Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Notes on Wallace Stevens

Magisterial, serious, smart.  These are some of the words used to describe Wallace Stevens.  Might we add: muscular, musical, aesthetic?  How about: obscure, erudite, pedantic?

Wallace Stevens is a challenging poet, about this there can be little doubt. His reference book is deep and his metaphors skip from image to image like the needle on an old record player. The reader is left hanging on for life, hoping eventually to land in a groove of understanding.  This is particularly true in his earlier work, when he explores the full poetic toolkit to produce effects, to dazzle, perhaps even to show off.

This is not uncommon in writers.  The tricks of the trade are new to the craftsman who is new to the craft. In the good ones, there also exists great ambition and energy. It’s only through practice that the power of the language grows on them, or perhaps more correctly, grows into them, and they can measure ornament, filigree and plain talk more precisely.

What’s interesting in Stevens is that the development of his craft is visible from his early poems to his late ones, but it also coincides with a philosophic stance that shadows it.

Let’s start with this question: Is early Stevens just a pedantic puzzle of meanings and references, High Church Latin that only the scholars can perceive, or can we say we have understood enough if we have heard the music of his verse? In other words, is there a value in trying to decode his meanings, or should we allow the poetry to stand on the strength of its sounds alone?

There is a simple answer to that question: to enjoy the depth of any of his poems without first digging into to the text to see and hear what the poet is talking about is a waste of time. Stevens’ poetic language moves from scene setting to core argument with a fluidity that is rapid and elusive. If the boundaries of these two realms are not adequately chalked out, the reader is lost.

Here’s an example: In the first stanza of “Sunday Morning”, “the green freedom of a cockatoo” is a very vivid image to tell us where the action is.  It sets the scene, gives us the mood and tell us where we are. However, two short lines down in the same sentence, we encounter the core argument of the poem for the first time, the “holy hush of ancient sacrifice”. Only the most sensitive reader is going to extract the differing weights of these two different images without guidance.

And what about the core arguments, what Stevens is trying to say?  In line 1 of stanza II, “Why should she give her bounty to the dead?”, we are left to ask, how should the living relate to the dead, and what obligations should they have. For religious Christians, it is Jesus and the Trinity. For the secular, it is not. Stevens answers his own question later in the stanza

Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?

These verses lead to this question:  If we are to look to things on this earth for our joy, as this question would have us do, then who would play the role of Jesus? Or to put it more directly, where does the artist stand in this relationship?  Wouldn’t Stevens include the poet in the “balm and beauty of the earth” or as its interpreter?

In the final stanza of the poem Stevens utters the more radical claim that there was never anything in Jesus’ tomb but the bones of a dead man, and that “The tomb in Palestine/is not the porch of spirits lingering”.  Our ephemeral selves are it. And then Stevens continues on in an extended metaphor that is nigh on impenetrable, but through whose imagery we are to understand that what we have on this earth is what we should enjoy, focus on, sense, experience, live.

We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make …

Why is this interesting? Because Stevens, like many human beings, develops in his later life a milder assessment of the power of art to transmit either meaning or emotion.  Is this because art is inherently limited by and of itself, or is this because art is the product of human endeavor, and incomplete capacity to know and understand ourselves and how to the use the tools at our disposal means that whatever humans produce will also fall short?

Again, Stevens answers his own question. In “The Poems of Our Climate”, Stevens moves us through an image of aesthetic perfection
Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnation. The light
In the room more like snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.

But this image, so delicately crafted to convey the Platonic ideal of an absolute, “Clear water in a brilliant bowl” – both an ideal of beauty and an ideal of art’s ability to capture it – turns out to be nothing more than the straw man Stevens is about to tear down.

Pink and white carnations – one desires
So much more than that.

Stevens continues in the poem’s final stanza

The imperfect is our paradise.
Not that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

Here for the first time does Stevens hint that the paradise that “is so hot in us” actually exists outside not just the aesthetic realm (and poetry) but outside of art itself.  For the first time we grapple with the possibility that art cannot achieve its ultimate goal – to serve us in the way that Christ serves the religious, as that portal through which we can derive meaning from life. The “flawed words and stubborn sounds” are not the lines of poetry that don’t quite work.  They are the words and sounds that never make it into the poem. Poetry struggles its way towards a kind of bliss, and the poet begins his journey as the creator or explorer of that bliss. But the poet can only ultimately fail at capturing it, because he is human.  At exactly this moment, when art fails to succeed, paradise begins. Ultimately, life is not some ethereal abstraction distillable into art. Life is the experience of living, a fact whose sum is greater than our capacity put boundaries around it. Stevens’ early work was about becoming a master craftsman for the ages, but by his later work, he could only acknowledge the futility of that task. None are worse for his journey though. Indeed we are much the better for it.