Wallace Stevens and the supreme fiction

If Stevens is a very different poet from Eliot, it is in part because of his different relationship to poetic lyricism. Walton Litz, who entitled his book on Stevens Introspective Voyager, characterizes Stevens' poetic project as a voyage in search for the "self": 'a 'self' dependent on the pure poetry of the physical world, a 'self' whose terrifying lack of belief is turned into a source of freedom."1 This self is both solitary and interiorized (in dialogue with what he called "the Interior Paramour"); it is engaged in a meditative or whimsical communion with nature but rarely engaged in any form of interaction with the world of social or historical particulars. As opposed to the various "selves" operating within the multivoiced modernist poems of Eliot and Pound - each of which stands in a variety of historical and symbolic relationships with the poet himself- Stevens' selfis defined through the manipulation of his own authorial voice. Stevens' primary concern is not with history, or civilization, or even nature, but with the "mythology of self" and with the self's relationship to both the world outside and the inner workings of the mind as it attempts to order and shape that world. The central philosophical theme which runs in various permutations throughout Stevens' poetry is that of the tension, opposition, or interplay between reality and the imagination. As Denis Donoghue remarks, Stevens was interested in reality "only when it [had] been refracted through the idiom of art," or, to be more precise, only when it had been refined and colored by the poet's imagination.

Neither Pound nor Eliot would have considered Stevens' question about reality and the imagination to be particularly important to the writing of poetry. For Pound it was not possible to define the poetic imagination apart from the structures and insights contained in history, mythology and cultural tradition, all of which supplied the poet with both his inspiration and his primary subject. For Eliot, the defining feature of poetry was not how successfully it negotiated between reality and the imagination, but rather how fully it engaged literary tradition: the best poems, according to Eliot, were those in which the poet's predecessors "assert their immortality most vigororously." In the work of modernists like Pound and Eliot, we can speak of the imagination only in a particular sense - the auditory imagination at work in many of Pound's Cantos, for example, or the visual imagination behind Eliot's remarkable imagery in The Waste Land - but we cannot find an all-embracing theory ofthe imagination in its relationship to an external, objective reality.

The poetic mode typical of Stevens, on the other hand, is one in which he contemplates the workings of the imagination itself. Poems such as "Sea Surface Full of Clouds," in which he imagines the same seascape in five different ways, or "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," in which he presents a series of poetic statements about how the imagination works to structure reality, reveal a fundamentally different idea of poetry from that of Pound and Eliot. Poetry, Stevens claimed in a 1940 letter to Hi Simons, was the "Supreme Fiction" in a world in which "one no longer believes in God (as truth)." It is this belief in poetry as a Supreme Fiction that places Stevens in the Romantic tradition of Emerson and Whitman; Stevens can be seen as the major twentieth-century exemplar of what Harold Bloom has called "High American Romanticism."

But what exactly is the Supreme Fiction, and what is its significance for American poetry in the twentieth century? As Frank Kermode argued in his seminal study of Stevens, the Supreme Fiction is an alternative world, a world of the imagination which "weaves its always changing, always delightful, fictive covering" over the world of reality.3 Stevens himself describes this fictive world in highly Romantic terms: the "imaginative man" (i.e. the poet) delights in the world of the imagination rather than in the "gaunt world of reason," creating "a truth that cannot be arrived at by the reason alone, a truth that the poet recognizes by sensation." The purpose of poetry, then, would be to give the reader a glimpse of such a world, to provide a sense of reality transformed by the poet's imaginative powers.

Stevens' life was relatively uneventful, at least when compared with the more momentous careers of expatriate writers like Pound and Eliot. Born and raised in Reading, Pennsylvania, where his father was a lawyer, Stevens attended high school in Reading and then entered Harvard. During his three years at Harvard, Stevens studied French and German, read philosophy, wrote poems, and became editor of the Harvard Advocate, the same magazine in which Eliot would later publish his early poems. He also met a number of aspiring poets, including Witter Bynner and Walter Arensberg, and became friendly with George Santayana, whose dual interest in poetry and philosophy resembled his own. After briefly taking a job as a journalist with the New York Herald Tribune, Stevens was convinced by his father to enter law school. He completed a law degree, was admitted to the New York Bar in 1904, and worked for several law firms over the next twelve years. In 1916 he joined the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he was employed for the rest of his career, working his way up to the position of vice president by 1934.

Stevens began publishing his poems in Poetry and other little magazines in 1914, but he did not complete his first volume of poetry, Harmonium, until 1923. Like Frost, Stevens was relatively late in reaching his poetic maturity: he was forty-four when Harmonium was published, and he took another twelve years to bring out a second volume, Ideas of Order. His reputation grew slowly, so that until the 1950s his work was less generally known than that of Frost, Eliot, or Pound: Stevens' status as a major American modernist was not clearly established until near the end of his life.

Many of Stevens' most famous lyrics were contained in Harmonium, certainly the most impressive first volume of any twentieth-century American poet. As in the case of Walt Whitman, whose 1855 first edition of Leaves of Grass was a similarly stunning achievement, there is little in the early poems and journals of Stevens to anticipate the appearance of such a strikingly original book. The poems Stevens had written at Harvard were Romantic exercises in the style of Keats and Shelley, but as the poems of Harmonium began appearing around 1915, the unusual combination of a diverse set of influences began to be felt. The most commonly cited influences on Stevens' poetry, aside from the Romantics, are the American transcenden-talist tradition of Whitman and Emerson, the French symbolist tradition of Baudelaire, Valéry, and Mallarme, and the Imagist practices of modernists like Pound and Williams. Given the eclecticism of Stevens' influences and his lack of a fully articulated agenda for poetry such as that of the Imagists, it is not surprising that the style of Harmonium varies considerably from poem to poem. The book was at once traditional and experimental, conforming neither to the programmatic experimentalism of the Imagists nor to the traditional notion of poetry as formal and high-minded.

Stevens' guardedly irreverent stance is summed up by the poem "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman," where he argues that poetry should not only be written according to the "moral law" and the "conscience," but also be animated by a "bawdiness / Unpurged by epitaph." While the poem's speaker may "agree in principle" with the traditional view of poetry as a lofty and serious affair (a view in concert with Stevens' own Lutheran upbringing), he prefers to imagine poets as "disaffected flagellants" who will "whip from themselves / A jovial hullaballoo among the spheres." Here, too, we find Stevens' characteristic mixing ofdiction for comic effect: the formal latinate diction of "disaffected flagellants" is thrown into comic relief by the lines that follow (the "whipping" here less a penance than a celebration), just as the poetic sublime of "haunted heaven" is reduced to the "tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk" of poetic exuberance.

I will focus my discussion on Harmonium, not only because it contains many of his most celebrated and frequently anthologized poems, but also because it introduced the major preoccupations which would continue to occupy Stevens throughout his poetic career. If Stevens' later volumes are more meditative and elegiac in style and less prone to humorous wordplay, they continue to develop and refine the two central ideas first addressed in Harmonium: the relationship of reality and the imagination, and the search for order and meaning in a world without religious belief.

The poems of Harmonium fall into several generic categories. There are meditative blank-verse poems such as "Sunday Morning," "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle," and "To the One of Fictive Music"; there are short, imagistic poems such as "Bantams in Pine-Woods," "Ploughing on Sunday," "Earthy Anecdote," "Disillusionment at Ten O'Clock," and "Domination ofBlack"; there are poems organized as variations on a theme, such as "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," "Sea Surface Full of Clouds," "The Plot Against the Giant," "Six Significant Landscapes," and "Peter Quince at the Clavier"; there are shorter blank-verse poems such as "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman" and "On the Manner of Addressing Clouds"; there are parable-like free-verse poems like "Anecdote of the Jar" and "The Snow Man"; and, finally, there is the long narrative poem "The Comedian as the Letter C."

As many critics have remarked, Stevens' early poetry is clearly marked by the influence of Imagism, yet at the same time the poems depart from Imagist practice in their far greater tendency to abstraction and philosophical argument. Joseph Riddel argues that while Stevens' early poetry has affinities with Imagism, it is marked by an opposite strategy: "relating himself to his world by ingesting its flow of appearances and transforming sensation into the rhythms and forms of his own sensibility."4 While Pound's notion of the image was largely governed by the analogy of painting or sculpture (in other words, forms involving a fixed visual representation in a moment of time), Stevens allows his images to flow into the motions and forms of continuing and changing experience. Throughout Harmonium, Stevens is more interested in describing movement and flux than in representing static forms or in objectifying the world through a presentation of its images. In a poem like "Domination ofBlack" (1916), for example, Stevens is far more focused on the whirling movement ofthe fallen leaves and on the use ofrep-etition as a formal device than on the objects themselves as images. Stevens differs from poets like William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore -both of whom were more closely allied with Imagist practice - in being primarily a lyric poet and only secondarily a descriptive or objective poet. As Stevens put it in a rhetorical oversimplication of the Imagist aesthetic: "Not all objects are equal. The vice of imagism was that it did not recognize this."5 While Stevens was clearly interested in relating the self to the natural or physical world, he was more concerned, as Riddel suggests, with the question of "how far the imagination could or should remake the world."6 In other words, he was less attracted by "the discovery of 'things as they are,'" and more by "the discovery of himself in the act of discovery."

It is surely significant that Stevens chose to begin Harmonium with a poem, "Earthy Anecdote" (1918), that can be read as anti-Imagist:

Every time the bucks went clattering Over Oklahoma A firecat bristled in the way.

Wherever they went, They went clattering, Until they swerved

In a swift, circular line To the right, Because of the firecat.

Or until they swerved In a swift, circular line To the left,

Because of the firecat.

The bucks clattered. The firecat went leaping. To the right, to the left, And

Bristled in the way.

Later, the firecat closed his bright eyes And slept.

Here, Stevens is less interested in describing the objects presented - "the bucks" and "the firecat" - than in the imaginative dance or drama played out between them. No descriptive terms are given for either bucks or fire-cat until the final stanza, and there is no attempt to make either the bucks or the firecat visually present to the reader. Stevens appears to find in the complementary motions of the bucks and the firecat an abstract principle of order rather than a concrete or realist description ofreality: the bucks clatter and swerve "in swift, circular lines" to left and right; the firecat bristles and leaps to right and left. The poem is structured as a narrative, teasing the reader with hints of both physical locatedness ("the bucks went clattering / Over Oklahoma") and temporal progression ("Every time . . . Until . . . Or until . . . Later"). But the minimalist and anti-referential language of the poem ultimately frustrate any attempt at entering its world of particulars.

Let us consider a more famous poem, "The Snow Man" (1922):

One must have a mind of winter To regard the frost and the boughs Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time To behold the junipers shagged with ice, The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think Of any misery in the sound of the wind, In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land

Full of the same wind

That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Here again, Stevens departs from an image-based poetic. Though he presents such concrete images as "the pine-trees crusted with snow," "the junipers shagged with ice," and "the spruces rough in the distant glitter," this cluster of images is framed by the more abstract proposition of the poem as a whole. The poem's opening line - "One must have a mind of winter" -suggests a level of abstraction that Pound and the Imagists had sought to avoid. Stevens appears to be posing questions of a philosophical nature, questions that the poem will attempt to address: what exactly is a "mind of winter"? Why must one have it? The poem's syntax, too, differs dramatically from that of the typical Imagist poem: the entire poem is composed as one long sentence, a sentence prominently displaying the complexity of its own syntax. The argument ofthe poem moves through a series ofsyntactic turns that reproduce the movement of a mind accustomed to thinking in logical or philosophical terms. The syntactic complexity culminates in the final stanza, where both the syntax and the abstraction ofthe language (the word "nothing" appears three times in the last two lines) propose a conundrum for the reader: what does it mean to behold "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is"? The shift from vision to sound in the final stanzas is itself symptomatic of Stevens' own movement away from Imagist representation toward more abstract modes of poetic thinking and writing.

Similarly, in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" (1917), a brief section like the following can be read as an Imagist poem:

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds. It was a small part of the pantomime.

Superficially, the lines seem to resemble a poem like Pound's "In a Station of the Metro." When the lines are read in the larger context of the poem's thirteen sections, however, their meaning changes. The blackbird is "part of the pantomime" not simply in the sense that it mimics the movement of autumn leaves or even in the metaphorical sense that it mimics the turning of the seasons. It is also part of the larger cosmic "pantomime" represented by the poem as a whole, of which this section presents only one view. The section can be read on its own - as a discrete Imagist lyric - but it should more properly be read in relationship to the other sections, creating a far more complex poetic text.

A final example of Stevens' relation to Imagist practice can be found in the opening stanza of "Sunday Morning" (1915):

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair, And the green freedom of a cockatoo Upon a rug mingle to dissipate The holy hush of ancient sacrifice. She dreams a little, and she feels the dark Encroachment of that old catastrophe, As a calm darkens among water-lights. The pungent oranges and bright, green wings Seem things in some procession of the dead, Winding across wide water, without sound, Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet Over the seas, to silent Palestine, Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.

While Stevens presents a rich array of visual images here, the scene is not presented in the directly visual terms one might find in an Imagist poem. Instead, Stevens adopts a technique ofcombining abstract words with concrete images to form phrases such as "complacencies of the peignoir," "green freedom of a cockatoo," and "late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair." In each case, the place normally held by a descriptive adjective is filled by a word that expresses some abstract concept involving either temporality ("late"), behavior ("complacencies"), or a state of experience ("freedom"). Thus in a phrase like "complacencies of the peignoir," we find not a visual description of the woman's peignoir (a loose-fitting dressing gown) such as we might in a poem by Pound or Eliot, but a plural noun, "complacencies," placed in apposition to it. Both "complacencies" (a plural form of a word normally used as a singular noun) and "peignoir" (a French borrowing) are unusual usages, calling attention to the poem's typically Stevensian diction but providing little in the way of a concrete image.

Instead, the reader is forced to create a composite meaning out of the various denotations and connotations of the two words. The plural form of "complacencies" suggests that this Sunday morning is not unique, but instead one in a series of Sundays enjoyed by the woman in this same way. The fact that she has not gone to church, and that she is still dressed in her "peignoir" while taking her "late" coffee and oranges, reflects an attitude of complacency, whether in the more positive sense of contentment and satisfaction with the secular life she has chosen, or in the more negative sense of passivity and attachment to habit. In either case, the composite image suggests a sense of sensual comfort that, along with the coffee and oranges (foods of exotic origin that have strong visual, olfactory, and gustatory associations), the sunny chair, and the green cockatoo woven into the rug, is able to "dissipate" the religious impulse she might otherwise be expected to feel at this church-going hour. Nevertheless, the complacent sensuality ofthe woman's morning ritual cannot completely dispel the "holy hush" of the hour, and in her dreamy state she turns to thoughts of Christ's sacrifice and his crucifixion ("that old catastrophe"). The oranges and cockatoo's wings that had previously been the signs of her "freedom" from religious sensibility are now transformed into "things in some procession of the dead" that take her across the "wide water" of time and space to "Palestine," the site of Christ's agony.

Already, Stevens has taken the reader far beyond a strictly Imagist perception of the scene: he has presented a central character, established the basis of a narrative, supplied the crux of a philosophical argument (between the nostalgia for religious belief and the acceptance of our existence in a secular world), and introduced the three central symbolic motifs ofthe poem: fruit, birds, and water. The tension between visual and non-visual elements is a major structuring principle of the stanza. The visual scene of the woman taking her breakfast was suggested by a Matisse painting, and the first part of the stanza maintains a painterly quality despite the abstractness of its diction. In the second half of the stanza, however, as religious thoughts begin to encroach upon the secular setting, visual imagery is replaced by aural imagery, albeit an aural imagery of negation: "without sound . . . without sound . . . silent Palestine." We could say that while the beginning of the stanza is visually noisy, the end is auditorally silent, representing the shift from the bright and "pungent" world of the senses to both the reverential "hush" of religious devotion and the woman's dreamlike state as she contemplates Christ's sacrifice.

Stevens' use of sound in the poem intensifies our sense of this change. The repetition of the bright, forward vowels on the three accented syllables of the first line ("Complacencies of the peignoir, and late"), along with the internal rhyme of "green freedom," suggests the woman's plenitude and her self-sufficiency in a world without religious belief, both ideas repeated more explicitly in the second stanza: "Why should she give her bounty to the dead?. . . Divinity must live within herself." The energy of the opening description is further propelled by the repetition of certain consonants: the percussive "c" of "complacencies," "coffee," and "cockatoo" and the plosives of "complacencies" and "peignoir." In contrast, the repeated "w" sound of lines 11 and 12 emphasizes the dreamlike and unworldly quality of the woman's reverie. Stevens is masterful in representing through sound the argument the poem will make: Christianity is a religion of the dead with little value in the modern world, while true divinity lies in the human and its relation to nature and natural process.

"Sunday Morning" is a crucial poem of early modernism: it serves as a paradigm for the kind ofmeditative or philosophical poem that would constitute a central part of Stevens' opus. The form and rhetoric of the poem are relatively traditional: as Harold Bloom suggests, the poem is heavily indebted to the tradition of the Romantic Sublime as practiced by Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Whitman. Yet at the same time the persuasiveness of the poem is largely dependent on the ways in which Stevens breaks with or manipulates traditional form and language. For example, the poem begins with a line that is essentially free verse (containing only three accented syllables) and it is not until line 5 that the iambic pentameter rhythm of Stevens' blank verse is fully established. The varied number of accents per line and the frequent use of caesura and enjambment suggest that Stevens wished to carry some ofthe flexibility ofhis free verse poems into his blank verse.

"Sunday Morning" is also the first fully realized example of what we can call Stevens' "poetry of thought," a mode that is intensified in "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle" (1918) and "The Comedian as the Letter C" (1922), as well as in later poems such as "The Man with the Blue Guitar," "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction," and "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven." Stevens himself believed that "the poetry of thought should be the supreme poetry," and that the "poem in which the poet has chosen for his subject a philosophical theme should result in the poem ofpoems."7 Since the philosophical argument of "Sunday Morning" has been frequently summarized and its themes and rhetorical structures have been analyzed in a number of critical studies, I will refrain from a stanza-by-stanza explication of the poem. Instead, let me suggest two of its more important structural features: its use of the dialogue form, and its repetition of symbolic motifs.

The poem takes the form ofa dialogue between his fictionalized speaker -the woman whose thoughts serve as the basis for Stevens' philosophical inquiry - and the poet himself, who attempts to answer her questions. In the first three stanzas, the poet establishes the desirability of belief in an earthly paradise that can replace the Christian idea of a division between earth and heaven: "The sky will be much friendlier than now . . . Not this dividing and indifferent blue." But in stanza IV, the woman asks about the transitory nature of an earthly paradise: "when the birds are gone, and their warm fields / Return no more, where, then, is paradise?" The poet answers that no imagined paradise endures any longer than the repetitions of nature's seasons. In stanza V, the woman follows up on her previous question, suggesting that her contentment is always troubled by "the need of some imperishable bliss." This time the reply is longer, taking us through an explanation of mortality and concluding that an unchanging paradise would be worse than our constantly renewing world: it is only in death, the "mother of beauty," that new life is created.

The second important structuring principle ofthe poem is the repetition of symbolic motifs which occur in slightly different form throughout the poem. This structure of repetition with change lends a sense of harmony and internal cohesion to the poem, and at the same time it emphasizes Stevens' theme of the importance of change in an earthly paradise. The oranges in the second line become the "pungent oranges" later in the stanza, the "pungent fruit" of stanza II, and later the "new plums and pears / On disregarded plate" (V), the "ripe fruit" of paradise that never falls (VI), the pears and plum on the river-bank (VI), and the "sweet berries" that "ripen in the wilderness" (VIII). Similarly, the cockatoo in the rug is echoed by the "wakened birds" of stanza II, the swallows' wings of stanza IV, the serafin (winged angels) of stanza VII, and the whistling quail and "casual flocks of pigeons" in stanza VIII; the "wide water without sound" of the first stanza becomes the "wet roads on autumn nights" (II), the rivers of paradise (VI), the "windy lake" (VII), and the "wide water, inescapable" (VIII). Even the mythic "hinds" of Jove in stanza III are refigured at the end of the poem as the naturalized "deer [who] walk upon our mountains."

In this way, Stevens is able to use a more limited range of images, but to recycle them in such a way as to give them more resonance with each use. By the time the pigeons make their famous descent in the poem's final lines, they can be linked symbolically with all the other images of birds and flight in the poem.

Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail Whistle about us their spontaneous cries; Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness; 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.

The pigeons' "extended wings" are the wings of imaginative freedom, a freedom from the constraints of religious belief, and yet they remain more "ambiguous" than the green wings of the cockatoo in the opening stanza: their "ambiguous undulations" represent the need to choose the more unknown destiny of the constantly changing physical world rather than the supernatural order of a heavenly paradise. The poem ends with a movement into stillness and darkness rather than with the orgiastic celebration ofstanza VII, but the sustained appreciation of the sensual details of nature makes a fitting complement to the woman's final realization that Christ's tomb in Palestine is no "porch of spirits lingering." We live, Stevens concludes, in "an old chaos of the sun," a world "unsponsored" and "free" of supernatural intervention. It is, as Joseph Riddel suggests, an "ironic paradise of impermanence" where "nature's casual harmonies enact the only permanence," but it is nonetheless preferable to a world forever divided from its transcendental source of meaning by an "indifferent blue."8

In his later work, Stevens turned from the more lyric mode ofHarmonium to a style that was more philosophical and meditative in nature. In the poems collected in Parts of a World (1942), Transport to Summer (1947), and The Auroras of Autumn (1950), Stevens' primary concern can be said to be the search for a "supreme fiction." Stevens did not believe that any system of belief could be more than a "fiction," a set of imaginary constructions that can help us to understand and enjoy the world. As he put it in a notebook entry, "The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else." In entitling his most important philosophical poem "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" (1942), he acknowledges the fact that any poem claiming to discover an absolute truth is an act of hubris: we can make only notes toward such a poem.

Stevens' "Notes" is a long poem divided into three parts of ten cantos each; each canto contains seven three-line stanzas. The section titles - "It Must Be Abstract," "It Must Change," and "It Must Give Pleasure" - refer to the "supreme fiction" of the title. The "supreme fiction" is abstract in the sense that it can never be entirely grasped by the human observer (Stevens called the poem "a struggle with the inaccessibility of the abstract"); it must change in order not to become a static or repetitive system of belief (neither a religious doctrine nor a Platonic idealism); finally, it must give pleasure, since "the purpose of poetry is to contribute to man's happiness." The poem ends, like "Sunday Morning," with a celebration of the natural and sensual world: in the penultimate canto, the songs of the wren and the robin, like the "notes" of the poet, can only go in circles, "merely going round / And round and round, the merely going round, / Until merely going round is a final good." In the final stanzas, Stevens evokes "the fiction that results from feeling" as the highest good:

They will get it straight one day at the Sorbonne. We shall return at twilight from the lecture Pleased that the irrational is rational,

Until flicked by feeling, in a gildered street, I call you by name, my green, my fluent mundo. You will have stopped revolving except in crystal.

Here the world ("my fluent mundo") becomes the poet's lover during a twilight walk following a lecture at the Sorbonne. Stevens chooses the "irrational" or sensual moment of his encounter with the world over systems of rational or philosophical discourse.

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    What is wallace stevens supreme fiction?
    3 years ago

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