When you start out with a feeling of alienation—from an unspoken, blank, or meaningless past—from a mass of others, or even single others, in the present–or from a future defined by a fraudulent and thin promise—the risks are either cynical withdrawal, refusing to believe that the estrangement can be overcome, or else sentimentality, the insistence that a momentary, blazing common feeling be allowed to outshine and overwhelm all distance or failings of connection. The former, cynicism, divests events, objects, and gesture with any meaning, because they can never be understood; the latter, sentimentality, invests them with a comfortingly anticipated and emotionally convenient significance prior to any comprehension of them as something other.
Probably any writer with a history, with a large and largely unknown society that might or might not read her work, and with a hope of reaching an hour beyond the present, must navigate between the two perils. But the strait between the two has been recognized as being especially narrow for American authors for whom the divorce between public and private, democratic mediocrity (tending “in all things towards mediocrity,” James Fenimore Cooper wrote) and elitist artistic observation, between egalitarian ideals and slavery and genocidal conquest, between region and nation, between frontier and origin, between counterfeit and original, scam and deal, have been inescapable and stringent in their demands.
In the wonderful and nearly forgotten (little quoted; long out of print) criticism of Marius Bewley, the line of successful negotiation through the divisions–between the imagination and society in Hawthorne, between Europe and America in James–is “reality,” the “inner self” of Hawthorne, the “life” of James; the genuine “reality” is itself an “ideal.” Hence American authors, in Bewley’s account, do not find “reality,” but they strive to discover it, as a scientist might discover a new theory, one that evades and reconciles old problems. A chief difference, says Bewley, following Trilling, between European and American literature, is that in European literature, the middle ground of “reality,” of the real thing to be discovered upon is not a theory, not an idea, but instead a particular fact of the social world and its configuration: a sexual experience (for Lawrence, say), a balancing of class responsibility and acceptance (for Austen or Trollope)….no more than any distinction can it do justice to the range of differences, but it points to the idealism of American literature, and to the particular form of that idealism, which is the perfect actualization of something “real” that evades characters and authors, sometimes a delusive wil’o’wisp and other times a natural iridescence. At the risk of a gross over-simplification, where American literature goes bad, it is often in either assuming that there is no ideal and no reality that is not a wil’o’wisp, or else in insisting too strongly that a concrete symbol of that evasive “ideal,” be accepted as final and authoritatively real. Here, again, are the pitfalls of cynicism and sentimentality.
Not then, just a literature of ideas, but a literature of ideals, where the risk is that the work of literature will become as nebulous as the ideal must be; that the presentation and exploration of the world will dissipate into the fog of poesy or mysticism because the ideal “reality,” that ideal that threads or reconciles the conflicts and contradictions central to the various experiences of America, is itself necessarily nebulous, imperfectly accessible, estranged even as grasped. There is no major American author–think symbol-laden Hawthorne, pantingly-yearning Whitman, coy-fae Dickinson, airlessly-metaphorical Stevens, obscurantist-portentuous Faulkner, reticent-nostalgist Cather–who has not failed at least some of the time on the same grounds that they have most powerfully succeeded.
It is on Stevens that I’d like to comment briefly because his poetry, seemingly divorced from the civic sphere, participates so clearly in the tension I’ve described; seeing his work in terms of the other authors, and in terms of the strait to be threaded by American authors, his poetry gains, for me, in so far as its philosophical commitments, to metaphor, world-making, to the imagination, are grounded in something peculiar to his country. It also makes me easier with some of Stevens’ shorter poems, especially when they rely on cacaphonic effects:
“Depression Before Spring”
The cock crows
But no queen rises.
The hair of my blonde
As the spittle of cows
Threading the wind.
Brings no rou-cou,
But no queen comes
In slipper green.
I don’t feel comfortable saying that the poem moves me in any way, but I feel more comfortable with the discomfort it intends; comfortable because the childish cooing noises, the imitations of bird-calls , or the nonsense, meaningless and playful, can be felt to have both a taunting distancing, consciously out of place in the poetry, a da-da-ist registering of alienation, but also are familiarly juvenile, their familiarity, their sense of private baby-talk, likewise a source of the embarrassment we feel when reading them: am embarrassment arising from being addressed in baby-babble, having to enunciate the baby-talk of another when we read it, or else overhearing another baby-talk to himself. The lines flirty with alienating us as they involve us in their liberation, but their liberation is also an attempt at gauging the extent of the poet’s own alienation.
How much do they mean? How much does Stevens want for them to mean? Something, but nothing comes of them; they do not herald Spring, that “queen” who does not come (a domestic touch, distantly maternal perhaps) “in slipper green.” The poles between which Stevens navigates are something like innocence and experience, but also pure sound and symbolic language, and sign and fulfillment; but the poem suggests that neither is quite right, that what is real lies between them, or within both. The dichotomies are not quite the same as those of James (though they may come closer to the ones in Hawthorne, where the imagination is a central topic), but they are of a piece with them.
One of Stevens’ best readers, R.P. Blackmur, in his essay “Examples of Wallace Stevens,” tackles head-on the effect of Stevens’ diction, where much of the work of negotiation is carried out: An air of preciousness bathes the mind of the casual reader when he finds such words as dubbed, girandoles, curlicues, catarrhs, gobbet, diaphanes, clopping, minuscule, pipping, panicles, carked, ructive, rapey, cantilene, buffo, fiscs, phylactery, princox, and funniest. And such phrases as “thrum with a proud douceur,” or “A pool of pink, slippered with lilies scudding the bright chromes,” hostile ready, merely increase the feeling of preciousness. Hence Mr Stevens has bad reputation among those who dislike the finicky, and a high one, unfortunately, among those who value the ornamental sounds of words but who see no purposes in developing sound from sense. Both classes of reader are wrong. Not a word listed above is used preciously; not one was chosen as an elegant substitute for a plain term; each, in its context, was a word definitely meant….It is the way that Mr. Stevens combines kinds of word, unusual in a single context, to reveal the substance he had in mind, which is of real interest to the reader.
In his readings of poems, Blackmur convincingly shows the work many of the words perform in revealing “the substance” of the poem; but he does risk dismissing the various reactions to the words, from squeamishness at their bare finickiness, to (what I imagine is much less common nowadays, but which would have been real in an era fresh in Edwardian imitations of Victorian verse) admiration at their aspiration for a register suited to poesy; both responses are guided, but ultimately misguided, not only because, as Blackmur says, the words serve the content of the verse, but because, in a similar way to Stevens’ baby-babble, they serve to reflect and comment upon expectations for poetry; they participate in, but also implicitly remark upon, the poet’s relationship to the American public and to the (American) English language.
The poems are easy in the democratic breadth of diction and register that they inherit from Whitman; but they are self-consciously and expressively awkward in aspiring to poesy, to a rarefied language of verse, as if verse must have such a language for itself; they deliver “difference,” even a heightened register, to the public, but it is different and heightened at a pitch is ironically, comically disoriented from any existing standard of poetic ornament; there is tension between the thought that the poet is aspiring upwards, with gauche results, and the thought that the poet is brilliantly unconcerned with anything but the best words for the job, however strange they sound, whatever taste they smack of; the poet becomes the idiosyncratic, eccentric workman, whose work is so fine that Blackmur can persuasively defend the delicately alien tools he employs; Stevens cannot be accused of ironically pretending to poetry, because the poetry is real; but he can leave us excluded from a sense that we understand our relationship to the poet’s words, a sense that even if we can, as Blackmur does, defend them for their precision of communication and expression, we perhaps are not supposed to feel comfortable in their presence.
At least one of the words on Blackmur’s list appear in a poem, “Banal Sojourn,” which appears (conveniently) before “Depression Before Spring” (both in Harmonium):
Two wooden tubs of blue hydrangeas stand at the foot of the stone steps.
The sky is a blue gum streaked with rose. The trees are black.
The grackles crack their throats of bone in the smooth air.
Moisture and heat have swollen the garden into a slum of bloom.
Pardie! Summer is like a fat beast, sleepy in mildew,
Our old bane, green and bloated, serene, who cries
“That bliss of stars, that princox of heaven!” reminding of seasons,
When radiance came running down, slim through the bareness.
And so it is one damns that green shade at the bottom of the land.
For who can care at the wigs despoiling the Satan ear?
And who does not seek the sky unfazed, soaring to the princox?
One has a malady, here, a malady. One feels a malady.
A “princox,” incidentally, is a self-confident young fool or a coxcomb (though here it seems like a zenith or pinnacle); “grackles” are a sort of bird. “earwigs” (the joke in “wigs despoiling the Satan ear”) are insects.
First, it needs to be said that the poem does capture something of the vital laziness of summer, in its movement, in the fertility selection of word, the wanton excesses of description, and the haphazard sequence of images; it does something well, in so far as it brings something clearly before the mind, apprehends it. But it also apprehends, and asks us to apprehend, though we can only do so with bafflement and uncertainty, the nature of the intelligence that moves behind the poem; who would describe the summer in this way? Is it naively thrilled at the possibilities of language, or adhering to conventions so rarefied that they are out of reach? The language feels so privately cultivated as to be at once immediately accessible (anything cultivated entirely in private has no expectations of audience, and that liberates us to not care about its strangeness) and also hermetically circumscribed (cultivated in such privacy, can its significance be reached?).
The final line reads like a diagnosis: something here is wrong, something in what has been said, or in what has not been said. But that final diagnosis itself is tonally athwart our expectations of worry; it feels like a parody of concern, or else a vaudeville performance of it, akin to the interjections in Berryman’s Dream Songs. So we are left with a second voice, an expression of concern that disconcerts, that might be open to the same diagnosis it offers
Is it a game in which readers are made victims? I do not think so. Instead, it is an example, radical, of (to use Geoffrey Hill’s phrase, adapted from F.H. Bradley) the poet “getting into the poem the conditions of judgment”–that is, to understand what the poem says and shows, we need to understand not the poet himself, but the circumstances in which the poet writes, the sense of simultaneous accessibility and distance, of alienation and familiarity; and Stevens builds them in. Stevens defines the poet’s ambiguous place in relation to the world–an ambiguity not on the level of syntax or sense, but in terms of attitude and relation, an ambiguity of place. It is, in the end, a political statement, one that puts Stevens at odds with the nature of American political discourse.
Here, a late poem, “Sketch of the Ultimate Politician”:
He is the final builder of the total building,
The final builder of the total dream,
Or will be. Building and dream are one.
There is a total building and there is
A total dream. There are words of this,
Words, in a storm, that beat around the shapes.
There is a storm much like the crying of the wind,
Words that come out of us like words within,
That have rankled for many lives and made no sound.
He can hear them, like people on the walls,
Running in the rises of common speech,
Crying as that speech falls as if to fail.
There is a building stands in a ruinous storm,
A dream interrupted out of the past,
From beside us, from where we have yet to live.
Neither sentimental nor cynical towards an ideal, the poem mistrusts what it means to be the “ultimate” politician. Without the reaches of register found in the earlier poetry, Stevens reaches instead in the burden he places on existential predicates, “There is” and “There are,” and the implication of sturdiness, of certainty, of foundations (in the word “total” also), that is tilted towards doubt and skepticism by the repetition, by the pounding rhythm in parallel syntax, by line-breaks. The the politician’s way of speaking may be hollow, but the words, the image of a dream and building are not, in themselves bankrupt; the suggestion that the politician can genuinely hear the wordless voices may be false, a sham posture of democratic appeal, but the words may, in the judgment of the poem, be nonetheless present, redeemable, or with implicit and unrecognized worth. The final stanza pivots; “There is” returns after an abeyance, “a building” is no longer “a total building,” the perspective seems to have detached from the politician; here is something, perhaps, that he cannot see; it is cynical perhaps, hopeless because no political could ever see the building that stands in the storm, a symbol from the past that has never been inhabited; but it also cautiously permits itself an idealism; the ideal of the building and dream are real, and near, “have yet” does not abandon hope, but it also does not assume a sentimental air of fate.
What the poem manages to do is to save two symbols, a dream and a building, and their corresponding idealism, from utter destruction at the mouth of a politician; it recovers without going so far as to invest them with new certainty, or substance; their mystery is restored to them, but that mystery is now a cause of doubt as well as hope.
“The unifying power of the imagination” in Stevens (to take a phrase from Marius Bewley) does not ever really unite; it is instead an ideal in which that union might be possible, that the contradictions and fissures might be overcome; Stevens’ imaginative power is a reality that is never entirely realized. Instead, it is an aspiration, a nebulous ideal that can only move towards–without perfect completion–a reconciliation of extremes of estrangement and familiarity, alienation and recognition. These are contained in the poetry, and must be given place there, if the imagination that is celebrated and proclaimed is to have matter to work upon.