Wallace Stevens: A Critical Review

Even the New York Times seemed nonplussed. Wallace Stevens, Noted Poet, Dead, the obituary began. {1} Yes, noted by connoisseurs of Modernist poetry, but never a well-known figure, nor one assiduous of reputation. The thoughts and imagery were foreign, the tone detached, and the arguments hard to follow. Moreover, for all their gaudy celebration of the senses, the poems fought shy of actually saying anything intelligible, just as Wallace Stevens himself was cautious of bohemian impropriety. He was a respected officer of a large insurance company who happened to write poetry — very accomplished poetry, but poetry largely devoid of passion, biography or social commitment.

Wallace Stevens was born in 1879 in comfortable circumstances, became president of the Harvard literary magazine, tried his hand at journalism for nine months in New York, but then opted for the safety of a dull aspect of the legal profession. He married his long-suffering sweetheart in 1909, delayed having a child for years, and finally left New York in 1919 with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he reached the position of vice-president in 1934. But for odd trips to collect the honours that accumulated in the last years, Stevens stayed in Hartford for the remainder of his life as a safe company man. {2}

Modernist Credentials

Stevens was in his late twenties when he started writing Modernist poetry, and forty-four when his first book, Harmonium (1923), was published. Thereafter, the volumes appeared with increasing if not pressing frequency: A Primitive Like an Orb (1948), Transport to Summer (1949), The Auroras of Autumn (1950), The Collected Poems (1950) and Opus Posthumous (1957). The subjects developed variously, but the themes did not fundamentally change. Harmonium is the most original collection, and contains many of his most anthologised poems — The Emperor of Ice Cream, Sunday Morning, Peter Quince at the Clavier, Anecdote of the Jar, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Sunday Morning was an impressively sustained hedonistic reverie, but the others — were they anything but elaborate entertainments in poetic skill? The New York Times critic couldn't believe so: 'From one end of the book to the other there is not an idea that can vitally affect the mind, there is not one word that can arouse emotions. The volume is a glittering edifice of icicles. Brilliant as the moon, the book is equally dead.'

But Stevens was not writing in the old tradition. As the critic had shrewdly realized, Stevens was creating something exotic: a poésie pure, a Symbolist poetry without the usual symbols, a poetry indeed where rhythms, vowels and consonants substituted for musical notes. And that, for the good Percy Hutchinson, was simply not enough. 'Poetry,' he wrote is not founded in ideas; to be effective and lasting, poetry must be based on life, it must touch and vitalize emotion.'

But Stevens' poems were purposely cerebral, and did affect the mind, at least his own mind, and he went on developing his themes of perceptual ambivalence at great length. {3} True, some of the more enigmatic lines: 'The greatest poverty is not to live / In a physical world, to feel that one's desire / Is too difficult to tell from despair.' would have exasperated the moral philosopher. (How are desire and despair being used in this instance, and what is the situation they are describing?) Stevens provides information on neither, which raises spectres of intellectual frivolity, of playing fast and loose with concepts linked only by alliteration. Perhaps Stevens did see things more intensely than most. Perhaps his reality was crucially that of the imagination. Perhaps the Symbolism he espoused was too rarefied an import for isolationist America, and one that needed café society to thrive. Whatever. Stevens made few converts but kept to his lonely furrow.

Recognition came belatedly. To the narrower strains of New Criticism his work was living proof that poetry is composed of words used in new and subtle relationships. Postmodernists in their turn found his work a paradigm of true poetry, of artwork largely sealed from reference to the outside world. Academia found him useful teaching material: students most certainly had to work hard at his poetry: the content was rarefied, the diction unexpected, and the word-play obscure indeed.

Initial Reception

The general public was less enthusiastic. Some poems were seen as fresh and playful as Edith Sitwell's.

Chieftan Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!
(Bantans in Pine Woods {4-5})

Others could be tiresomely clever:

The prince of proverbs of pure poetry,
(Esthètique du Mal {6})

And much was simply baffling. What, exactly, did this mean:

Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
(The Emperor of Ice-Cream {7-8})


We make, although inside an egg
Variations on the words spread sail.
(Things of August {9})

Was Stevens truly a Symbolist? Certainly he wrote in an allusive, enigmatic, and musical style. He developed the art of suggestion, and employed rare words, private associations and syntactical intricacies. But Symbolism attempted to extend the evocative power of words to express feeling, sensations and states of mind that lie beyond everyday awareness. Scattered jottings suggest that Stevens did indeed identify with these aims, and he certainly read Bergson, Santayana and contemporary art magazines. But his later work in fact attempts a more public role, which is rather what Symbolism was designed not to do. Of the great mass of people he wrote 'The men have no shadows / And the women have only one side.' The note is elegiac, but perhaps a little patronising in:

...that the ignorant man, alone,
Has any chance to mate with life
That is sensual, pearly spouse, the life
That is fluent in even the wintriest bronze
(The Sense Of The Sleight-Of-Hand Man {10})


Many of the poems, which were initially seen as engaging puzzles, perhaps representing various strains of philosophic thought, have now been elucidated, as far as seems possible with poems avoiding closure. Among the more famous, with excerpts, are:

Anecdote of the Jar {11-12}

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

Various interpretations have been put forward: that the jar represents human order imposed on the slovenly wilderness, that the jar is a female symbol of maternal care for the natural environment, that the jar is a portal to the underworld of the mythic past, and/or the very act of focussing on something changes our perception of its surroundings.

Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock {13-14}

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.

In this playful piece, Stevens is possibly contrasting the conventional nature of people's suburban lives with the riches of imagination, especially the dreams of those who, like sailors, who have seen far away places and violent weather.

The Emperor of Ice Cream {15-16}

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

The poem resisted explication for decades, but critics now see it as the preparation for a wake. In the first stanza, with its Freudian imagery, the neighbours are making ice cream and decorating the place with flowers. In the second stanza we see reality, the old woman laid out for death in the plainest of circumstances. Artifice and illusion give way to reality: a favourite theme of Stevens', who thought poetry 'must resist the intelligence'.

The Idea of Order at Key West {17-18}

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The poem, in outline, narrates the effect of a woman singing by the sea, which causes us to see the world differently. Beyond that lie various interpretations: that the poem is deliberately ambiguous, with irresolvable difficulties, that it affirms the poetic spirit without being able to locate it, that the idea of order brings the spectre of disorder, and/or that a 'blessed rage for order' lies at the heart of all creative work.

The Snow Man{19-20}

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

The poem is another of Stevens' teasing dichotomies, that we must be cool and objective like the winter but not project human feelings of coolness and sadness onto the weather.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird {21-22}


Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

Each of the haiku-like stanzas asks us to look with more detachment and curiosity at the world, with multiple perspectives, how we group ourselves and what we see, how we hear sound and silence, how we respond to the beautiful and the mundane, how we treat matters as literal or symbolic. In stanza seven we are asked if we prefer the unobtainable (golden birds) to real life of his fellow Connecticut men, and in stanza eight the blackbird is in some way involved in that knowledge. When, in stanza nine, the blackbird flies away, its disappearance marks one limit of what we can know. The next stanza is more difficult but perhaps castigates those who would accept a cheap, unthinking notion of beauty. Stanza eleven is more oblique still, but perhaps suggests that we are protected by convention (glass of a railway carriage) from seeing the threats the real world possesses. The last two stanzas are open to several interpretations involving time, the seasons and multiple story endings — the details of which readers will have to check for themselves. {22} So many interpretations have indeed been hung on these perplexing lines that explication is in danger of becoming a gallery of mirrors, endlessly reflecting more rarefied notions, all too familiar to someone like Stevens with an interest in oriental art, but defying fully rational explanation.

Sunday Morning
But it was with Sunday Morning that Wallace Stevens' made an indelible impression on American poetry. {23-24} The poem has a Keatsian-like dwelling on sensation — though not the sustained hush of a too-obvious craftsmanship — but is interesting for another reason. Keats was certainly aware that brevity gives relish to life, but he would not have said Death is the mother of beauty. Keats was a Romantic, a child of his time, and those times embraced political change. He was not the sickly idealist sometimes envisaged, but a practical man brought up against the realities of life by his medical training. Dreams and imagination may have been the raw materials of art, but Keats gives them the warmth and individuality that Stevens does not usually attempt.

Stanza V

She says, "But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss."
Death is the mother of beauty, hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams
And our desires. Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our path,
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
Whispered a little out of tenderness,
She makes the willows shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plate. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.

Sunday Morning concerns itself with the impermanence of sensuous happiness, and somewhat contrasts the Christian with Greek views of life. The first sees our life on the earth as a preparation for the next. The second regards present existence as the all important, and one that should be lived to the full.

But what is meant by 'Death is the mother of beauty'? Sensuous matter has beauty because it or we have no extended existence: we prize it more because it is so fleeting? That beauty is conferred on objects by considerations that lie beyond the veil of Death, i.e. Platonic Ideas? Or death removes the aged and infirm, giving space to the new-born and beautiful? All three can be read into the poem, but may only make sense when we realize that Sunday Morning is modelled on George Santayana's philosophy, {25} notably his Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900) {26} Even the stanzas broadly follow the chapters in Santayana's book: stanza I relates to chapter 1, II to 2, III to 3, IV to 4, V to 5, VI to 6, VII to 7 and 8, and VIII to chapters 9 and 10. In stanza V, the speaker is looking beyond the permanent but cold Platonic Idea to reunion after death — or possibly so, as the stanza returns to the attractions of the present.

I have only touched on Sidney Fleshback's {27} article, which draws together themes of death in other poems by Stevens, notes the attitudes of Whitman, Browning, and Emerson in the poem, and discusses the conflicting images and their possibly satiric intent. But one point is worth stressing. From a traditional viewpoint, Wallace Stevens wrote his most beautiful poem when he stopped chasing his own evanescent musings and reworked the established themes of European civilization. Sidney Fleshback calls Stevens' handling of the themes idiosyncratic, which they must be when Stevens is following his own objectives. While we stay on the surface of the poem we can admire its treatment of the numinous quality of sensuous life, its underlying mysteries and unfathomable nature. Look deeper, and we begin to wonder whether the poet was not simply toying with concepts and intellectual possibilities: excellent material for academic studies but baffling to the common reader. Symbols — the hermetic with Mallarmé, jewelled with Darío, portentous with Rilke and obscure in much of Stevens's work — do not succeed unless they call on the great commonplaces of life. {28-30} Poetry may or may not create ideas, but it must give them contemporary identity, a local habitation and a name.

Contribution of Wallace Stevens to Modernism

Stevens developed slowly and was still capable of writing what Perkins {31} calls 'hopelessly conventional poems' and 'genteel sonnets' in 1908. He submitted to small magazines, took an interest in serious writing and French painting, but his 1923 collection Harmonium, brought out when he was 44, attracted little interest: the book of 1500 copies was soon remaindered. Yet many of the poems in these 125 pages were later called flawless and are now famous {31}. It was a comic world of artificial simplicity, affectation and parody, but behind the showmanship there was also coldness and acute disappointment. Sophisticated detachment was the tone, neither sentimental nor the tough-minded realist. In the expanded volume that came out in 1931, as in the Ideas of Order that followed in 1935, the brio and gaudiness faded into the reflections of middle age, and there appeared concerns with the responsibilities of the creative spirit. Thereafter the poems become colder, though the last ten years saw another creative burst: a half of his poems were written in this period: ambitious pieces, a little prosy perhaps, but still strikingly original, placing Stevens among the 'four or five greatest American poets'. {31}

He had few intellectual acquaintances, but his well-paid steady job and comfortable home gave him time to question the role of the imagination in perception, how we order our sensations, indeed what actually made reality for us. But what lay beyond the world as we imagined it? And how should we live with these illusions stripped away. Having lost the faith of youth, Stevens was driven to accept than man lives by myths, knowing that they were myths, but necessary myths: 'supreme fictions', that words alone create reality — a view that made him popular with Postmodernist poets. His poems record or extend the process of creating reality because they resist instant comprehension, as Stevens said (his) poetry must. Poets do not simply express, whether beautifully or memorably, the zeitgeist of the age, but create a more questioning and more troubling reality.

Stevens was not a philosopher or profound thinker. He read Emerson, Santayana, Nietzsche, Bergson and others of the period, but his own essays in The Necessary Angel are somewhat vague and muddled. {31} Poets, he thought, have stronger and more active imaginations. But where the great Romantics had found and embodied reality, the current situation was much less certain. Perhaps all that poets could do now was enjoy the imagination for itself, be happy in its functioning.

The thought or hope seems to have given him a new confidence. The poems of the last phase abandon a simple Imagist approach, though the thinking is often still through images. They bring in cold abstractions and make no pretence to compose 'by the musical phrase': many are written in that most conservative of styles, the pentameter. Of first importance is the play of intellect, which is sometimes questioning whether we are alive at all. {31}


Some meaning could usually be found or surmised in a Stevens poem, but it could also be open to varied and sometimes conflicting interpretations. No doubt that was intentional, seeking not to close off creative possibilities. But that intention, praised as philosophy in mainstream poetry sites, {2} is not philosophy as commonly understood, which aims at generality, consistency and objectivity, drawing arguments ever tighter to avoid refutation. Stevens never submitted to a formal study of philosophy, and he distrusted the intellect, making up arguments in his poems as he went along, which were therefore ad hoc, on the hoof and local, so to speak. Lacking proper study, he did not see contemporary thinkers in any perspective, nor did he reproduce their thoughts in a scholarly awareness of alternatives. There was something of the mental dilettante in Stevens, the eternal student who felt the free spirit of poetry should be larger than the plodding tedium of course work. He was a practiced lawyer, moreover, employed to do the best for his client, which in this case was himself, the unfettered, great magician of words. Courts decide on the winning argument, not justice necessarily, and Stevens would have been acting unprofessionally to countenance for a moment the opposing counsel's view that language serves for social cohesion, that its conservative nature keeps words functioning for a common good.

Astute and sympathetic literary criticism {32-33} has shown how much care and intelligence has gone in Stevens' poems, where words are chosen on many levels — intellectual, associative, poetry craft — but many poems remain only partially successful. Certainly they were not properly understood in Stevens' lifetime, and what is not understood cannot command an emotional response, i.e. cannot be fully poetry. How then did Stevens gain his reputation?

By his stylistic gifts and his seriousness of purpose. Whatever they said, or didn't say, the poems were remarkably original, fluent and self-assured. There was nothing quite like them on the poetry scene, and Stevens was equally at home in traditional, free verse and prose-like styles. Sunday Morning seemed a throwback to the great Romantics, with a diction to match, but the six months taken to craft the piece had been time well spent. Many of the passages are deservedly famous:

Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;

There are too many to list, but many remember:

At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

The earlier poems could be affected and whimsical, that was true, but they were never artless. An altogether different view of poetry was being attempted. Where poets had previously been expected to write self-sufficient lines — beautiful, emotionally-charged and illuminating — the emphasis now was on the unexpected, sometimes outlandish or sense-challenging phrases, which called for sustained mental effort. The reader was not spoon-fed the obvious shaped into expected forms, but had to follow, armed with acute intelligence of varied possibilities, the half-glimpsed connections and correlations offered by the poem. Intellectual conundrums, evocative phrases and unusual angles questioned our settled opinions about life, as indeed they should. There was no prize at the end, moreover, no sudden blaze of comprehension, but only a more sober understanding of the assumptions built into language use.

Stevens was a heavily-built, prudent and taciturn man. Poetry was something apart from his daytime job and the family, something he pursued intently and creatively as a legal brief. But in this he was very much the lawyer, who could adopt any pose, any court-room trick to make his client's case. Outrageous statements, affected diction, obscure forebodings: everything was material to the case. Stevens was not a crusader, nor an ideologue, but in standing a little apart from his poems he nonetheless had that deep commitment to narrow beliefs that characterises the other founders of Modernism. {36}

A vast critical industry has grown up around the poet, and many of the books and articles make absorbing reading, sometimes more engaging than the work itself. Where poems do become explicable, however, there often remain troubling conundrums and lacunae, lines and phrases where possible explanations are not wholly convincing. Poems do not suddenly shift into focus, as they do, for example on realising that 'I was neither at the hot gates' in Eliot's Gerontion refers to Thermopylae. What is exposed is a complicated structure of associations, special readings, extended analogies and word play that remains peripheral to the world of common use, unassimilated to the ordinary in the way a novice learning a foreign language holds in his mind the unfamiliar words he has just looked up in the dictionary. That is not our usual experience with poetry. There may be obscurities, depths below depths, and passages not fully capable of being rendered into prose, but there is nonetheless an exterior reference of sorts, which is part a local context and part an overall tradition.

Jackie Deskovich's essay Not at the Centre of a Diamond: How the Paradoxical Relationship Between Reality and Imagination Works in Wallace Stevens '"Esthetique du Mal" {35} is an extended enquiry into Stevens' use of paradoxes in a poem that explores the relationship between imagination and reality. The opening quote from Stevens' poem starts enticingly enough:

He was at Naples writing letters home

But then descends more to prose:

And, between letters, reading paragraphs
On the sublime. Vesuvius had groaned
For a month.

Then the writing picks up a bit, though how the lightning cast 'corners' isn't explained, though perhaps the eruptions are reflected curiously through the window glass:

It was pleasant to be sitting there
While the sultriest fulgurations, flickering,
Cast corners in the glass.

To be followed with what Deskovich describes as 'one of the paradoxical divides only minimally addressed in the poem: the divide between past and "ancient" ':

He could describe
The terror of the sound because the sound
Was ancient.

At this point, the careful reader may be noting that the sound isn't ancient, the historical record is. More licences follow:

He tried to remember the phrases: pain
Audible at noon, pain torturing itself,
Pain killing pain on the very point of pain.

We can't describe the 'terror of the sound', only report on the terror the sound brought to inhabitants in the eruption of 62 AD. 'Pain' has been smuggled in, and 'pain killing pain' is a very oblique way of describing extinction. Nor can we can we properly use 'tremble' to describe the volcano, not when it carries the heavy overtone of fear: the sentient animal may feel fear but the volcano does not, even in another dimension.

The volcano trembled in another ether,
As the body trembles at the end of life. (i 1-12)

But let's press on. 'Pained' is paired with 'visceral verbs such as "torture" and "kill" (i 11,9,10), and the 'last two lines of the stanza tie the body and that terrifying volcano together, equating their trembling, in order to embody terror and give it meaning.' But this is otiose: 'embody' is mixing up the historical record and present day threats, and the threatening eruption already has meaning. All the narrator has to say is: 'He remembered the destruction of Pompeii', etc. But Stevens' concern is more with pain itself. The poem continues:

It was almost time for lunch. Pain is human.
There were roses in the cool café. His book
Made sure of the most correct catastrophe.
Except for us, Vesuvius might consume
In solid fire the utmost earth and know
No pain (ignoring the cocks that crow us up
To die). This is a part of the sublime
From which we shrink. And yet, except for us,
The total past felt nothing when destroyed (i 13-21)

A lot seems overwritten here: Volcanic eruptions are destructive of the immediate surroundings but don't consume 'the utmost earth'. 'Sublime' is being misused: it doesn't mean partaking of the imagination but : '1. lofty, grand, or exalted in thought, expression, or manner, 2. of outstanding spiritual, intellectual, or moral worth, and/or 3. tending to inspire awe usually because of elevated quality (as of beauty, nobility, or grandeur) or transcendent excellence. And, being so, we clearly don't 'shrink' from it. 'And yet, except for us, / The total past felt nothing when destroyed' is being unnecessarily clever. Poets are expected to use words with unusual proprietary, not muddle up elementary distinctions from which to draw dubious conclusions. But Deskovich continues: 'Just as we know that food is a necessary part of living, we must recognize that pain is as well. It also prompts us to recognize that this specific mundane life contains pain; it is not only the pain that is related to recalling epic events such as Vesuvius' eruption, it is also the pain that this hungry poet feels.' Historical pain is again being explored in this stanza, but 'this time it is more explicitly made part of the sublime.' How? '"Except for us" is repeated in lines 16 and 20, and both instances are used to contrast us with those who feel no pain, Vesuvius itself and the whole of the past, leading to the conclusion that it must be us who feel the pain. Though we may shy away from pain, it is part of the sublime according to line 19.'

Let's leave these attempts to subvert everyday distinctions, and turn to language, which the following paragraph addresses. In summary, the argument is: 1. Certainty is gained through language, 2a. 'ignoring the cocks that crow us up/ To die)' means that Vesuvius is ignoring the roosters waking people up, which shows how unfeeling nature is to mankind, and therefore how painful existence can be. And/or 2b. the parentheses indicate that since roosters cannot express pain or personality through language (they can only crow), pain is not real to them. 3. Reality and imagination therefore collide. But do they? Cannot roosters simply feel inarticulate pain?

And so on. To save space I have only discussed the first third of the essay here, which goes on to explore further 'paradoxes' of meaning in the poem, often profitably. The poem certainly poses questions, but the purpose of philosophy is not simply to ask questions but to find answers to life's perplexing problems. Language has its limits and difficulties, certainly, but if we use grammar, reference and context inappropriately the muddles that result are not the fault of language or imagination but our own wilfulness. Of course the lines are intriguing, and crafted with the exactness of verse, but the meaning is in the singularly tenuous connections made, and the poetry in the intellectual frisson that arises from such possibilities:

The death of Satan was a tragedy
For the imagination. A capital
Negation destroyed him in his tenement
And, with him, many blue phenomena.
It was not the end he had foreseen.

Do we enjoy The Emperor of Ice Cream now we 'understand' it better? Not much, I think. 'Concupiscent' remains the wrong word, silly and affected. The Freudian imagery of 'cigars' is unnecessary, crude and unconvincing. 'Emperor' remains bombastic — even crass if making emotional capital out of a woman's funeral. That life goes on, unconcerned with our emotional needs, is a favourite observation of Stevens', but simple statement or illustration won't bring situations to life.

But perhaps the 'muddles' are deliberate, and poetry lies in the unclarity? That is the suggestion of Andrew Osborn, who compares Stevens' poetry to Wittgenstein's shift from meaning as prepositional logic to meaning as social use of words. {37} Wittgenstein shifted from definitions with sharp outlines to overlapping examples of word use, which necessarily have more blurred outlines ('games' being the celebrated example). Stevens was also preoccupied with differences between the 'real' world of sense impressions, and that of the imagination, between words as used and words indicative of an ideal world. Unclarity was inevitable, because, as he remarked, '. . . one cannot always say a thing clearly and retain the poetry of what one is saying.'

It is worth pausing and noting the audacity of that statement. Most poets generate 'homeless' material, i.e. lines and phrases of promise that won't fit into the poem being written. If exceptionally good it may be retained for future use in other poems, but usually it is junked: poetry is very much an art of selecting, clarifying, integrating and simplifying. Stevens' approach is quite different: it is to build the poem with and around such material, accepting unclarity to include 'the poetry of what one is saying'. Many of his pieces, even some of the earlier poems collected in 'Harmonium' adopt that approach. What to traditional poets would seem laziness or dishonesty (Stevens never stooped to explaining himself) becomes a poetry that is in, i.e constituted by, that interplay of meanings, and not what the lines ostensibly point to. 'It explains why, with his ice, Stevens desired a creamier vocabulary of which to whip concupiscent curds; why, among the blackbird's Zen austerities, he cultivated the hothouse language of equipage and bawds.'

The article provides many clearly-argued examples but perhaps overlooks a crucial distinction. Wittgenstein examined words actually used in everyday life, with meanings that were needed and made sense generally. Stevens used words in ways that occurred to him in writing his poems, i.e. in a local and sometimes private way.

Look, realist, not knowing what you expect.
The green falls on you as you look,
Falls on and makes and gives, even a speech.
And you think that that is what you expect,
That elemental parent, the green night,
Teaching a fusky alphabet. (CP 267)

That 'fusky', meaning to darken or confuse, is exactly the right word, critics have contended, because the night in this poem is sharing its own element of darkness. But are we concerned about such things? Stevens' contends that we should be, not because they're meaningful to our lives, and so carry emotive force, but because this is where his musings have brought us. In other words, we have to accept Stevens as a serious poet, one whose work deserves that indulgence, to make the intellectual effort. It is a strategy common to the early Modernists, to Yeats and Pound in particular, though clearly a circular argument.

One notable aspect of his poems is their lack of closure, i.e. they do not cohere into a single statement or view. Gary Cronin looks at this feature in the poem An ordinary evening in New Haven from the standpoints of the 'real' world as lived by people, the poet's own imaginative response to reality, and his expression of that response as a meditative poem. {39} Stevens continually qualifies his material, interlacing themes and subverting the usual word choice, falling rhythm, aphorism, and temporal unity to prevent closure. The result is an endless elaboration on the relationship between reality and the poet's fictive power to recreate reality. Indeed, as Stevens said in one of his letters, 'I have no wish to arrive at a conclusion. Sometimes I believe in the imagination for a long time and then, without reasoning about it, turn to reality and believe in that and that alone. Both of these project themselves endlessly and I want them to do just that.' So they did in An ordinary evening in New Haven where a simple enquiry swells to thirty-one 18-line cantos, impossible to summarize here, or do justice to Cronin's detailed analysis. I will simply wonder if the cleverness that Stevens deploys makes for worthwhile reading. We work, notebook in hand, through a detailed philosophical paper because the author has important points to make: the gain is worth the time and effort. But is that so with Stevens, who has nothing novel to impart, and will only show us that employing words in unusual ways gives unusual results?

In the metaphysical streets, the profoundest forms
Go with the walker subtly walking there.
These he destroys with wafts of wakening.

Free from their majesty and yet in need
Of majesty, of an invisible clou,
A minimum of making in the mind (Canto XI)

Cronin leads us through an interpretation, that indeed makes sense, but only by taking a series of mental leaps along one, exceptionally narrow path. Other routes, in the way expected of poetry, lead to dead-ends. Or in some ways they do. In fact, by being so ambiguous, the poem can surrender quite different insights. {40} As always, everything depends on what the reader expects poetry to do. I find the cleverness rather tiresome, and gain little aesthetic satisfaction from the lines: overdone alliteration (minimum of making in the mind) and mind-boggling phrases (wafts of waking), words used loosely (metaphysical) or obliquely (Free from their majesty). Stevens aficionados will see matters differently.

But so arises the critical interest in Stevens. Explication is needed: the poetry is intentionally 'difficult'. When, moreover, Wallace Stevens was judged an essential poet by Bloom, Vendler and other leading critics, his poetry became a legitimate area of academic study, and one benefiting from the striking new approaches of critical theory. Stevens appeared on the degree syllabus. Students had to use the approaches listed above to write their essays and term papers, whether or not they agreed with them, or even fully understood the explications. Academics also had to build on what was published, commenting on other interpretations, employing contemporary theory, wide reading and critical acumen to say ever more interesting things about the poems: that is the nature of research in the humanities. But is this not a dangerous argument for cleverness, often at the expense of other elements of poetry (emotion, aesthetic shaping, bearing witness, social comment)? No, not to contemporary literary criticism. Moreover, since Stevens was a great poet, all his creations have an element of greatness, and could be accepted as such. Criticism didn't then have to trouble itself with the aesthetic quality of individual lines or phrases. Nor apply the practical, working knowledge that poets acquire, which allows them to spot what's wrong and put it right. Traditional poetry sensibilities were no longer needed in academia, any more than lecturers in the history of art need possess painting skills of their own. They were separate areas of expertise, as indeed were the dazzling displays of ingenuity and erudition in the leading theorists of the 1980s and 1990s, where the poems became increasingly a means to an end. To make crass remarks of the emperor's new clothes variety on Stevens was not only to risk career derailment, therefore, but to display a sad provincialism. The common reader might remain skeptical, but exciting new poetries had moved into academia.


Stevens' influence came largely after his death, but it was an important influence that fundamentally changed how poetry came to be written. Poems themselves were the last courts of appeal, answering to no one for their style and content. Poetry did not have to say anything fully intelligible, or anything that served for overall meaning or outline. Poems avoided closure and grew out of the writing process. Indeed they were the writing process itself as intriguing notions were put on paper and elaborated by a host of techniques, some belonging to the realm of poetry, some advocated by critical theory. Nor need the notions be serious, or even address the human condition. Vast new realms were opened up, and what had previously been the conscientious crafting of new material on traditional themes now became a demanding intellectual enterprise. Centuries of aesthetics were set aside, and any text could become poetry if it employed and astutely developed the inherent subterfuges and ambiguities of words.

But the main beneficiary was academia: literary criticism, and the poetry written in and for the university circuit. Poetry had once been a rare ability in expressing important matters exactly. After Stevens, it became an intriguing exercise in self-awareness, a fireworks display of the writing process. But when gifts and practised skills no longer counted, what was to stop the world being flooded with such creations, intelligible only to their authors? Academic credentials. There had to be a way of grading such creations, of placing them in critical contexts and preventing plagiarism. So the universities came to extend their role, that of sternly guarding the gate as to what of today's poetry could be acceptably published, reviewed and studied. Moreover, since literary merit was no longer important — or at least no longer the key factor in the way imagined before — the Republic of Letters lacked agreed terms of reference, and so became subject to the factional infighting inevitable when politics usurps proficiency. What Wallace Stevens would have made of it all is an open question. 'If only the boys back in the office could see me now', he said at a poetry reading.

References and Resources

References can now be found in a free pdf compilation of Ocaso Press's modern poets.