The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens edited, and with an introduction by, John N. Serio
(Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007)
Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems edited, and with an introduction by, John N. Serio
(Knopf, New York, 2009)
Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction by Edward Ragg
(Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010)
Although born in 1879 in Reading, Pennsylvania, Wallace Stevens did not see his first published poetry did not appear until approximately 1921 when he was 42 years of age. By that time, he had spent a great part of his life as a lawyer for the Hartford Insurance Company becoming vice-president. Certainly, he had written poetry prior to 1921—mostly to his wife, Elsie Kachel, whom he married after a five year courtship and spent one year happily married after which, while remaining married, each went their separate ways. This estrangement may have been as a result of Steven’s estrangement with his family over his plans to marry Elsie. Stevens was from a prominent New England family (his father being a prominent lawyer). As expressed by Joan Richardson in the first chapter of the Cambridge ‘Wallace Stevens: A Likeness’, “Stevens’ parents never approved of their son’s relationship with this young woman who was literally from the wrong side of the tracks.”(15) As Richardson presents it, at the time of their wedding, “No one from his side of the family was present.” He initially became involved in writing verse dramas such as Three Travellers Watch a Sunrise and Carlos among the Candles, neither of which received much, if any, acclaim. Which is why, with his first book, Harmonium (1923), it is surprising that he should emerge with such poems as ‘The Snow Man’ and ‘Le Monocle de Mon Oncle’ and become one of the major poets of the modernist movement.
To say that Stevens is a difficult poet is an understatement. Serio, in his introduction to Cambridge (hereafter ‘C’), refers back to Eliot when he states: “Eliot’s famous observation on modern poetry remains apt. It ‘must be difficult’ because the ‘variety and complexity’ of modern society, ‘playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more, and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.”(2) Along comes Stevens to correct Eliot’s statement “A poem need not have a meaning and like most things in nature often does not have.” advising that, in order to read a poem, “you must love the words, the ideas and images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all.”
Stevens published his first book, Harmonium, in 1923 adding to it when it was republished in 1931. But he had been writing poetry, as already alluded to above, for some time. As Robert Rehder says, in ‘Stevens and Harmonium’, “he had started writing poems seriously when he was a student at Harvard (1897-1900) and made a new start in 1907 when he began composing poems for Elsie Kachel”(C, 23) Rehder shows how Stevens had been for some time considering the putting together of a manuscript but was concerned with the inclusion of ‘miscellany’ going so far as to correspond with William Carlos Williams upon the publication of Williams’ third book, Al Que Quiere! (1917). About this first book, Rehder states that “the unlikeliness of Stevens’ vocabulary is matched by the unlikeliness of his images”(C 26) and “There is no American poet more idiosyncratic than Stevens and with whom the strangeness is so often humorous. He uses the comic to avoid the sentimental.” but does find fault with it: “Despite Stevens’ efforts to find his true subject, there is a certain miscellaneousness about Harmonium.”
When you recognize that some of Stevens’ best and best known poems are found in this first volume, you know that there is much that must have preceded it. But Harmonium begins with such poems as ‘The Snow Man’ which opens with the line “One must have a mind of winter / To regard the frost and the boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snow”(7) and ends with one of Stevens’ patented philosophical lines “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” There is free verse here as well as blank verse the latter first represented by ‘Le Monocle de Mon Oncle’ which moves in 11-line stanzas so that the argument presented is always unbalanced. Based upon the sonnet, there is always a volte in the middle of the stanza as can be seen in stanza 5:
The measure of the intensity of love
Is measure also, of the verve of earth.
For me, the firefly’s quick, electric stroke
Ticks tediously the time of one more year.(9)
That line beginning “For me...”, the sixth line of the stanza, here provides the turning. The final quoted line shows one of Stevens failings—the overuse at times of alliteration. We get an energetic feeling in reading “Ticks tediously the time”, certainly not one of tediousness. The ‘unlikeness of Stevens vocabulary’ is found in stanza 3 where the opening lines read “Is it for nothing, then, that Old Chinese / Sat tittivating by their mountain pools.”(8) ‘Titivating’, which means to spruce up, to neaten, to add decoration, should have only a single rather than a double ‘t’. One of the most perfect lines in all of poetry occurs in ‘The Comedian as the Letter C’: “This auditor of insects! He that saw”(20) —an Anglo-Saxon line with the exclamation marking a mid-point caesura with two stresses on either side, a completely unexpected line that startles with its perfection. Who else would have thought of ‘auditor of insects’? This is one of those moments where meaning does not matter; sound does and the sound is perfect. And all this found in the midst of iambic pentameter blank verse. Contrary to what Serio had to say about it, ‘Anecdote of Men by the Thousand’ is a work of philosophy masquerading as a poem. Stevens set out to prove the opening syllogism “The soul, he said, is composed / Of the eternal world.”(35) with the concluding quatrain “The dress of a woman of Lhasa, / in its place, / is an invisible element of that place / made visible.” Although an interesting proposition, it is far too vague to make it as a poem—a thing which demands the concrete. ‘Sunday Morning’, with its internal monologue of a woman eating an orange and its fifteen line stanzas which are reminiscent of sonnets except there is no volte, no turnaround, will always be one of Stevens best poems, its final lines as near to poetic perfection as one can get: “And, in the isolation of the sky, / At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make / Ambiguous undulations as they sink, / Downward to darkness, on extended wings.”(45) that last seemingly a pagan recognition of spirituality. This is followed by a seldom discussed poem ‘Six Significant Landscapes’ which is a precursor to ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, also found in Harmonium and both reflecting Cubist influence, each one a facet of some poetic gem, each bearing significance. I’ll complete this discussion of the poems of Harmonium by mentioning one of Stevens most incredible and most ignored poems ‘Sea Surface Full of Clouds’ which is the most Cubist of his poems with its four reflections on the ‘slopping of the sea’, each a subtle shifting of the image. This poem must have influenced the L.A.N.G.U.A.G.E. poets although, to my knowledge, there is no definitive proof that it did.
Stevens would not publish anything further for another thirteen years following the initial publication of Harmonium which led to some critical speculation that Stevens had lost whatever talent he had. Then the 1930s arrived. Alan Filreis, in his essay ‘Stevens in the1930s’, says that “a sequence of three books in just two years—Ideas of Order (1936), Owl’s Clover (1936), and The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937)—forced [Stevens detractors] to abandon altogether their deciphering of Stevens’ post-Harmonium silence.”(C 38)
The first poem in Ideas of Order, ‘Farewell to Florida’, never makes it off the ground mostly because the rhythm implies a broken wing. Consider these absolutely pathetic lines from the third stanza:
Curled over the shadowless hut, the rust and bones,
The trees like bones and the leaves half sand, half sun.
To stand here on the deck in the dark and say
Farewell and to know that that land is forever gone.(67)
What was it that Stevens was thinking in releasing these lines. The repetition of ‘bones’ in lines one and two causes the poem to limp—but it is not broken yet. That is taken care of in the next two. The rhythm of line three exacerbates the limping particularly due to the repetition of the anapest—‘on the deck’ ‘in the dark’—but then that fourth with the repetition of ‘that’. A person who has never written a line of poetry in their lives may have written this. Even if we allow that Stevens was attempting to imitate the waves, those waves swamped that ship a long time ago. One would not think that the same pen could create this:
Last evening the moon rose above this rock
Impure upon a world unpurged.
The man and his companion stopped
To rest before the heroic height.(‘How to Live, What to Do’, 72)
That opening line with its assonance on ‘o’— ‘moon’, ‘rose’, ‘rock’—taking into account just about every way to pronounce that vowel—followed by that play on ‘p’ and ‘u’— ‘impure’, ‘upon’, ‘unpurged’—is a master’s touch. The slant rhyme of ‘rock’ and ‘stopped’ is the ribbon that ties this package. This is incredible craftsmanship. For all of its shortcomings, Ideas of Order does give us ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’, one of Stevens’ best. Consider the lines:
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.(75)
This is one of Stevens’ tour-de-forces that leave the reader breathless. One would think these words were written for a woman—but they’re not. They are written for nature (or for the muse). Nature was Stevens’ refuge, the place in which he delighted, where he encountered the spiritual. And these words, indeed, reflect a profound spirituality, although one that is more pagan than Christian.
Owl’s Clover, which Filreis describes as “the long poem...embodies an elaborate—at times allegorical—exchange between various advocates of the public and private realms, and it certainly carries on the discussion of in ‘The Men That Are Falling’ of the fate of the isolated poet in a time of real political changes”, has not been included in the Selected. This may be as a result of its chequered history:
The whole poem was published by a small press in 1936. The edition was tiny—just 105 copies were printed—and only a few readers saw this complete version. When the work next appeared, as one of the ‘other poems’ in The Man with the Blue Guitar & Other Poems in 1937, published in a trade edition by Alfred A. Knopf, ‘Owl’s Clover’ had been cut drastically by 198 ½ lines. The titular reference to Stanley Burnshaw has been eradicated; in the Knopf edition, the second section was now titled ‘The Statue at the World’s End.’(C43)
The Selected having been published by Knopf, perhaps they wanted to shield themselves from this history. By the way, the reference to Stanley Burnshaw is important. Burnshaw was a reviewer and reporter who worked for left-wing publications and who had critiqued Stevens for having lost touch with the times and whose position had been supplanted by younger, more radical poets. Stevens wrote this poem in response to that critique.
Filreis describes The Man with the Blue Guitar as providing
a means of discerning why poets feel they must answer questions about content through the way their words, phrases, and lines are organized—arranged on the page, given meter, endorsed, or undermined by choices of tone or rhetorical devices. What is perhaps so exciting about these stanzas strummed on an instrument by a poet-figure thirty-three ways is that form becomes his only means of addressing ethical complaints raised against his mode. ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ is a poem that is organized, or styled, to account for charges to be made against the invariability of its ideas about art. It responds through sheer variability and an incessant shifting of positions. These positions are not just political ones, but are also the sitting, or setting, or arrangement that the guitarist-poet takes or assumes in relation to his guitar.(C46)
One may be reminded by the rhythm of this poem of Dr. Seuss—although I do not mean this in a disparaging way. Written in couplets, it moves along like an inchworm with its middle lifting up as its front slides forward.
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves.
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”(90)
Note how the rhythm is distorted by the first couplet, how ‘green’ is used in a humorous manner to contrast with the repetition of ‘blue’ to follow. By creating this rhythm in the first stanza and referring back to it throughout the poem, Stevens creates an interesting effect. The last two couplets in part XI are
Wingless and withered, but living alive.
The discord merely magnifies.
Deeper within the belly’s dark
Of time, time grows upon the rock (96)
The first of those couplets is a variation in the rhythm which is returned to in the second. Because of the strong reminder of the base rhythm throughout the poem, the variations create a counter rhythm where we hear both happening simultaneously—an effect borrowed from Gerard Manley Hopkins.
The 1940s were not a kind period for Stevens. Yet, this was the period during which ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’ was written. During this decade, Stevens released two books: Parts of a World (1942) and Transport to Summer (1947) with Notes appearing in the latter. The former contains such dismal poems as ‘The Man on the Dump’, a fitting title for this:
The green smacks in the eye, the dew in the green
Smacks like fresh water in a can, like the sea
On a cocoanut—how many men have copied dew
For buttons, how many women have covered themselves
With dew, dew dresses, stones and chains of dew, heads
Of the floweriest flowers dewed with the dewiest dew.
One grows to hate these things except on the dump.(117)
Repetition had, by this time, become a hallmark of Stevens’ verse. We have already seen several examples where this has been put to great effect. Here, as in other poems in this volume, it is vastly overdone. In this brief segment there are eight mentions of ‘dew’. Perhaps Stevens was trying to satirize himself. He took it to overkill. This is the corpse being stabbed, shot and bludgeoned and the inspector attempting to discern the cause of death when one would have been sufficient. This volume is partially redeemed by ‘A Dish of Peaches in Russia’, the first two couplets of which are
With my whole body I taste these peaches,
I touch them and smell them. Who speaks?
I absorb them as the Angevine
Absorbs Anjou. I see then as a lover sees,(129)
Stevens is fully restored with the writing of ‘Of Modern Poetry’, a much underrated poem. The first stanza is brilliant in itself but leads to even better:
The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.(135)
Stevens left the 1940s with Transport to Summer (1947) demonstrating once again why he is one of the best poets of the twentieth century. Included here is his long, fifteen part poem ‘Esthétique du Mal’ which begins
He was at Naples writing letters home
And, between his letters, reading paragraphs
On the sublime. It was pleasant to be sitting there,
While the sultriest fulgurations, flickering,
Cast corners in the glass. He could describe
The terror of the sound because the sound
This is a poem of ideas, of aesthetics written brilliantly. Undoubtedly, this poem, and others like it, was a major influence on John Ashbery. As James Longenbach, in ‘Stevens and his Contemporaries’, states: “Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, James Merrill, John Ashbery—major figures from each subsequent generation of American poets—have been shaped by Stevens’ seriously playful sensibility.”(C76) One can hear Ashbery’s ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ within the tenor of this poem. But this is not all Transport has to offer. Toward the end you will encounter some ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’. Milton J. Bates, in ‘Stevens and the Supreme Fiction’ describes this poem:
Besides the philosophical challenges in ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,’ the reader encounters a couple of literary challenges. Though the poem’s prosody remains consistent throughout—each canto is composed of twenty-one lines of blank verse, arranged in seven tercets—the tone and rhetorical form vary considerably. The cantos are by turns rhapsodic and satirical, musing and bemused, impassioned and detached. They take the form of addresses to an imaginary pupil, a lover, and a soldier. They tell stories, stage mini-dramas, and develop arguments. They ruminate on the past and speculate about the future.(C50)
A couple of tercets from the first part of this voluminous poem will demonstrate the depth of Stevens’ poetic ability:
Never suppose an inventing mind as source
Of this idea nor for that mind compose
A voluminous master folded in his fire.
How clean the sun when seen in its idea,
Washed in the remotest cleanliness of a heaven
That has expelled us and our images...(195)
‘A voluminous master folded in his fire’ is a masterful line. An example, once again, of Stevens use of the Anglo-Saxon line this time with the caesura created by the necessity to pause between the difficult sounds of the ‘r’ concluding ‘master’ and the immediately following ‘f’ of ‘folded’. Each part has two stresses, the last of which for both parts falling on the ‘r’ sounds. The sound of the last part ‘folded in his fire’ is exquisite. The first line of the next tercet—a line of eleven syllables but iambic pentameter none-the-less—is also exceptional. The internal rhyme of ‘clean’ and ‘seen’ interrupted by the alliteration of the s’s on ‘sun’ and ‘seen’ creates an irresistible rhythm.
B.J. Leggett, in ‘Stevens Late Poetry’, writes of Stevens’ last volume of new poems, The Auroras of Autumn (1950), as well as the twenty-five previously uncollected poems attached to his Collected Poems—published to coincide with Stevens seventy-fifth birthday:
Although difficult from the beginning, Stevens’ poetry had become increasingly theoretical and abstract, and thus increasingly obscure, since Parts of the World in 1942, and The Auroras of Autumn represents the culmination of this tendency. Coming directly after this demanding poetry, the poems of The Rock are unexpectedly plain, stripped of the imaginative flourishes and epistemological quandaries of the preceding volumes. Stevens’ late poems are thus not of a piece formally or stylistically, even if they address many of the same themes.(C62)
By this time, Stevens was being recognized by many awards and honours—the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize, the Gold Medal of the Poetry Society of America, a second National Book Award for his Collected Poems, a Pulitzer Prize as well as the awarding of honorary degrees from Bard College, Harvard, Mount Holyoke, Columbia, and Yale—as one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth-century. In the title poem, ‘The Auroras of Autumn’, which Leggett refers to as Stevens’ best long poem, Stevens provides one of the most powerful opening lines of any poem “This is where the serpent lives, the bodiless.’(221). This is a line guaranteed to grasp the reader’s attention. With such a powerful opening, demand is on the poet to deliver an equally powerful poem. Stevens does so sustaining it for ten full pages. Part II is no exception. The following two tercets demonstrate his ability not just to maintain but to build interest through repetition:
An ancestral theme or as a consequence
Of an infinite course. The flowers against the wall
Are white, a little dried, a kind of mark
Reminding, trying to remind, of a white
That was different, something else, last year
Or before, not the white of an aging afternoon.(222)
White, the emptying of color, of life—this passage builds to a crescendo where we know that Stevens is the white thing of that afternoon as he contemplates his own mortality. But Stevens will not let this section die without returning color to it in its final stanza:
With its frigid brilliances, its blue-red sweeps
And gusts of great enkindlings, its polar green,
The color of ice and fire and solitude.(222)
Those latter colors are the colors of the poet and the state of same. Skipping over the single poem, ‘Someone puts a Pineapple Together’ from The Necessary Angel, we move into those twenty-five newly collected poems of The Rock. Leggett says of this collection:
This emphasis on the real and the paradox it entails—the premise that the apprehension of the real requires a supreme act of the imagination, a supreme fiction—persists in the poems of The Rock. In 1954, Stevens was asked for a statement on the major ideas of his poetry, and he responded that the ‘central theme’ was ‘the possibility of a supreme fiction, recognized as a fiction, in which men could propose to themselves a fulfilment’. Stevens’ use of the term ‘supreme fiction’ dates from Harmonium, where he had implied that the poet’s supreme fiction, the poet’s attempt to reconcile us to our existence in the world, would replace religion’s supreme being, a fiction no longer credible. ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’ was a tentative definition of the poetic fiction—it must be abstract, must change, must give pleasure—but in many of the poems on The Rock Stevens attempts to realize such a fiction, most often in his conception of a godlike imagination.(C69)
Stevens opens The Rock with ‘Lebensweisheitspielerei’ looking back at life and wondering what will be left in the end:
Weaker and weaker, the sunlight falls
In the afternoon. The proud and the strong
Those that are left are the unaccomplished,
The finally human,
Natives of a dwindled sphere.(278)
Is this the life of the poet whose fiction has finally failed, that mock heroic being purporting to be an Argonaut? But Stevens has not lost anything, his poetic strength and wisdom remaining as he demonstrates in the last couple of couplets of ‘Long and Sluggish Lines’:
...Wanderer, this is the pre-history of February.
The life of the poem in the mind has not yet begun.
You were not born yet when the trees were crystal
Nor are you now, in this wakefulness inside a sleep.(293)
Up to the end Stevens adhered to his Symbolist influence. We see this in the title poem, ‘The Rock’, when he writes “Turquoise the rock, at odious evening bright / With redness that sticks fast to evil dreams”(299). ‘Red’ had been a symbolic word for Stevens, part of his personal mythology, since the beginning of his career representing the sun and, hence, life and, also, poetry, the poem, and the poet.
Interspersed within the discussion of Wallace Stevens Selected Poems have been excerpts from essays contained in The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens. There are a number of essays remaining to be examined. In ‘Stevens and Romanticism’, Joseph Carroll writes that “For Stevens, romanticism is the highest form of imaginative fulfillment.”(C87) going on to discuss how Stevens sought to “create a new romanticism and thus to give new life to the imagination.”(C88) After examining the influence on Stevens of Emerson, Tennyson and Wordsworth, Carroll concludes that Stevens “own style and manner draw heavily on the style and manner of the great romantics, but it also has behind it the historical experience of realism, aestheticism (Parnassian?), symbolism, and modernism. Stevens’ new romanticism incorporates this experience, and it incorporates also the modern belief that all metaphysical ideas are merely constructs of the imagination.”(C101)
One of the most recent additions to the field of Wallace Stevens studies is Ragg’s Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction. This may have the honour of being one of the most welcome of additions to an already crowded field. Stevens was known as a master of abstraction. His ability to merge the greatest of abstractions with the reality of concrete images just before that abstraction succeeded in destroying that poem as if the image were the cavalry riding in at high noon was the hallmark of his genius.
As Ragg states on p. 4 of his introduction: ”This book is principally interested in the turn to abstraction and its influential aftermath that occurred in roughly 1935 in Stevens’ work. That the place of abstraction in Stevens remains underappreciated, misunderstood and the subject of considerable debate, makes careful ground-clearing desirable.” Ragg continues, on p. 5:
What emerges is a Stevens attracted to the mental processes enabling abstract figuration rather than a poet mimicking abstract painting in verbal form...Once he had embraced abstraction as a positive force in his writing—around 1937—the main aesthetic challenge Stevens faced was exploiting what abstraction offered. This would see him dispatch the overt abstract rhetoric and specialist symbolism of ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’ (1942) and embrace a more boldly abstract verse reflecting on the ‘baldest' concept: ‘metaphor’, ‘resemblance’, ‘description’, ‘analogy’, ‘the ultimate poem’. However spare these concepts appear, Stevens crafted from them a verse of human abstract meditation whose various expressions are intimately pursued throughout.
If it isn’t clear yet, Ragg makes it so with the title of his first chapter: The abstract impulse: from anecdote to ‘new romantic’ in Harmonium (1923) and Ideas of Order (1935). As he says, at p. 38,
By the mid-1930s, then, Stevens sought an abstract idiom he had not previously required which attempted to transcend the nominally ‘impotent’ aesthetic of Harmonium. However, Stevens craved rejuvenation not because the Harmonium anecdotes were defective but because ‘The Comedian at the Letter C’ inadvertently revealed he was uncomfortable integrating anecdote into larger, more realized poetry projects...To effect transition Stevens transformed the desire for a new aesthetic into a self-reflexive language designed to overhaul dead ‘romantics’.
Ragg confines his attention in this chapter to an analysis of ‘Academic Discourse at Havana’—an interesting choice given that this poem never made it into Stevens’ Selected Poems but which Ragg categorizes as “a pivotal poem in Stevens’ early development, its concerns over imaginative creation anticipating the poet’s own problematic silence from 1924 to 1929.”(48)
In analyzing ‘Owl’s Clover’ in his next chapter, ‘The turn to abstraction’, Ragg says
Fearing the ‘abstract’ as ‘evasion’, something removed from its context...Stevens ponders a poetic that risks ‘meaning without a meaning’. What the poet could not have known was that he was about to write a work which critiques abstraction in an abstract space. ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ achieves this abstract locale through ‘repeated phrases’, but those hardly comprise the superficial ‘meaning’ ‘Owl’s Clover’ rejects. In fact, repetition and rhyme create and dissolve meaning in ‘Blue Guitar’; a poem that neither reads like a ’Johnsonian composition’—which Stephens implies is writing a little too perfect and self-contained—nor has any truck with an ‘abstract man’.(58)
Stevens characterizes ‘Blue Guitar’ as being not pejoratively abstract; as intimate with ‘conjunctions’ between imaginative and actual life. In differentiating the poems in this way, however, Stevens overlooked the battle within ‘Blue Guitar’ between the poem’s assault on abstraction and the creation of an abstract locale where an ‘un-locatable speaker’ speaks.(58)
Stevens defines ‘pejorative’, in his essay ‘The Irrational Element in Poetry’ (1936), as “The pejorative sense applies where the poet is not attached to reality, where the imagination does not adhere to reality, which...I regard as fundamental.”(59) Ragg goes on to indicate the changes in Stevens’ perspective during the early 1940s: “‘abstraction’ indicates neither the failure of the poet to ‘adhere to reality’ nor the imagination’s wilful distortion of ‘reality’, but a creative process where the idea of ‘poetry’ inspires realized poems.” Once having established a working concept of Stevens’ ‘abstract’, Ragg provides an in-depth analysis of ‘Blue Guitar’ taking the analysis through all thirty cantos of the poem during which he establishes some interesting insights.
In ‘The ‘in-visible’ abstract’, Ragg directly addresses Stevens’ indebtedness to the Romantics:
Although [he] derived much from the British Romantics, Coleridge especially, in forging an abstract vocabulary, Stevens was neither a latter-day Romantic nor a Romantic in quasi-Modernist clothes. Unlike Yeats, Stevens could never claim ‘We were the last romantics’, even where, contemporaneously, the poet manipulated Romantic themes. Yet, while Stevens’ relations with the Romantics have been repeatedly discussed, little scrutiny exists of how Stevens’ modern idealism combines with abstraction.(80)
After discussing Mallarmé’s and Heidegger’s influence on Stevens, Ragg quotes Stevens refinement of his conception of the abstract:
The abstract does not exist...the fictive abstract is as immanent in the mind of the poet, as the idea of God is imminent in the mind of the theologian. The poem is a struggle with the inaccessibility of the abstract.(90)
We will leave Ragg and Stevens with this quote from the opening paragraph of chapter 4— ‘Abstract Figures: the curious case of the idealist ‘I’’:
In 1938 Stevens entered one of the most fecund phases of his writing career. With The Man with the Blue Guitar & Other Poems he reached the end of an experimental period, during which he realized abstraction’s potential and the poetic possibilities of a novel first-person speaker...In the poetry following ‘Blue Guitar’ Stevens would break new ground, attracting fewer comparisons with a dandy or Surrealist aesthetic...(110)
Following Stevens, poetry would never be the same. His explorations of the abstract would be continued by many poets, in particular, John Ashbery. Others would react against his impersonal manner of verse—such as Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. Numerous poets up to the present day would, in one way or another, be influenced by him. The three books discussed present us with a strong picture of this maverick who remade poetry.
John Herbert Cunningham is a freelance creative writing living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He is engaged in reviewing Winnipeg cultural activities and novels for The Winnipeg Review. He reviews poetry and poetics books for several literary magazines both in Canada and the U.S. He is currently completing a poetry manuscript as well as writing plays, a novel and a short story. He is the host of Speaking of Poets Sunday afternoons on CKUW 95.9 FM, Canada’s only radio show dedicated to poetry.