that the genuine consists in this dialectical process, which establishes a "place" (in all of the senses of that term) where all readers can see what is shared in the effort to find something mediating between the "it" and its substitutes. To see what that entails is to demonstrate the capacity to achieve it.

This play of virtual forces and identifications is obviously not given a specific context. Yet it does serve the crucial role of indicating how thoroughly certain active forces in Moore's poems resonate in conjunction with qualities that some situations can mark as gendered. So now we must see how Moore focuses attention on those properties. The quickest and most general means for doing that is to shift from what Moore shares with noniconic painterly strategies to her departures from its characteristic concerns. Whereas the painters concentrated on rendering certain dynamic and irreducible balances that take form as essentially independent structures with which consciousness tries to align, Moore's virtual forces are irreducibly psychological and willful. The negation in "Poetry" is not so much a way of getting beyond the personal, as a way of getting within it—getting to forces of an individual will too wise to theatricalize the terms of caring, yet freed, by that wisdom, to relish that care as something approaching an absolute power. Indeed, in much of Moore's work, that care becomes so particular, so much a matter of polish wrought to its uttermost, by subtle winks and intricate shifts of imaginative position, that one must attend to its distinctively personal sources.

From Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry: The Contemporaneity of Modernism. Copyright © 1989 by Cambridge University Press.

Charles Altieri: On "The Red Wheelbarrow"

The work of edge-to-edge contact here does not need commentary; the effects of such connectives do. Why begin with that abstracting opening clause, if one is committed to the dominant force of the particular images? And why use a word count, rather than a syllable count, as one's organizing pattern? What can possibly be "realized" by drawing such parallels between word positions? Clearly, the sentence is once again the primary model of agency. But in "Flowers by the Sea," the agency was a fairly simple one. The sentence defined and complemented oppositions organized by our investments in seeing, so that the poem exercised a significant force, simply as visual rendering. Here, despite the confident realism attributed to it by critics, the visual rendering flirts with bathos. The picture as image is no more compelling a version of an actual scene than the abstracted vision Braque gives of the village at Estaque. Our interest must focus on the pronounced formal qualities. There resides our only route to substantial extraformal content. For example, one could concentrate on the way in which this structure calls attention to the material quality of these isolated words, as if, in glazing them, their power to make direct significations could be made manifest. But that is still to leave words in search of agency. For the poem to have much depth—to not be only about the lack of depth—we must define how the semantic force of that opening clause brings those material qualities to life and connects them to the poem's obvious concern for the nature of reference. We must show what can be realized through this treatment of dependency as a poetic site.

Ten years later, Williams made explicit the implications of that site: "This is, after an, the substance, therefore the explanation, of my poems and my life in which there exists (instead of you exist)" ("A Novelette and Other Prose," in Imaginations 302). Dependency, in other words, becomes a means of exploring ways in which subjectivity is subordinate to other, more inclusive and transpersonal models of intentionality. So much depends upon the red wheelbarrow, because so much depends on understanding what is at stake in the dual attributes of that "so much depends"; the mind's manifestation of an abiding principle of care, inherent in this "there is," and the mind's becoming itself virtually tactile, in its efforts to compose the world so that those cares can reside in actual phenomena.

I take the formal equivalent of this care to be the force of predication set in motion by the structural pattern of dividing the poem into four equal compositional units, with only one verb. The position of the verb is occupied, in the succeeding stanzas, by three adjectival functions, each literally depending, for its complete grammatical and semantic functioning, on the single words that complete the stanza. The effect is to have the completion of meaning constantly delayed, and to make the delay a means of slowing us down or defamiliarizing the process of conferring meanings, so that we are led to recognize the miraculous quality of words and cares eventually taking hold.

As we read, the mind is made to hover over details, until its waiting is rewarded—not only within the stanza, but also as each independent stanza emerges to fill out this waiting and to move us beyond details to a complex sense of a total life contained in these objects. How resonant the word "depends" becomes, when we recall its etymological meanings of "hanging from" or "hanging over." The mind acts, not by insisting on its own separateness, but by fully being "there": by dwelling on, depending on, the objects that depend on it. And words themselves take on that same quality, because each part of speech reveals its capacity to transfer force. Each first line ends in what could be a noun—a substance allowing rest in the flow of meaning—but that turns out to function adjectivally. As adjectives, the words define aspects of an intending mind—Locke's secondary qualities, perhaps—seeking a substance in which to inhere. But the words' nominal qualities do not disappear. Their incompleteness, and their shared position with the verb "depends," combine to create an effect of substance in action. In effect, concrete qualities seem verbal—seem capable, as Fenollosa insisted, of transferring force from object to object and from the mind's intentions to concrete events.

We are starting to recognize the justice of that initial abstract expression of emotion, "so much depends / upon." Because "so much" has no clear antecedent, the phrase itself expresses a sense of emotional possibilities, to be filled out and clarified only when the mind completes its action and finds a place. Ultimately, so much depends upon our recognizing the complex ways in which we depend on the scene (as the farmer depends on these specific objects for his sustenance). Moreover, the scene itself turns back to give concrete aspects to this initial abstraction—both by giving it a local habitation and, perhaps more important, by creating a set of structural parallels that invites us to feel the mind itself as a palpable, tactile entity—as the verbal equivalent to the containing knowledge in Braque's painting. First, the etymology of the word "depends" reminds us of the fact, so dear to objectivist poets, that most of our words for mind's activity depend upon metaphors that initially had concrete meanings. The structural parallels also intensify this sense of the mind's dependence as a palpable dimension of the scene. The word "upon," for example, occupies a position later occupied by a series of nouns, and it completes its verb, just as the nouns complete their intending adjectives. "Upon," then, approaches a literal state of being; it is no longer merely an abstract connective, but a physical presence of consciousness in action. Rather than presenting an icon that we take as a perceptual reality, Williams makes the iconic force of art testimony for the most abstract, yet most intimate of psychological energies: those that define the very form of intentionality.

We see this intentionality most clearly in the way that the three concrete stanzas enact the process of dependence by continually looking back to that initial opening that invests the scene with its governing verb and allows other elements to assume predicative force. By extending structural parallels into epistemological ones, mental acts become almost as palpable as physical objects. This palpable force actually thickens our sense of the interrelations between time and space. On the one hand, the reader's engagement in their dependency is profoundly temporal. This assertion about dependency erupts suddenly, forcing us, in effect, to leap a resisting frontal plane before we get to the object, itself slowly unfolding in time and as space. That leap keeps the object dependent on us, and keeps us watching the powers of our own connecting energies as they unfold. We move from the adjective states "red" and "wheel" to a simple noun, to a qualifier of that noun (with its dual roles of adjective and noun), to an adverbial modifier of place—all posed with a strange testing of language's ability to hold the real, so that we are tempted to think of the poem as the literal exploration of what language can trust, as if language were testing its predicate categories. Yet no poem in English is more spatial and timeless. On the mimetic level, these objects seem to have no history, to have always been there, and to represent a form of rural life whose essential habits, and dependence on natural processes, have never really changed. On the testimonial level, all of this motion is so under the control of pattern, and so abstracted to pure function, that it establishes another dimension, in which the various conditions making for objectivity contain and sustain the temporal features of intentional desire.

"Depends," therefore, has two temporal senses that complement its two meanings: One sense refers to the physical activity of depending on movement to complete the mind's intentions, and the other invokes an abstract meaning that suggests a total enduring relationship of mutual supports. One temporal sense refers to an immediate present that keeps changing; the other, Suzanne Langer has called an "eternal present" that we see in mathematical formulas such as "two plus two equals four" or "x is a function of y and depends on it." Taken together, these two senses reinforce Williams's idealization of the artist as "composing-antagonist" (Imaginations 99), who can disclose the real without either aestheticizing it or making violent impositions upon it. All of the energy leads back to this sense of sustaining interrelationships. This "eternal present" is not transcendental. It is simply our sense of visibility, made self-reflexively "ours" by the palpable form that works of art afford the mind. Because the acts of mind can be rooted in an objective world, there need be no idealist dialectic to reunite the poles of presentation and disclosure: Objects endure, and thus acts of mind that intensify them, and are intensified in turn, are infinitely repeatable. And, as Nietzsche knew, there is no greater test of will, of the spirit's capacity to align itself with necessities it cannot control, than this sense of infinite repetition. Because art can realize levels of experience concrete enough to be this abstract, Williams can sustain what amounts to a religious appropriation of Cezanne's aesthetics: "A life that is here and now is timeless. That is the universal I am seeking: to embody that in a work of art, a new world that is always real" (Selected Essays 196).

From "Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry: The Contemporaneity of Modernism". Copyright © 1989 by Cambridge University Press.

Charles Altieri: On "Counting Small-Boned Bodies"

One notices first of all how Bly's sense of collective consciousness allows him readily to assume the voice of a whole culture, and his secure sense of values justifies a biting criticism of that culture, not only for its actions (as in Lowell) but for the modes of consciousness that support those actions. Three specific aspects of the public consciousness are dramatized in the poem. First Bly plays on the idea that counting, the manipulation of elements in the outer world, can ever be an adequate measure of events. (The history of body counts provides adequate empirical data to support Bly here.) Counting then leads to a second empty form of public measurement: the poem's tone and grammatical mood express a technological fantasy inspired by the false language of advertising. Finally, the concluding line allies the violence of war with perverted and simplified visions of love. It establishes and casts back over the rest of the poem a purposive role for the irony as intensifying the gap between public desire and the lack of a true inwardness that might define and direct that desire. These distortions then combine to present an inverted version of Bly's typical concentrative movement. The more compressed the bodies become the more the reader approaches the ring, the central unifying symbol of the horror involved in this exercise of perverted love. And the horror is deepened by the fact that advertising's words for this particular union are literally true, though of course in an unexpected sense: those dead bodies will remain intimately involved with our lives for a terribly long time.

From Enlarging the Temple. Copyright © 1979 by Bucknell University Press.