Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Problem with Wallace Stevens

Our poet-friend came visiting, The New York Review of Books in hand, with Dan Chiasson’s review of the new Selected Poems by Wallace Stevens.  We pored over the review, trying to find in poems the things Chiasson said were there to see.  I felt I had tiptoed up behind a group of elders, Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom chief among them, peaking over their shoulders for a glimpse of Susanna.

My own Vintage paperback of Wallace Stevens’s poems, purchased for $2.95 over thirty years ago, is split in two at page 158, where resides “The Poems of Our Climate.”  That one poem has carried me through many troublesome times.  I used to tack it up at work and repeat, as a mantra, “The imperfect is our paradise.”  I didn’t need to know what Stevens intended; I needed only to know that he spoke to my condition.

Now, it seems, I must know more.  Chiasson writes, “The problem in Stevens is not his abstractions but rather his abstracted abstractions.”  I am unable to fathom what he means.  But I know there is a problem, and Chiasson’s choice of “Description without Place” is a fine example:  “It is possible that to seem—it is to be,/As the sun is something seeming and it is.”

My brain stops working when I read these lines.  I long for “pale Ramon’ to guide me; I reach back to Harmonium, to “Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair/And the green freedom of a cockatoo.”  I linger over “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” where, even if I don’t understand what Stevens meant, I revel in the rhythms and the sounds:  “The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds./It was a small part of the pantomime.”

But Chiasson tells us we must move on, for Harmonium is only the first of Stevens’s books.  We cannot tarry there, but must venture deeper, into his abstracted landscapes, arriving at “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” where “The poem is the cry of its occasion,/Part of the res itself and not about it.”

Chiasson says, “Having a mind and wondering what to do with it is not an intellectual predicament:  it is a human one. . . . Most people are baffled their entire lives by the problem of what to think about, so they think about whatever the moment requires.”  This, of course, I recognize:  how trying to do the hard job of imagining gives way so readily to the list of chores.

I’m not one of the elders.  Those celestial bodies circle above me in an atmosphere where I can’t breathe.  But I’m not prepared to cede Stevens to them just yet.  Each time I read, I get a glimpse of something more,  “As if we were all seated together again/And one of us spoke and all of us believed/What we heard and the light, though little, was enough.”

The final quotation is from Wallace Stevens's poem “Two Letters.”


  1. Very entertaining - I spent ages reading the links - thank you for this glimpse into the world of poetry. I particularly like the last paragraph; a most satisfying resolution.

  2. Carol-Ann: I am curious to know whether you had a favorite link. (I was particularly pleased to find profiles of both Vendler and Bloom—not to mention "The Idea of Order at Key West" read by Stevens himself.) It’s remarkable what’s out there when you start to look—and then, of course, then the vortex that is the internet sucks you in!

  3. Did I come visiting you in my sleep with Dan's article on Stevens? I don't recall visiting while awake. Ron Slate

  4. Hello, Ron: Not to worry--you weren't sleepwalking in unknown territory. Our visitor was Elaine Sexton, about whose book, Causeway, you wrote the most marvelous, insightful review. And, for me, there is the extra bonus of being introduced, if only in cyber-fashion to you and your website, "On the Seawall." Thank you for writing!

  5. We can never know exactly what another thinks, poet or otherwise,try as we may. Poetry not understood intellectually can, like a surreal painting, or a dream, ignite and leave for our consideration emotions that we normally cannot access. This great gift from art thus provides more potential for our own insight into what we feel than what the artist did.

  6. Hi, Jackie: This is a lovely insight into the experience of the reader of a poem. Thanks for writing!

  7. I enjoyed the profile of Helen Vendler immensely, and the poems of Wallace Stevens himself were a revelation to me. I find that, if I'm not careful, I am most susceptible to the "vortex of the internet" as you so aptly put it.

  8. Nice bit of writing, Sue, your thoughts on Stevens and on the review itself.... interesting to consider, again, the heart of it, parsing the problem of "what to think about". This weekend I was working on something and thinking about the link between Kafka's idea of the unsettled mind as in "The Silence of the Sirens," (that even if one manages to resist their song, one can never escape their silence... ) and wonder what other writers address this restlessness, directly, in their work Stevens does, over and over, as in "the mind can never be satisfied... never." What to think about, indeed! Do you really think most people "are baffled most of their lives of what to think about?" -Elaine Sexton

  9. Thanks so much for commenting, Elaine: You raise a good question. Chiasson's comment resonated with me, but perhaps, as general matter, people aren't so much baffled by what to think about, as "defaulting" to thinking about what's at hand.


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