Stevens’ poetry is the culmination of romantic idealism, and in comprehending its method and ambitions, the words of philosopher Sebastian Rödl (from his most recent work, Self-Consciousness and Objectivity) are apposite:
This explains what may appear a curious character of the present essay: it propounds no theses, advances no hypotheses, does not recommend a view or position; it does not give arguments that are to support a view, it does not defend a position against competing ones, it does nothing to rule out contrary theses. It does nothing of the sort because it is–it brings to explicit consciousness–the self-consciousness of judgment. As it aims to express the comprehension of judgment that is contained in any judgment, the present essay can say only what anyone always already knows, knows in any judgment, knows insofar as she judges at all. It cannot say anything that is novel, it can make no discovery, it cannot advance our knowledge in the least. Echoing Kant, we can say that its work is not that universal knowledge, but a formula of it. Its work is its language. Again echoing Kant, we can say that this is no mean thing. In the formula we think clearly what we know; the formula shields us from confusion, which, being confusion with respect to the knowledge in which and through which we are subjects of judgment, must do the most and pervasive damage.
Perhaps with each revolution in philosophy, there is a revolution in the style and ambitions of philosophical argument. Rödl extends the tradition of German Idealism from Kant, whom he invokes, through Wittgenstein, whose presence is implicit through the passage, to the modern day, and in so doing, he extends the tradition of a way of doing philosophical work, one that might be thought a critique, a clearing-up, or a therapeutic act; philosophy frees us from the tangled roots of confusion that sustain a great deal of philosophical activity.
In the idealist tradition that we encounter above, we are always receptive to the world, as it is; the world and our understanding of it are continuous with one another, inseparable from one another; philosophy shows what this means, how we can be at ease in our intuitions and judgments, finding freedom in our self-consciousness, comprehending what we are in the flux of our being. Like the philosophy Rödl describes, Wordsworth’s poetry does not argue; it reformulates to fortify against confusions about how we relate to the world.
Wordsworth inaugurates something similar in poetry, trying not to argue, but to restore our receptivity to the world, to clarify it and reconcile ourselves to our own understanding, our memory, our self-consciousness; Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Browning all carry on in the same tradition, as do others (Eliot, Ruskin, Proust). Stevens might mark the end of the tradition, at least the last great peak in the line. With slight modifications, Rödl’s words might grasp his poetry’s achievements and aims.
Stevens’ poetry does not, then, represent a triumph of the imagination over the world, the constitutive powers of art and poetry over the given material of existence; it does not celebrate, either, the endlessly generative powers of the mind confronted with an expanse of reality. It reminds us, instead, of the accord of mind and world, not settled or uniform, and not passively co-existing, but perforce transient and changing and actively meeting one another. Language is a field, but not the only field, of encounter; it happens to be the field that Stevens celebrates. That is to situate Stevens in the idealist tradition, as the idealist tradition is, I think, most fruitfully and persuasively understood.
What I’d like to think about here is why Stevens’ accomplishment strikes me as so much more profoundly satisfying in one poem more than all the rest. That poem is, unsurprisingly, “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction.”
To answer that question I can only offer a description of what is different about that poem from most others by Stevens, and consider how that difference bears on the subject matter.
Reflect, first, on two perils of the idealism that Stevens exemplifies: one is that the poet, speaking of a situation that is generally true for all (the conscious receptivity of the world), may presume to speak for all; the other is that the poet, advancing no argument, accepting that everyone already knows what is being said, already experiencing it for themselves (and Stevens, who extends the term “poet” to cover a great many, if not all, people), is under no obligation to think much about an audience at all, to pitch his voice into the heavens, either as an ironic spectacle, confusing to observers in order to amuse himself, or else interested in amusing himself, whatever observers might think.
Stevens does not usually fall into either extreme. But his usual route of escape is to adopt a tone of cold, isolation, moving at times in so far as he avoids speaking for others in the knowledge not that others already know or already share, but in the sense that they might not care, under the thought that his voice would make no difference; the poems are resigned to their isolation in so far as their ambition, to leave things unchanged, means that they will not change either what others feel about the world, or what they feel about the poet, or how near or far the poet is to them. Exemplary (but it is easy to choose an example) might be the poem, uncollected, “The Course of a Particular”:
Today the leaves cry, hanging on branches swept by wind,
Yet the nothingness of winter becomes a little less.
It is still full of icy shades and shapen snow.
The leaves cry…One holds off and merely hears the cry.
It is a busy cry, concerning someone else.
And though one says that one is part of everything,
There is a conflict, there is a resistance involved;
And being part is an exertion that declines;
One feels the life of that which gives life as it is.
The leaves cry. It is not a cry of divine attention,
Nor the smoke-drift of puffed-out heroes, nor human cry.
It is the cry of leaves that do not transcend themselves,
In the absence of fantasia, without meaning more
Than they are in the final finding of the ear, in the thing
Itself, until, at last, the cry concerns no one at all.
This is not just lyric as an utterance overheard or lyric as ‘poet speaking to himself.’ The isolation of the poem is at one with the thought of what sort of work this poetry is doing, which is also, it needs to be stressed, not an abnegation of political or civic relevance of poetry; clearing up the imagination, relating to the world as Stevens is working to relate to it, is both ethical and political, because of what such a relation requires if it is to be most happily realized.
The key word in the poem is “merely,” both because Stevens is writing about how hard it is to merely here and merely see, and how valuable it can be, but also because a poem can do only “merely” so little.
“There is a conflict, there is a resistance involved” stares blankly at the difficulty, but does not name it, does not want to get too near; it recalls Empson, “You don’t want madness and the whole thing there,” both stoical and terrified. It is the moment when Stevens concedes how much trouble it is to merely here and to merely be heard.
But the best of this poem, and so many others like it, is something that is other than “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction.” In that poem, we encounter the following (third part, section VII):
He imposes orders as he thinks of them,
As the fox and snake do. it is a brave affair.
Next he builds capitols and in their corridors,
Whiter than wax, sonorous, fame as it is,
He establishes statues of reasonable men,
Who surpassed the most literate owl, the most erudite
Of elephants. But to impose is not
To discover. To discover an order as of
A season, to discover summer and know it,
To discover winter and know it well, to find,
Not to impose, not to have reasoned at all,
Out of nothing to have come on major weather,
It is possible, possible, possible. It must
Be possible. It must be that in time
The real will from its crude compoundings come,
Seeming, at first, a beast disgorged, unlike,
Warmed by a desperate milk. To find the real,
To be stripped of every fiction except one,
The fiction of an absolute–Angel,
Be silent in your luminous cloud and hear
The luminous melody of proper sound.
It is not only the appearance of the Angel at the end that suggests Rilke: it is the urgency in the words, and an urgency that comes not from believing that others must listen, that there is unknown truth in the poet’s words, or a necessary law to be imposed, or an argument to be won, but the urgency of clarifying what is already the case, of drawing out the sound for another person.
The urgency to communicate what is, rather than to persuade; this is to me the distinct note of “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction.” Eleanor Cook suggests that the poem is framed as a lecture of sorts, with the initial address to the young learner, “Ephebe,” becoming, in the penultimate section, a scene of the poet leaving the lecture hall, as if the poet has been transformed from lecturer to listener. I don’t find such a progression true to the poem; the poet does not lecture here. He does not want to impart knowledge; he wants to assist another person in seeing, with a personal investment in the task that makes readers uneasy thinking it is for them chiefly.
Another reference-point for the urgency to communicate without arguing might be Whitman; but Whitman is assured in the reach of his public. Stevens’ poem, addressed to Henry Church, does not presume a general public. The “you” of the opening lines might not be Church (though the dedication suggests it is); it might even be plural; but it is not open to any taker:
And for what, except for you, do I feel love?
Do I press the extremest book of the wisest man
Close to me, hidden in me day and night?
In the uncertain light of single, certain truth,
Equal in living changingness to the light
In which I meet you, in which we sit at rest,
For a moment in the central of our being,
The vivid transparence that you bring is peace.
The crucial touchstone for this poem, setting it squarely, centrally, in the best of the tradition of romantic idealist poetry, is in fact the vestige of the poetry of the eighteenth-century: the conversation poem, as developed by Coleridge (“Frost at Midnight”) and Wordsworth, and carried by Shelley and then by Browning’s dramatic monologues and Tennyson’s idyls and even the intimate address of In Memoriam.
“Conversation poems” are not new because they converse with another; they are new because they converse with another, they extend and urgently reach out towards a second-person, in order to clarify the “vivid transparence” of the first-person’s receptivity of the world.
Now, I’ve said that “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” seems a greater poem than any other by Stevens and I’ve described how that poem is different; my description is not, in itself, an evaluation. To explain why I think it is greater, I would not turn to the tradition of “conversation poems” or the urgency of communication, per se. I would instead point out that the poem makes central something that other poems by Stevens do not: the presence of the second-person, the “you,” whether explicit in the lines or implicit in their orientation.
Companionship does not make for a better poem than isolation, but a first-person poem that is about first-person receptivity does gain something in its sense of what it means to actively receive the world. An insight from the Idealist tradition of which Stevens is a part suggests why that is. Here, from Sebastian Rödl’s Self-Consciousness, the final chapter of which is on second-person thoughts:
A first person thought represents an act as manifesting an order of reason. An order of reason is general; it induces a manifold, the manifold of those whose acts can be explained by being subsumed under it. An unmediated first person thought contains an idea of this manifold and places its referent among its members. In first person thought, I represent myself as one of a kind, which means that, thinking first person thoughts, I deploy the general idea of a subject of that kind, and thereby have the idea of other subjects of the order that governs by actions and beliefs…Mutual knowledge of self-conscious subjects is not an addition to their self-consciousness. A formally represented order that sustains first person thought and its way of knowing as such sustains second person thought and its way of knowing.
We found that, in suitable cases, “Today…” said yesterday and “Yesterday…” said today express the same act of thinking. These cases are fundamental in that, without them, there would be no such thing as an act of thinking expressed by either phrase. And when “…today…” yesterday and “….yesterday…” today express the same act of thinking, then they express the same thought. Therefore, it would be misleading to contrast “yesterday”-thoughts with “today”-thoughts; in the fundamental case, a “yesterday”-thought is a “today”-thought. What holds of “today” and “yesterday” holds of “I” and “you.” We said that my thinking second personally about you and your receiving my second person thought, thinking back at me personally, is one act of thinking, an act of thinking for two. But you receive my thought thinking an unmediated first thought. Hence, my “You” addressed at you and your “I” that receives my address express the same act of thinking. This case is fundamental in that, without it, there would be no such thing as thoughts expressed by “You…” and, consequently, by “I…” As “You…” said by me to you and “I…” said by you in taking up my address, express the same act of thinking, they express the same thought. Therefore, it is wrong to oppose second person thought to first person thought. This is a difference in the means of expression, not in the thought expressed. Second person thought is first person thought. It is the thought of the self-conscious.
First of all, we can say that the inclusion of a second-person, the reaching out to a second-person, is natural to Romantic Idealist poetry because (if we follow Rödl), being poetry that is concerned with clarifying the first-person self-conscious receptivity of the world, such poetry must also concern itself with the second-person.
More profoundly, though, we can consider why Stevens’ conversation poem (“Notes toward a Supreme Fiction,” I mean) possesses such urgency. First-person thought must also, always already, exist as second person thought if it is to be a first-person thought at all. The fact of a first-person thought already entails second person thought. In any poem in the first person, Stevens entails a second person. But it does not always entail a particular second-person, and this notion of friendship and compatibility defines the conversation poem: even if the notion that second person thought is first person thought is philosophically sound, it might follow, for a poet, that the right second person be enlisted, that the right other among the manifold of possible subjects, complete the “I” of a first person thought.
In that insistence, Stevens’ poem clarifies something further: that in practice the desire to think and receive the world aright, as a poet or an acute and critical subject, in the first person depends upon not just the second person but on some particular second person; that the second person-thought that first-person thought always already is might not be the right second person-thought, so that when Idealist Romantic poetry worries and strains to actively receive the world in the right succession of first-person thoughts, it is also always worrying over and straining towards the right second-person form of those same thoughts.
Conversation poems admit into the Romantic poetry the full challenge of achieving adequate expression, of opening the self to the world so as to flourish.