Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction
CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS
in other words, this ironically original, ‘true abstraction’ represents the poet pushed to the extreme of the personal in verse, therebybecoming an abstract version of the poet: genuinely removed from the work rather than artificially divorced from it.o’hara could not have raised this issue in this way without Stevens’ prior posing of the question of abstraction. analyses the abstract impulse in Stevens’ writing and its nominal relations chapter with ‘pure poetry’ as expressed in Harmonium and Ideas of Order.2 explores Stevens’ turn to abstraction in the mid-1930s – as exemplified inThe Man with the Blue Guitar – focusing on the emergence of a novel text- ual speaker (addressed in chapters 4 and 5 ) with Picasso’s influence as a backdrop.
chapter 3 explains the philosophical relations between abstrac-
chapter 4 then analyses the place
in other words, the various expressions of abstract writing with which Stevens experimented – his‘cool’ and ‘warm’ abstract performances – only found full voice in the ‘bourgeois’ ruminations of his late career. ‘The Public Square’ (1923) with its ‘slash of angular blacks’ is, perhaps, an early exception; but the mature Stevens was motivated by ideas concerning abstraction rather than the realization of a pared-down8 poetry of abstract implication.
10 CPP, 91. Ibid., 329See Perloff, ‘revolving in crystal: The Supreme fiction and the impasse of Modernist lyric’ in 6 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstractionof Sound’ and ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’). but Stevens also sensed that the trumpeting of abstraction in ‘notes’ erred on too cold an aesthetic front,hence perhaps his later proposition of a final, if unrealized, section for11 as to ‘Paisant chronicle’ (1945), perhaps the ‘major man’ of ‘notes’ was sim- ply too abstracted to come alive for Stevens, even as he modified thefigure in this later poem.of course, this study does make repeated reference to ‘notes’, and con- textualizes the concept of a ‘supreme fiction’ in
chapter 3 . however, i have
from the poet who declared as early as ‘a high-toned old christian Woman’ (1922) that ‘Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame’ to the architect of ‘The Pure good of Theory’ – discussed atlength in chapter 6 – it is the evolution of Stevensian abstraction that15 concerns the present work. filreis admits: ‘Those of us who have tried to make manifest the political life of an apparently unpolitical poet found the requirements of the project were so daunting […] that we had tomake short work of sound in readings of poems where the music of words is obviously central’,35 ‘Sound at an impasse’ WSJ 31.1 ( 2009 ), 21.36 See L, 834, 829.
b. J. leggett, Wallace Stevens and Poetic Theory: Conceiving the Supreme Fiction (chapel hill
among this book’s claims is that the ‘fluentmundo’ is not co-extensive with the Stevens corpus; that Stevens’ need to create a vocabulary advertising abstraction was born of the early 1930s anddid not survive the mid-1940s; that it was not until his final decade that he fully absorbed abstraction; and that, if Stevens is to be read afresh, a revision-ist account of how and why he was drawn to ‘the abstract’ must be found. referring to Stevens’ ‘listener’, bové writes:he is ‘nothing himself,’ that is, he is ontologically identical with the other inso- far as they are both part of ‘what-is’ existing in and by virtue of ‘nothing’ […]he senses the falsity of the dualistic separation of res cogitans and res extensa and sees the primordiality of being-in-the-World, alongside the World, as a structure46 of his own being.
chapter 2 reveals), it was not until the 1940s that the subject was substan-
The60 more reason those of us who will read them should make the most of it.’ if Stevens had not then attained a sizeable audience, the explosion in criticism of the next half-century was something Williams was neither willing norable to anticipate (Williams was not alone in pondering Stevens’ reputation,61 however). 16 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction‘absolute content of sensibility’, blackmur was alienated by the ‘unusually high number’ of words that are ‘recognizably a part of a special vocabu-lary’, which ‘not charged and fixed by forces outside the vocabulary, will obliterate the perceptions it specializes’.
chapter 7 discusses Stevens and Klee. Martz, ‘The World of Wallace Stevens’, 98, 100
Morse, however, queried the assumptions at the root of typical portray- als of Stevens’ work: [t]he gusto that many readers would not question in […] the early poems, sim- ply because it is directed toward things and sensory experience, seems to manyof those same readers almost morally reprehensible when directed toward ‘ser- ious’ ideas. Stevens himself tends to accentuate this split between poetry andphilosophy in his description of philosophy as an ‘official view’ of being and poetry as an ‘unofficial view’; but when he is […] writing poetry, he refuses to71 acknowledge the split.
chapter 4 suggests, this notion requires challenging because ‘sense
Morse also defendedStevens from ‘deliberately set[ting] out to epater les bourgeois’: ‘his con- stant concern is rather to find some way to demonstrate that “The poet75 is the intermediary between people and the world in which they live.”’ The paradox Stevens’ readers confront is how abstract reflections conjure commonality, ordinariness and ‘the normal’ without promulgating hol-low generalizations. This is especially clear in the later poetry and is one regard in which Stevens refined his developing sense of abstraction.if Morse did not conceive the ‘bourgeois’ aesthetic 70 addresses below, deutsch saw Stevens in domestic terms whilst sharing71 Ibid., 131.72 Morse, ‘Motive for Metaphor’, 57–8.
chapter 2 ), he appreciated
richards’s use in hisColeridge on Imagination […] richards conceives of an ‘ “all-inclusive myth” thatwould provide the kind of nature “that the religions in the past have attempted to provide for man.”’ Stevens starts ‘it Must be abstract’ with a play on ‘be,’ and96 a doctrine of being is at the centre of christian ‘supreme fictions.’ cook is quoting leggett quoting richards. his uneasiness with Stevens’ most abstract poems – as he struggles todefend their abstract qualities – suggests as much.i dispute, therefore, a number of leggett’s early arguments as well as 108 leggett issome aired more recently in Late Stevens: The Final Fiction.much closer to the spirit of Stevens’ poetry when he argues it captures ‘an epistemology by which even the most sensuous detail remains radically109 a product of abstraction’.
b. J. leggett, Late Stevens: The Final Fiction (baton rouge, la: louisiana State University 109 Press, 2005 )
for example, leggett casts late and last Stevens as follows: although difficult from the beginning, Stevens’ poetry had become increasingly theoretical and abstract, and thus increasingly obscure, since Parts of a Worldin 1942 […] The Auroras of Autumn represents the culmination of this tendency.[…] [t]he poems of The Rock are unexpectedly plain, stripped of the imagina- tive flourishes and epistemological quandaries of the preceding volumes. 26 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstractionby contrast, altieri argues of Stevens’ work: These exercises in abstraction have the important consequence of enabling us to display to ourselves human powers […] one cannot defend Stevens’ ideas asideas without denying the paradox on which they are founded – that their value as ideas is not in their truth claims per se but in the life they create within the119 scene that displays them.
chapter 4 argues, Stevens’ ideal- ist ‘i’ is a kind of object, maybe even a cipher for an impossible objectivity
as the youngMarcel reflects on reading bergotte in Proust’s The Way by Swann’s: i no longer had the impression i was in the presence of a particular passage from a certain book by bergotte, tracing on the surface of my mind a purely linearfigure, but rather of the ‘ideal passage’ by bergotte, common to all his books, to which all the analogous passages that merged with it had added a sort of thick-138 ness, a sort of volume, by which my mind seemed enlarged. Marion, one of the representatives of the hartford fire’ and that they were to have din-40 ner at ‘the casino, one of the show places of the city’.a ‘casino’ thus fea- tured in Stevens’ apparent mixing of business and pleasure in havana infebruary 1923, and the aphorism ‘life is an old casino in a park’ entered the poem because the casino conjures both havana and a climate of risk41 (risk obviously being central to the insurance industry).
chapter 2 argues, it was
as Stevens admitted: after i had made a tentative arrangement of material, it seemed […] that the tone of the whole might be a bit low and colorless; and, since it is the tone of thewhole that is important, i might want to work on the thing, adding, say, 10 or 1566 pages, in order to give a little gaiety and brightness. he happens to be one who still dwells in an ivory tower, but who insists […] life there would be intolerable except for thefact that one has […] such an exceptional view of the public dump and the advertis- ing signs of Snider’s catsup, ivory Soap and chevrolet cars; he is the hermit who69 dwells alone with the sun and moon, but insists on taking a rotten newspaper.
chapter 4 analyses below. The poems that place
hutchison overlooks thedeeply ironized gestures Harmonium displays in works that, in their very humour, cannot but help connect imagination and world, not least in thefigure of the desirous poet who imagines them.if Stevens subsequently defined Ideas of Order as a ‘book of pure poetry’ he was not so much defining that poetry as, like Poe and the Symbolists,resisting the didactic spirit (for which a depression work would actively81 have to serve the depression). cH a p t er 2The turn to abstraction: owl’s clover (1936) and the ‘un-locatable’ speaker in The Man with the blue guitar (1937)how does it matter how i play or what i color what i say?it all depends on inter-play or inter-play and inter-say,like tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee, or ti-ri-la and ti-ri-liand these i play on my guitar and leave the final atmosphereto the imagination of the engineer.i could not find it if i would.1 i would not find it if i could.
chapter 3 argues – referring to Wordsworth
‘blue guitar’ is more defensive than its draft canto, keen to critique an abstract imagina- The turn to abstraction 67canto vii, for example, worries about the cost of abstraction, venturing a persona–poet in place of departed guitarist and audience: and shall i then stand in the sun, as now i stand in the moon, and call it good,The immaculate, the merciful good, detached from us, from things as they are?not to be part of the sun? canto xxxii turns its back on the fixity of ‘definitions’ in language reminiscent of auden’s54 ‘Stop all the clocks’ (1936): Throw away the lights, the definitions, and say of what you see in the darkThat it is this or that it is that, but do not use the rotted names.[…] nothing must standbetween you and the shapes you take When the crust of shape has been destroyed.
chapter 3 explores, this emphasis anticipates what Merleau-Ponty
Where Kant holds that we cannot know ‘things as they are’ in themselves, that sub-ject and object are forever divided and that the mind constructs ‘real- ity’ through the illusions of space and time, coleridge protests that the12 Stevens underlined Matthew arnold’s point that ‘[i]t is the business of the critical power […] to see the object as in itself it really is’ in his copy of Essays in Criticism (london: Macmillan, 1895 ), 6. Moving beyond the critical ten-dencies to think the injunction ‘It Must Be Abstract’ means either a) iso- lating ‘reality’ itself without the interference of the ‘imagination’ or b)opposing Stevens’ poetry to the concrete, leggett suggests that Stevens’ slogan signifies ‘the inability of the poet’s fiction to escape the artificial36 and therefore abstract nature of language’.
chapter 2 explored Stevens’ realization that conceiving poetry
Michael holland (oxford: blackwell, The ‘in-visible’ abstract 89combining the abstract spirit of all these writers in what is a remarkable confection of writerly and painterly influences.in ‘The essential Solitude’ blanchot explains that the ‘work’ is an ideal to which the writer is drawn but cannot achieve alone: The writer writes a book, but the book is not yet the work. Stevens refined his own notion as follows: The abstract does not exist, but it is certainly as immanent: […] the fictive abstract is as immanent in the mind of the poet, as the idea of god is immanentin the mind of the theologian.
chapter 5 ). if Stevens
When Stevensand church returned to discussing the chair in 1942, the poet revelled in merely talking about poetry as an idea: i am glad that we can go back to the subject of a chair of Poetry, which i should really like to write to you about now and then, as an abstract subject, withoutthe slightest thought of ever trying to talk you into doing anything about it73 actually. but what the criticism also often overlooks is the highly physical effect Stevens’ abstract figures have on his imaginative nervous system(which illustrates how ‘immanent’ his ideas are).for example, Stevens describes his ‘supreme fiction’ as a ‘thing’ attach- ing itself to his person: When i get up at 6 o’clock in the morning […] the thing crawls all over me; it is in my hair when i shave and i think of it in the bathtub.
chapter 5 argues that this need for ‘rhine wine, blue grapes, good cheese’
and ‘lots of books’ was actually coterminous with Stevens’ desire for ‘supreme fiction’. ‘extracts from addresses to the academy of fine ideas’ (1940) also revealingly combines articles and abstraction(‘There was that difference between the and an, / The difference between himself and no man’), where ‘an’ refers to an abstract ‘empty place’ as77 opposed to a defined space (‘the empty place’).
chapter 5 adum-
96 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction and every effort to see it there makes it disappear, but it is in the line of the visible,85 it is its virtual focus, it is inscribed within it[.] The difficulty in visualizing what Merleau-Ponty articulates only reflects the phenomenon he describes, at least if one clings to a conventional‘invisible’. hegel,93 Phenomenology of Spirit, 54.94 hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 105.95 The ‘in-visible’ abstract 99likewise, for Merleau-Ponty, effective ‘perception’ is ‘the thought of perceiving’: [t]he thing itself no more leaves the circle of our thoughts than does the imagin- ation, which is also a thought of seeing, but a thought that does not seek theexercise, the proof, the plenitude, that therefore presumes on itself and is only97 half-thought.
chapter 4 recounts, Stevens would laud
formsobey their own rules – rules that are inherent in the forms themselves, or better, 103 in the regions of the mind where they are located and centered[.] focillon adds: ‘form is qualified above all else by the specific realms in 104 which it develops’.but however independent focillon finds ‘form’, central to his thought is the human contact (or ‘touch’) indicating his own idealism. and it must do this in the twofold recognition, on the one hand, of theirutter and terrifying nudity, and on the other, of the mysterious and vital halo of the volumes with which we must envelop them […] because the exigency already105 lies within ourselves.
chapter 4 discusses the significance of this particular reference
focillon maintains similarly: ‘the life of forms is undoubtedly more131 or less affected by the temperament’.as with Stevens’ ‘fluent mundo’, the artist also creates a new world: [t]he artist develops, under our eyes, the very technique of the mind; he gives us a kind of mold or cast that we can both see and touch […] [h]e is creating a132 world – a world that is complex, coherent and concrete. at the cross-roads of psychology and physiology, forms arise withall the authority of outline, mass, and intonation’ (adding his own mar- 134 ginal reminder: ‘true technique is creative activity’).finally, Stevens would have been equally entranced with the idea that the artist makes of his life the necessary conditions of his art.
chapter 3 argued, this involved forging a modern ideal-
but even if such a world is imag-ined, a desirous ‘i’ returns to haunt the scene: Say even that this complete simplicity10 Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed Abstract figures 113The evilly compounded, vital i and made it fresh in a world of white,a world of clear water, brilliant-edged, Still one would want more, one would need more,More than a world of white and snowy scents. but before demonstrating how his idealist ‘i’choreographs the early 1940s poetry, i want to turn to ‘The noble rider and the Sound of Words’ and ‘The figure of the Youth as virile Poet’,re-interpreting these lectures through their interest in speakers and what36 Stevens calls the ‘process of the personality of the poet’.
chapter 5 ’s exploration of ‘certain Phenomena of Sound’
Now the winged horses and the charioteer of the gods are all of them noble […] while ours are mixed; and we have a charioteer who drives them in a pair, and one ofthem is noble and of noble origin, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble origin […] I will endeavor to explain to you in what way the mortal differs from the immortalcreature. even if the reader does ‘not quite yield’ to the nobilityof Plato’s figure, it is easy to ‘recognize’ the strength of the ‘robust poet’Stevens identifies in Plato/Socrates: The result is that we recognize […] the feelings of the robust poet clearly and fluently noting the images in his mind and by means of his robustness, clearness42 and fluency communicating much more than the images themselves.
chapter 5 ’s analysis of ‘certain Phenomena of Sound’, where an idealist ‘i’ and gastronomic aesthetic combine. The pre-
4.3 t H e H u m a n a bs t r ac t i n ‘l a n dsc a pe w i t H boat’ (1940)‘landscape with boat’ is the most self-referential poem of Parts of a World, not because it refers to its own status as a poem, but because it expli-citly advertises ‘parts’, a ‘centre’ and ‘the truth’, the choice themes of Parts itself. certainly, the 1940s Stevens wants to strip awayappearance; but what differentiates a poem like ‘notes toward a Supreme fiction’ from the attempt of the ‘anti-master-man’ to strip the world bareis that ‘notes’ knows that the discovery of the ‘first idea’, or a ‘supreme fiction’, is inspiringly unrealizable.
chapter 3 suggested that Stevensian terms beg for physical realiza-
The next chapter illustrates the importance of understanding Stevens’ gastronomic references as involving much more than the occasional reflec-tions of a gourmet, reading ‘certain Phenomena of Sound’ as a special case in which Stevens’ idealist ‘i’ speaks, before embarking on a longer103 analysis of ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’. The physical and sensual in Stevensare often the sites for the catalysis of his abstract imagination, and the tendency to oppose the sensual to the abstract denies readers insight intothis aspect of Stevens’ work.
chapter 7 . The next chapter begins by exploring how Stevens’
in a more abstract vein, he claims: ‘[t]hesuperiority of the distant over the present is only due to the mass and variety of the pleasures that can be suggested, compared with the poverty of those that can at any time be felt’ (The Sense of5 Beauty, 68).feo early pondered Stevens’ aesthetic love of wine (see brazeau, Parts of a World, 141). Thus the basis of the aesthetic emotion is the aesthetic attitude; contemplation without any idea of making use of the object of10 contemplation.’like Stevens, Mauron understood the vitality ‘luxury’ can afford (Stevens underlining the first two sentences of the following): biologically, human pleasure is a luxury […] a point in our curve above the per- fect zero which represents absence of pain.