David Walker

David Walker: On "Of Modern Poetry"

"… [I]n an age of disbelief, we play the role of the actor as well. Stevens emphasizes the point by saying that the audience, hearing the actor’s words, "listens, / Not to the play, but to itself," thus becoming actor and audience at once. The entire movement of the poem is toward the moment of creative fusion in the mind, "as of two people, as of two / Emotions becoming one." The actor’s sole responsibility – and by analogy, the poet’s – is to discover the text that will provoke this degree of imaginative sympathy, which may draw upon the whole range of human activity:

It must

Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may

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

Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.

""Of Modern Poetry" is constructed as a scenario of the kind of text the modern "theater" requires; at the same time, it furnishes us with an example of that text. It provides the reader not with an idea but with the dramatized imaginative experience of an idea, and concludes with precisely the sort of emotional resolution it describes. The three figures of the final lines are abstract illustrations of a concept, yet they are also perfectly realizable images. The sense of the sentence suggests that Stevens might have used any three verbs, but clearly these are not random choices, since skating, dancing, and combing reflect the combination of activity and solitude that characterize the actor’s performance. Imagining these figures, the reader completes the scenario, and in that act of the mind discovers the sufficient theater the poem set out to find.

From David Walker, The Transparent Lyric (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 48.