Jan 11th 2014

The writer as creator: Wallace Stevens, Part three - Stevens and the Absolute

by Mary L. Tabor

Mary L. Tabor worked most of her life so that one day she would be able to write full-time. She quit her corporate job when she was 50, put on a backpack and hiking boots to trudge across campus with folks more than half her age. She’s the author of the novel Who by Fire, the memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and the collection of connected short stories The Woman Who Never Cooked. She’s a born and bred liberal who writes lyric essays on the arts for one of the most conservative papers in the country and she hosts a show interviewing authors on Rare Bird Radio. In the picture Mary L.Tabor


Editor's Note: This is a five part series - Please click here for part One.


To review, from the end of part two of my five-part essay: If the writer who creates in words and whose subject is the nature and meaning of existence—and I believe this is Wallace Stevens’ subject—if this writer concludes there is nothing but human consciousness, then must he not, at the very least, confront faith as an insurmountable abyss?

The question I am trying to answer for myself is this: Has Stevens confronted the implications of his conclusion? 

The more vexing question I pose is: Doesn’t any serious writer need to address the question of the nature of creation and the relationship of that act to the questions of existence and God, particularly if he, the poet, chooses to address these questions in his lectures and essays?

Here is the full text of the poem I discuss next “The Man on the Dump.”

 

The Man On The Dump

Day creeps down. The moon is creeping up.

The sun is a corbeil of flowers the moon Blanche

Places there, a bouquet. Ho-ho ... The dump is full

Of images. Days pass like papers from a press.

The bouquets come here in the papers. So the sun,

And so the moon, both come, and the janitor’s poems

Of every day, the wrapper on the can of pears,

The cat in the paper-bag, the corset, the box

From Esthonia: the tiger chest, for tea.

The freshness of night has been fresh a long time.

The freshness of morning, the blowing of day, one says

That it puffs as Cornelius Nepos reads, it puffs

More than, less than or it puffs like this or that.

The green smacks in the eye, the dew in the green

Smacks like fresh water in a can, like the sea

On a cocoanut—how many men have copied dew

For buttons, how many women have covered themselves

With dew, dew dresses, stones and chains of dew, heads

Of the floweriest flowers dewed with the dewiest dew.

One grows to hate these things except on the dump.

 

Now, in the time of spring (azaleas, trilliums,

Myrtle, viburnums, daffodils, blue phlox),

Between that disgust and this, between the things

That are on the dump (azaleas and so on)

And those that will be (azaleas and so on),

One feels the purifying change. One rejects

The trash.

 

That’s the moment when the moon creeps up

To the bubbling of bassoons. That’s the time

One looks at the elephant-colorings of tires.

Everything is shed; and the moon comes up as the moon

(All its images are in the dump) and you see

As a man (not like an image of a man),

You see the moon rise in the empty sky.

 

One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.

One beats and beats for that which one believes.

That’s what one wants to get near. Could it after all

Be merely oneself, as superior as the ear

To a crow’s voice? Did the nightingale torture the ear,

Pack the heart and scratch the mind? And does the ear

Solace itself in peevish birds? Is it peace,

Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon, one finds

On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,

Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve:

Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say

Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull

The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?

Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.

 

In “The Man on the Dump” (1938)[i], Stevens uses nonsense word play and speaks of the philosopher, the priest and the truth. He gives us nonsense in “Ho-ho ... The dump is full/ of images.” And word play: “With dew, dew dresses, stones and chains of dew, heads/ Of the floweriest flowers dewed with the dewiest dew.” And then “bubbling bassoons,” “elephant coverings of tires.” The powerful last stanza provides a stunning contrast:

 

One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.

One beats and beats for that which one believes.

That’s what one wants to get near. Could it after all

 Be merely oneself, as superior as the ear

To a crow’s voice? Did the nightingale torture the ear,

Pack the heart and scratch the mind? And does the ear

Solace itself in peevish birds? Is it peace,

Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon, one finds

 On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,

Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve:

Is it to hear the blatter of gackles and say

Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull

The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?

Where was it one first heard the truth? The the.

 

I ask, Why is Stevens posing these questions?

Critic Harold Bloom answers my question this way: “The suggested answer to the six not-quite-rhetorical questions turns out to be a unanimous if always hesitant ‘yes.’ Yes, it is oneself, a superior self.”[ii] 

With the final “The the” of the poem, it seems to me that Stevens is saying language is “where it is,” as Gass says, “defining, naming.”

But Stevens’ subject here is “the truth.” He may very well be rejecting the “dewiest dew,” “the floweriest flower,” and he may very well be saying one must descend to the images of the dump to define and name, but, if Bloom is correct, a superior self emerges with “The the”—a superior self who creates the world. 

Stevens speaks to the issue of language in his 1942 lecture and essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words.” But first he places his discussion in clearly theological terms when he makes clear “that art sets out to express the human soul.”[iii]

The poet creates a world: “[W]hat makes the poet the potent figure that he is, or was, or ought to be, is that he creates the world to which we turn incessantly and without knowing it and that he gives to life the supreme fictions without which we are unable to conceive of it.” With that said, he talks about the role of language as he will do in later essays: “A poet’s words are of things that do not exist without the words.”[iv]

In 1943 Stevens extends the role of the poet further in the essay “The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet”: 

“In philosophy we attempt to approach truth through reason. Obviously this is a statement of convenience. If we say that in poetry we attempt to approach truth through the imagination, this too, is a statement of convenience. We must conceive of poetry as at least the equal of philosophy.”[v]

He then confirms that he is, in fact, creating his own world: “Summed up our position at the moment is that the poet must get rid of the hieratic in everything that concerns him and must move constantly in the direction of the credible. He creates his unreal out of what is real.”[vi] 

And he confirms again that his issue is the nature of existence: “The pleasure is the pleasure of powers that create a truth that cannot be arrived at by the reason alone, a truth that the poet recognizes by sensation.” [vii]

Here is what I consider to be his most telling statement in this essay of the poet’s role: “What we have called elevation and elation on the part of the poet, which he communicates to the reader, may not be so much elevation as an incandescence of the intelligence and so more than ever a triumph over the incredible.”[viii] 

Does this not have the ring of the theological, of Bloom’s “superior self”? On my continuum from Gass to Ozick, Stevens moves closer to literature as idol.

In the long, masterful poem “The Auroras of Autumn” (1948), the poem I will focus on next, and which I place in his later years along with the essays, written shortly after, I believe, Stevens tests the limits of language in poetry and questions “the triumph over the incredible.” 

In 1948 Stevens wrote the essay “Imagination as Value”[ix]; in 1951 he wrote three essays: “The Relations Between Poetry and Painting,”[x] “A Collect of Philosophy,”[xi] and “Two or Three Ideas.”[xii]

In these essays Stevens once again confirms his subject as the nature of existence, but he also begins to question the limits of language.

I do not think, however, that he confronts the issue of faith as an insurmountable abyss. He does not make what I view as the essential philosophical move forward that all he has written seems to call out for. 

In “Imagination as Value” he comes for the first time, closer to the essential question: What do we do when faith is not possible?

He does confront his own world, the world he has created in his poetry, when he asks the question, “What, then is it to live in the mind with the imagination ... ?” 

But his answer is anything but a confrontation with the abyss when faith is not possible or seems, at best, doubtful.

He says, “only reason stands between it [the imagination] and the reality for the two are engaged in a struggle. We have no particular interest in this struggle ... . [T]he more we think about it the less able we are to see that it has any heroic aspects or that the spirit is at stake or that it may involve the loss of the world (my italics).”[xiii] 

But that is exactly the point—the struggle between reason and reality, the choice of the self-referential world of the imagination does indeed involve a “loss of the world,” of belief in the Absolute, in God.

He sounds like Gass when he says “Poetry does not address itself to beliefs.”[xiv] And he sounds like Ozick when he says, “The constant discussion of imagination and reality is largely a discussion not for the purposes of life but for the purposes of arts and letters.”[xv] 

But he does not do what both Gass and Ozick do, i.e., place the act of writing in the context of belief or its loss.

He says, sounding like Gass that “it [poetic value] is not the value of knowledge. It is not the value of faith. It is the value of the imagination.”[xvi] 

But then he says this—in striking contrast to Gass—“If the imagination is the faculty by which we import the unreal into what is real, its value is the value of the way of thinking by which we project the idea of God into the idea of man.”[xvii]

Is this not literature as idol if Stevens does not profoundly confront what he has rejected? If there is no God, the imagination is not God. It is, at the very least, the absence of God. And that needs saying, I would think.

One might argue that Stevens comes close to saying this in “The Relations Between Poetry and Painting”: 

“Modern reality is a reality of decreation, in which our revelations are not the revelations of belief, but precious portents of our own powers. The greatest truth we could hope to discover, in whatever field we discovered it, is that man’s truth is the final resolution of everything. Poets and painters alike today make that assumption and this is what gives them the validity and serious dignity that become them as among those that seek wisdom, seek understanding.”[xviii]

I would agree that our human and poetic revelations are not the revelations of belief, but, I am troubled by the words “man’s truth,” “the validity and serious dignity” of painters and poets. 

Gass, who has confronted the absence of God, has no such illusions, and neither at the other end of the continuum, does the believer Ozick.

Stevens may not, as is generally believed, have rejected the idea of God. How could he? I ask. He has not confronted the question.


A bibliography in five parts - Please click here for part four.

[i] Stevens, Collected Poems, pp. 210-203.

[ii] Bloom, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, p. 147.

[iii] Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951), p. 30. 

[iv] Ibid., pp. 31-32.

[v] Ibid., pp. 41-42. 

[vi] Ibid., p. 58.

[vii] Ibid. 

[viii] Ibid., p. 60.

[ix] Stevens, Necessary Angel, pp. 133-156. 

[x] Ibid., pp. 159-176.

[xi] Stevens, Opus Posthumous, pp. 183--202. 

[xii] Ibid., pp. 202-216.

[xiii] Stevens, Necessary Angel, p. 141. 

[xiv] Ibid., p. 144.

[xv] Ibid., p. 147.

[xvi] Ibid., p.149. 

[xvii] Ibid., p. 150.

[xviii] Ibid., p. 175.

 



  

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Feb 15th 2019
Only 9% of the overall population in the UK are privately educated, but they occupy an especially high proportion when it comes to positions of public influence: a third of MPs and top business executives, half of cabinet members and newspaper editors, three-quarters of judges....
Feb 12th 2019
There is a fascinating chapter toward the end of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America titled “What Kind of Despotism Do Democratic Nations Have to Fear?” in which the author attempted something truly extraordinary – to describe a social condition which humankind had never before encountered. We find him trying to put his finger on something which does not yet exist, but which – in his extraordinary political imagination – he was able to foresee with startling clarity.............. we must recognize that Facebook, Google, and Amazon are the new leviathans. In serving users only those posts with which they will agree,  
Feb 8th 2019
Few modern cities can boast that a herd of Longhorn cattle has been driven along its main streets. But San Antonio can: each February, in a tribute to the past, the city plays host to a cattle drive.
Feb 5th 2019
Extract: "Most drugs are made to target “bulk” cancer cells, but not the root cause: the cancer stem cell. Cancer stem cells, also known as “tumour-initiating cells”, are the only cells in the tumour that can make a new tumour. New therapies that specifically target and eradicate these cancer stem cells are needed to prevent tumours growing and spreading, but for that there needs to be more clarity around the target. Our new research may have discovered such a target. We have identified and isolated cells within different cancerous growths which we call the “cell of origin”. Our experiments on cancer cells derived from a human breast tumour found that stem cells – representing 0.2% of the cancer cell population – have special characteristics."
Jan 31st 2019
For most people, teeth cleaning may just be a normal part of your daily routine. But what if the way you clean your teeth today, might affect your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease in years to come? There is an increasing body of evidence to indicate that gum (periodontal) disease could be a plausible risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies even suggest your risk doubles when gum disease persists for ten or more years. Indeed, a new US study published in Science Advances details how a type of bacteria called Porphyromonas gingivalis – or P. gingivalis – which is associated with gum disease, has been found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Tests on mice also showed how the bug spread from their mouth to brain where it destroyed nerve cells.
Jan 28th 2019
Piano design has become so “radically standardized” since the middle of the 20th century that players and audiences are robbed of any choice today, claims a new book the piano’s past, present and future.  This book fearlessly confronts the big questions: Should we even call today’s top-selling acoustic models the “modern piano”, considering that they are all based on a 140- year-old design? Will the 21st century mark a turning point in piano building?
Jan 10th 2019
Extracts from the article: "Last November, Michael Bloomberg made what may well be the largest private donation to higher education in modern times: $1.8 billion to enable his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to provide scholarships for eligible students unable to afford the school’s tuition. Bloomberg is grateful to Johns Hopkins, he explains, because the opportunity to study there, on a scholarship, “opened up doors that otherwise would have been closed, and allowed me to live the American dream.” In the year after he graduated, he donated $5 to the school, all he could afford. Thanks to the success of Bloomberg L.P., the international financial-information company he founded in 1981, he has now given a total of $3.3 billion......And yet I cannot applaud Bloomberg’s donation to a university that already had an endowment of $3.8 billion and charges undergraduate students $53,740 per year to attend. My preference is for Hank Rowan, who back in 1992 gave $100 million to Glassboro State College, a public university in New Jersey that at the time had an endowment of $787,000 and annual fees of about $9,000. Rowan himself was a graduate of MIT, one of the world’s finest universities, but gratitude was not his motivation for donating. He wanted to make the biggest difference he could, and believed that one makes a bigger difference by strengthening the weak links in the higher education system than by giving even more to those who already have a lot."
Jan 9th 2019
Marcel Proust was the master of artistic time travel, as he spent the final decades of his life exploring the nature of memory, in a quest to understand the relationship between past and present. In today’s troubled present of economic malaise and political agitation, the art world of Paris is currently engaged in a Proustian exercise of reexamining, and celebrating, a lost golden age of splendor and creativity.
Dec 10th 2018
The current exhibition of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – the first of its kind to be mounted in North America – is indeed an extraordinary revelation. Delacroix was one of the great creative minds of the nineteenth century: an artist who embodied the spirit of Romanticism, a dramatist and virtuoso of coloration who never ceased to experiment, to take inspiration from the old masters – from Veronese and Rubens, Rembrandt and Caravaggio – whose works he would often copy at the Louvre, “that book from which we learn to read,” as Cézanne put it.
Dec 6th 2018
Your body has two metabolically different states: fasted (without food) and post-fed. The absorptive post-fed state is a metabolically active time for your body. But is also a time of immune system activity. When we eat, we do not just take in nutrients – we also trigger our immune system to produce a transient inflammatory response. Inflammation is a normal response of the body to infection and injury, which provides protection against stressors. This means that just the act of eating each meal imparts a degree of physiological stress on the immune system. And so for people snacking around the clock, their bodies can often end up in a near constant inflammatory state.
Dec 5th 2018
Researchers have developed a test that could be used to diagnose all cancers. It is based on a unique DNA signature that appears to be common across cancer types. The test has yet to be conducted on humans, and clinical trials are needed before we know for sure if it can be used in the clinic.
Dec 4th 2018
The late great Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov (pictured below by Michael Johnson) amassed a range of critical comments during his 78 years, more than enough to qualify him as a literary giant and keep his books in print. But most of the assessments have an edge – he was irascible, independent-minded, contradictory, arbitrary, arrogant, tongue-tied, obscene. For such a tumultuous life, he died in opposite conditions: quietly in Montreux, Switzerland, having spent his last 16 years with few friends and almost no family around him. Making sense of this unique talent has been a hobby of mine since the 1960s, enjoying his quirky prose style, his trilingual puns and his forays into forbidden territory, particularly with Bend Sinister, Lolita, Pnin, Pale Fire and Ada. Have I ever made sense of him?
Nov 26th 2018
There is now good evidence that the risks versus benefits of alcohol are strongly influenced by the type of alcohol and the way it is drunk.
Nov 14th 2018
Jean Gabin - pictured below by the author of this book review Michael Johnson - lives on vibrantly through international film festivals, art houses and television reruns although he died in Paris 42 years ago. Just last week in prime time I watched one of his classic films, “Pépé le Moko”, a story of considerable depth that pops up regularly on television. American author Joseph Harriss rightly calls it “Casablanca for grownups”. Other classics abound – “La Grande Illusion”, “Le Quai des Brumes” “Touchez pas au grisbi”, for example. 
Nov 13th 2018
Over the last ten years, research has demonstrated the importance of creative practice in the arts and humanities. They can help maintain health, provide ways of breaking down social barriers and expressing and understanding experiences and emotions, and assist in developing trust, identities, shared understanding and more compassionate communities. So, hopefully, this sidelining of the arts in health terms is changing.
Nov 13th 2018
I am here to sing Will Kemp’s [in the picture below] praises and review this new e-book because I have been studying with Will since January 2016, long distance but close in heart—Will lives in Britain and I live in the States.
Nov 13th 2018

This address is in part about the musician who has studied as a concert pianist, but does not pursue the narrow and precise field for which he has been trained, yet does not quit; but does not often play solo recitals nor concerts, nor chamber music, nor strict lieder activities

Nov 2nd 2018
Writing is such hard work that those of us who dabble in prose often dread looking at the “white bull” – Hemingway’s term for a blank sheet of paper waiting to be filled up with our words. Will we defeat the bull today? It’s always a tossup. The stress and strain of writing perhaps explains why so many writers seek an outlet in the visual arts, particularly painting and sculpture. Visual output satisfies the hunger to create, and, as a bonus, the art form is more free and spontaneous. Great writers have produced great paintings. Look at Victor Hugo, Guillaume Apollinaire, Rudyard Kipling, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Even more interesting to me is the somewhat lesser phenomenon of pianists who paint. They are seeking the same release, the same soulagement, the same need to liberate themselves. 
Nov 1st 2018
Modern life does have many benefits, but when it persuades us to use transport, sit in a chair at work, or watch TV for extended periods, we increasingly have to turn to medicine for solutions because these habits are killing hundreds of millions of us each year. With 70% of people in the US on prescription drugs (50% in the UK), it seems that as lifespan inches upwards, disease is skyrocketing. The irony is that many advances in modern medicine are firefighting those very problems that modern life itself has created.
Oct 30th 2018
It’s important to note that all studies, including our own, only show an association between the herpes virus and Alzheimer’s – they don’t prove that the virus is an actual cause. Probably the only way to prove that a microbe is a cause of a disease is to show that an occurrence of the disease is greatly reduced either by targeting the microbe with a specific anti-microbial agent or by specific vaccination against the microbe. Excitingly, successful prevention of Alzheimer’s disease by use of specific anti-herpes agents has now been demonstrated in a large-scale population study in Taiwan. Hopefully, information in other countries, if available, will yield similar results.