There is no sine qua non for poetic success, but it is difficult to imagine making sense of whether a poem is successful at all, or even of making sense of a poem, without also imagining the human action that it imagines. The measure of feeling and deliberate thought that moves the best poems cannot be appreciated if they are not placed, not only in respect to location, but in respect to someone (or many people) doing something in that location. Aristotle said that poetry imitates action; the weak reading takes this to mean that a poetry is an imitation of a voice that might be real; but a stronger and more interesting reading would take it to mean that poetry is an imitation of human life, which cannot be known apart from its actions, which provide the situation and perspective for thought and feeling both.
I cannot think of a good poem that is not better read by a sense of a person in it doing something; when that cannot be managed, we do not have, as it were an account of why it goes wrong, but we know we can look for something amiss.
As an example, take the poetry of Robert Browning. In one of the most controversial and disparaged of twentieth-century critical claims, for instance, we find T.S. Eliot suggesting something called a ‘dissociation of sensibility’ took place, either in the era of English Civil War or else in the wake of Dante. As a matter of history, it is an empty claim, in so far as it cannot be established or defeated with any of the historian’s tools; as an imaginative critical claim, it is perhaps only a club to beat the Victorians and Romantics. But in beating them, he does have recourse to a suggestive word: “Browning and Tennyson ruminated.” Rumination is a problem because of its detachment from action. It’s unfair as a charge against their best poems, but does suggest some of what goes wrong with their more tedious works, which is of the same weave as their most enduring: in both poems, action is a problem in a new way, with Tennyson’s poetry walking the knife’s edge of active and passive from a first-person perspective, and Browning’s monologues either, in “My Last Duchess,” heavy with foreboding action, or else helpless before foreboding action, or other variations on stifled or futile action (“Bishop Orders His Tomb”; “Spanish Cloister”; “Youth and Art”). Christopher Ricks somewhere remarks (in an essay on Beddoes, I think) that the success of Browning’s dramatic monologues depends on the silence of the interlocutor being recognized and felt as a presence; a silence that might be broken. But it also depends on the relation of the speech to the various plots of which it might be a part. This is different from Tennyson’s monologues, in which there can be no plot. But in their longer more tedious works, the absence of action is not felt as its impossibility or its deferral or threat or imminence, but simply as its absence; the poems can feel as if they lack an inner arc of action because action itself is not sufficiently realized around them. The dissociation of sensibility is a dissociation not of thought and feeling, then, but of understanding and action; action is the larger nexus binding the two.
Wallace Stevens is an especially difficult case. In quite a few of his poems, it can seem that nobody is doing anything, if anybody is doing anything at all. Is “Theory” a poem or a squib:
I am what is around me.
Women understand this.
One is not duchess
A hundred yards from a carriage.
These, then, are portraits:
A black vestibule;
A high bed sheltered by curtains.
These are merely instances.
But it is up to us to tell the story: if they are portraits, they are portraits of people; they bestow identity because of what is done by them, or in them, by those who occupy them. “These are merely instances” is shrouded in suggestion without sufficient figure, perhaps; but it is not a coincidence that these two spaces are themselves secret. What are they instances of? What is around him, or portraits? It is a poem about place, like many of Stevens’ poems, but place transcends location by virtue of the habits it sustains, the conduct it encourages, and the interactions it permits. This is cryptic, in the same way as “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is cryptic, but the presence of a body in the crypt depends on our seeing the body that is moving through the poem, a whole haunting gothic scene, glanced at through the gauze.
Stevens’ method is to suspend in uncertainty just whether there is anyone in the poems doing the acting at all, or whether the poems are empty of human activity beyond the patterning of the poem. Are they all exercises in solipsism? The answer, what distinguishes Stevens from Shelley, is that even if he is alone writing the poem, he is not alone in the poem; he is writing about someone, potentially. The first-person is not bearing the exclusive weight of action. But the figure in the poem cannot always be firmly grasped. This is another way of making sense of the “indeterminacy” of Stevens’ modernism.
A while ago, I wrote in a post on T.S. Eliot and modernism that James Trilling’s description of Cezanne suggested a way of making sense of Wallace Stevens’ achievement, too:
What his predecessors had done for the transient qualities of light, Cézanne did for the solidity of form. Light and form are translated equally into the arbitrary units of paint, and neither light, nor form, nor brushwork is sacrificed. Cézanne’s brushwork cannot disappear into the illusion: it is too bold. The result is a dynamic abstract surface that co-exists with the illusion on equal terms….this effect gives Cézanne’s images a permanence that enhances the solidity of his subjects, and a dynamism that transcends their stillness. If there is a way to carry this development further in the same direction, no one has found it. Any change must upset the balance.
In my thought at the time, the comparison could be drawn because Trilling is suggesting that for Cezanne the action is the patterning; the still-life alone succeeds as a field for action because the opportunity it provides for patterning; the challenge and accomplishment of patterning is the activity. So in Stevens too; the Romantic extreme of Stevens might be described as the power of receptivity taken to its most active extreme, and in the poetry, this means not just that the poetry is about writing poems, but that the poetry is about a more fundamental activity common to much else in life, with poetry, so unabashedly divorced from utilitarian ends, a means of isolating and reflecting upon this basic human function (“imagination” is Stevens’ word).
Now that seems insufficient. Trilling makes the persuasive and broadly illuminating claim that modernism in visual and material art cannot be accounted for by a rise of abstraction or a rejection of the figural; instead, he suggests that modernism is about indeterminacy. In the case of Eliot, I proposed that this indeterminacy is indeterminacy of rhetoric. But now this too seems insufficient.
In modernism, it is human action that itself becomes indeterminate. But wasn’t this already the case with the Romantics; Wordsworth, for instance, is fascinated by figures who move on the axis of activity and passivity? Yes, but this is not indeterminacy of action per se; it is indeterminacy of the mode of action, of human agency and passivity. With Eliot, the phenomenon is felt differently, as an indeterminacy of action’s possibility and actuality, and of action’s realization as action or existing only as stifled potential. With Stevens, it is the indeterminacy of the presence or absence of the human agent in the poetry.
As a digression, it is somewhat peculiar that a critic as imaginative and insightful as Empson thought that Stevens had nothing to say. Granted, Empson came to that judgment when young, but I’ve seen no evidence that he revised it. The opinion can be thought interesting rather than peculiar when we ask what Empson meant by having nothing to say, and reflecting that usually in Empson this is expressed in the terms of the Robert Graves/Laura Riding conflict theory of poetry; but Empson in practice is not relying so much on that theory as he is relying on his sense of the story in a poem, and his imaginative grasp that poems involve people doing things and not just saying or thinking them. I’m tempted to think that Empson came up short in his experience of Wallace Stevens because he did not see anybody doing anything in or around those poems, as he did so magnificently in his salvaging of, say, Auden’s The Orators.
But how beautiful “The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad” on account of there being and not being a person in the poem who is not Stevens:
The time of year has grown indifferent.
Mildew of summer and the deepening snow
Are both alike in the routine I know.
I am too dumbly in my being pent.
The wind attendant on the solstices
Blows on the shutters of the metropoles,
Stirring no poet in his sleep, and tolls
The grand ideas of the villages.
The malady of the quotidian…
Perhaps, if winter once could penetrate
Through all its purples to the final slate,
Persisting bleakly in an icy haze,
One might in turn become less diffident,
Out of such mildew plucking neater mould
And spouting new orations of the cold.
One might. One might. But time will not relent.
At one level, this is a poem about the inability to overcome the inertia of ennui; it is about wanting to act and not being able to manage to do so (the repetition of “might” especially). In this, it is not dissimilar to Eliot. But the “one” of the final stanza has a startling effect of both being and not being the “I” who is in his being “too dumbly pent” (recalled also by the rhyme on “relent”); it might be the poet, but also might be a villager. Wordsworth struggles to imagine the solitaries he encounters; Stevens struggles to know whether in his solitude he is encountering anyone at all.
In other poems, the indeterminacy is located elsewhere, not along the axis of Stevens and not-Stevens, poet and figure, but along the question of whether action is action or whether it is happening. In the “Snow Man” it is a question of whether the Snow Man is human; in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” it is a question whether there is space for distinct human action apart from but within the natural world (the “way”) or whether human action is one more happening in the way of nature. But neither poem depends on Stevens’ solitude; even as they are about human isolation, they are also about human existence being inhumanly dissolved into the world. If action is only happening, then the indeterminacy if action is transferred, not to whether it is this subject or that subject, but whether there is any subject at all.
I at first thought the clearly superb “Sea Surface Full of Blooms” would offer little to illustrate my point, being one of what must be no doubt quite a few exceptions. But then I read more closely and noticed that the sequence of questions (the first three below) which I took to be rhetorical are themselves poised, referring to both a force within the poet and another person, acting in the scene with him, not just participating in the imagining, but sailing alongside, with erotic overtones:
Who, then, in that ambrosial latitude
Out of the light evolved the moving blooms,
Who, then, evolved the sea-blooms from the clouds
Diffusing balm in that Pacific calm?
C’etait mon enfant, mon bijou, mon ame.
Who, then, beheld the rising of the clouds
That strode submerged in that malevolent sheen,
Who saw the mortal massives of the blooms
Of water moving on the water-floor?
C’etait mon frere du cile, ma vie, mon or.
Who, seeing silver petals of white blooms
Unfolding in the water, feeling sure
Of the milk within the saltiest spurge, heard, then,
The sea unfolding in the sunken clouds?
Oh! C’etait mon extase et mon amour.
The questions are quite overt in their indeterminacy, uncertain as all questions, but also uncertainly uncertain; are they rhetorical or not? Are they beseeching another for an answer? Are they suggesting that the scene changed shape and hue not only because of another’s presence, but because of the interaction of a poet and another in that place? It can feel cheap to leave such questions unanswered, but here it feels apt, a recognition of what is held in place, allowing competing answers without a victor. We lose only if we abolish human action, full, dynamic, character-sustained human action, from Stevens’ poetry, if we forget that it too depends upon the imitation of human action, even if that imitation of action is not entirely or decidedly within the poetry.