71. (Wallace Stevens)

William Empson, whose capacity for appreciation was as broad as any critic’s, could find scant space to admire Wallace Stevens. Reviewing R.P. Blackmur:

His praise and evident affection for Wallace Stevens may well be wise and true; but it chiefly turns on finding profound excuses for his having so little to say, and the foreigner may still feel that there is no great need to bother about Wallace Stevens. Indeed the way Blackmur praises him faintly suggests those advertisements in which two comic representatives of a firm say to each other, ‘How Marvelous you are, Mr Wix.’ ‘How marvellous you are, Mr Bix,’ precisely like characters in Henry James.

Empson would have known Blackmur to have been a Jacobite (a supporter of the James), and also perhaps had rattling in his mind the name of the governess in James’ novel What Maisie Knew; but it is worth considering that there is in Empson’s dismissal of the two Americans, James and Stevens, a common source of displeasure.

Two years prior, in 1953, Empson had reviewed Stevens directly, in a short piece for The Listener. There, James his way in once again, but only to get in a knock against Whitman (James had said that it was a bit Whitman knew so many bits of foreign languages). The review is peculiar in that an anodyne and lifeless opening immediately opens onto this quibble with Stevens’, and Whitman’s, occasional trucking in foreign phrases; it feels as if Empson is evading the task of criticism.

This selection made by Mr Wallace Stevens from his poetry ought certainly to be welcomed in England; he has been highly admired in America for thirty years, and it is time he was better known here. There is one unfortunate feature of his style which ought to be noticed, what he calls ‘beau linguist’ perhaps, as in the line ‘I call you by name, my green, my fluent mundo.’

Empson pursues his point, digressing from Stevens to Whitman to Wilde, for the first half of the three-paragraph review. With an effect that me must have intended to feel comical, the second (brief) paragraph opens:

Actually, there isn’t a great deal of this foreign language trick in his poetry, but there is a lot of something rather like it; an idea that it is enough entertainment for the reader to see the poet trying on a new fancy dress. There is also a good deal of philosophising, which the reader dare not say he has quite understood, but the main point of it, and indeed the reason why it is hard to follow, seems to be an idea that a person like this doesn’t really need to philosophise. One need not object to this attitude in principle, in fact it can make good poetry, but it comes to feel very airless. One can’t help wishing he had found more to say, if only because he could evidently say it.

What becomes apparent is that Empson is frustrated because he has nothing to say; hence the padding of the first paragraph. (The observation of greatest substance comes at the end of the review: “He is also a master of what is perhaps needed most for poetry in English, a long delicate rhythm based on straight singing lines.”) This might not seem shocking until one recalls that Empson is the critic who, in Seven Types of Ambiguity, finds Swinburne susceptible to analysis; who staunchly defends Shelley against Eliot; who insists on, and demonstrates, Dylan Thomas’ cogency. To make matters more surprising, here is Empson failing to respond to the great humanist poet; to the English language poet most determined to rid himself of Christianity.

The suspicion grows that Empson simply did not want to try. Even in his grumbling about James, Empson takes up an argument with the method and plot of The Golden Bowl. With Stevens, Empson refuses to argue; or else feels himself unable to argue. Perhaps the trouble is that Empson fundamentally agrees; but even with those with whom he was in agreement, Empson is more than happy to enter into, or stir up, a fray.

The solution to the puzzle lies, I suspect, in the nature of Stevens’ poetry. We might say that Stevens is simply not susceptible to verbal analysis as Empson practiced it—which is why the best critics of Stevens, Helen Vendler and Eleanor Cook, practice criticism so differently from Empson, reluctant as they are (Vendler especially) to read literary utterance as an extension or outgrowth of the other utterances by which poets struggle through life, reading poems instead as aesthetic objects, patterned and intricate and full of feeling, but not full of, or equivalent to, or seeped in the debates, dilemmas, and desires of a particular complex mind sustaining an equilibrium in a particular complex culture. Stevens’ poetry might seem to lend itself to such critics. But then what of Empson’s strong engagement with Swinburne, Shelley, and Thomas?

The trouble for Empson might be seen in his remark that the point of philosophising in Stevens’ poetry is to show that this sort of person need not philosophize, or in his remark that Stevens tries on languages like he might try on fancy-dress. Empson cannot identify exigency in Stevens’ poetry: the poetry bears a different relation towards motivation and need than other poems and poets that he admires. It might be that this too is what does not bother Vendler, who can find in the poetry a delicacy of feeling which she is not inclined to explain by way of a self’s need.

Empson means to praise Stevens when he writes that he is “more unself-centered than most poets nowadays care to be,” but Empson in turn has trouble locating the pulse of self, with is struggle for reconciliation, balance and sanity, which he can locate in every other poet.

Rather than reject Empson’s principles—principles that prove their mettle by carrying him as far as they do in literary analysis—we might cling to them, and ask how they illuminate Stevens. And the sense of isolation, of solitude (but not loneliness; as Marky Halliday has written, with critical bite: there are no other real people in the landscapes of the poems), of the human metaphorical sufficiency to make a life of imaginative vividness from the flux of the world, which have fascinated most of Stevens’ critics (I neglected to mention Frank Kermode, whose introductory work on Stevens remains excellent as a way into the poems) might be couched in terms of Empson’s principles.

One maneuver of thought seems an obvious—too obvious, perhaps—a solution, but I think it is not wrong: Stevens’ poetry is written out of the need to disengage with the urgency of need itself….and along with the urgency of need, the urgency of sufficiency, of waste….Empson, as I’ve written, is profoundly concerned with many of Steven’s central preoccupations: isolation, an individual’s potential to contain multitudes… But in Empson’s work, these are tethered always, irrevocably, to worries of balance, of completeness, of waste, of compensation for the isolation that arises from the power of expansive inclusiveness in the first place.

Here is Stevens, as opposed to the entire tradition, especially the Romantic tradition on which he draws: the self as fundamentally isolated, affirming its aloneness without accepting loneliness; the self as susceptible to profound commerce with the stuff of the world, animated not by raw empiricism, but by the figures of speech that proponents of raw empiricism mistake as error; the world surrounding the self (as in Whitman) abundant, recompensatory, and as varied as our ways of perceiving it through our language.

Stevens writes a Romantic poetry that excludes so many of the Romantic burdens of need from the poetry; that proceeds from the fiction that “we need not need” those things that most poetry has claimed we need, but that proceeds nonetheless from one more fundamental need: for poetry itself. Time and again, the poetry suggests that the act of imaginative creation, is itself necessary…but what it is necessary for is the liberation from all sorts of needs which humanity, sufficient as it ought to be, does not genuinely possess. For Stevens, poetry enacts, displays, demonstrates, even implicitly pleads with us, that we do not need to need quite so much; at least not in the ways that our imaginations have led us to need. He is a therapeutic poet; a quiescent poet; he dissolves the knots of poetic exigency that motivate the tradition from which he draws most inspiration.

Not for Stevens a poetry that seeks the feel of not to feel it; instead a poetry written from the need of not to need it.


1 Comment

  1. So, I went to your Facebook to see the profile picture you mentioned at dinner last night and stumbled across your post on Stevens. I wrote my senior thesis on him! So I hope posting a few excerpts from my thesis isn’t overstepping my role as commenter – I just figured you might enjoy reading another’s take. Also I’m including my favorite quote by Stevens ever.

    I argue that regardless of whether or not Stevens’ poetry acts as an apocalyptic prophecy, or whether not he decries Christianity in favor of “truth” (which some argue is really an underlying refrain of Buddhism), his poetry is, at its most fundamental level, functional as a reaction to and against the world wars and modern society. He therefore assumes the role of poet, that is, a man whose only priority is to “help people live their lives” (Stevens Necessary Angel 29).

    In a sense, Modernism strove to mend the disenchantment of the metaphysical approach of Romanticism through active decreation and redefinition. In the early 1900s, the effectiveness and character of the imagination was in doubt; the modernist “meta-ideology” thus redefined the function of the imagination, “liberating it from shaky epistemological premises and so reclaiming its power in the face of psychological and social circumstances” (Gelpi 5). [. . .]

    Modernist poets such as Stevens and Williams had grown impatient with philosophizing; rather, they sought insight into their relation with the world via the active pursuit of the all-important original. In many ways, Modernism was an extreme disruption of tradition precipitating conversation on the notion of ‘relation’: the relation of self to non-self, of conscious to subconscious, or conscious to that exterior to the conscious; the relation of the present and the future to the past; the relation of phenomena and its meaning, and so on, were urgently redefine. [. . .] For poets such as Stevens, this relation was conceived through the reincarnation of the imagination as an implicitly creative device through which the poet could become the agent (rather than the recipient) of perception. [. . .]

    Nevertheless, Stevens called for the imagination as the only “reliable” constant – and most important factor – of the poetic equation by which the old, or the “romantic,” could be transformed into the “fresh,” truthful, “veritable thing.” In reference to his newly written poem, “Sailing after Lunch,” in 1935 (just four months before he critiqued Moore’s poetry a second time), Stevens wrote that “poetry is essentially romantic, only the romantic of poetry must be something constantly new and, therefore, just the opposite of what is spoken of as the romantic. Without this new romantic, one gets nowhere; with it, the most causal things take on transcendence, and the poet rushes brightly, and so on” (Stevens Letters by Wallace Stevens 277). Although he would argue that the process in which the ordinary is elevated to the new is transcendental, Stevens’ transcendence was different from that of Whitman’s. While Whitman, Emerson and other like-minded romantic poets argued that nature was divine, it was only through the interconnected process of the life and death cycle intrinsic to the universe that this divinity could be experienced. Through this understanding came transcendence: “the imagination was elevated [. . .] into the sublime human faculty, one through which the perceived subject penetrated to the essential reality and transcendental interrelatedness of the objects of experience” (Gelpi 5). For Stevens, on the other hand, transcendence was a function of purification. Poetry had to be innately romantic for it had to maintain “the sense of something beyond ‘mere things as they are’” (Surrette 22). Conversely, the means by which Stevens’ aimed to achieve this was via “eliminating from it [poetry] what people speak of as the romantic” (Stevens Letters by Wallace Stevens 277).

    His paradoxical argument can be translated into an attempt to achieve an understanding of the truth within the ordinary things through intuitive imagination, utilized and expressed in an eternally fresh, twentieth century way. Stevens’ theory of poetry was more of less the continuation, improvement, and perhaps completion of the flawed romantic quest for the “essential reality.”

    “It is easy to suppose that few people realize on that occasion, which comes to all of us, when we look at the blue sky for the first time, that is to say not merely see it, but look at it and experience it and for the first time have a sense that we live in the center of a physical poetry, a geography that would be intolerable except for the non-geography that exists there.”

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