Jan 6th 2014

The writer as creator: Wallace Stevens, Part two - 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.


Last week I began an in-depth study of Wallace Stevens’ work that I deeply admire. I contend, despite the great love I have for his work, that he did not confront, perhaps not until close to his death, the primary issues of faith: a subject he deals with again and again through his view of the imagination as all, his view that whatever is spiritual comes out of the mind.

I pose the question, in the first of the five-part essay, Stevens and the Absolute, part one, Did Stevens confront the absurdist implications of this philosophical stance? 

Here’s the rub: Can one have it both ways?

If the writer who creates in words and whose subject is the nature and meaning of existence—and I believe this is 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? That is the question I try to answer for myself—and welcome your, the reader’s, views. 

Here is the poem  “Tea at the Palaz at Hoon,” the first poem I discuss in detail here in part two.

 

Tea at the Palaz at Hoon

Not less because in purple I descended

The western day through what you called

The loneliest air, not less was I myself.

 

What was the ointment sprinkled on my beard?

What were the hymns that buzzed inside my ears?

What was the sea whose tide swept through me there?

 

Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,

And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.

I was myself the compass of that sea:

 

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw

Or heard or felt came not but from myself;

And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

 

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, p. 65

 

Here is the full text of the second poem, “On the Road Home,” discussed here as well in part two:

 

On the Road Home

 

It was when I said.

“There is no such thing as the truth,”

That the grapes seemed fatter.

 

You . . . You said,

“There are many truths,

But they are not parts of a truth.”

Then the tree, at night, began to change,

Smoking through green and smoking blue.

We were two figures in a wood.

We said we stood alone.

 

It was when I said,

“Words are not forms of a single word.

In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts;

The world must be measures by the eye”;

 

It was when you said,

“The idols have seen lots of poverty,

Snakes and gold and lice,

But not the truth”;

 

It was at that time, that the silence was largest

And longest, the night was roundest,

The fragrance of the autumn warmest,

Closest and strongest.

 

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, pp. 203-4


In this and following columns, I will discuss Stevens’ essays and five poems (“Tea at the Palaz at Hoon,” 1921; “On the Road Home” and “The Man on the Dump,” 1938; “The Auroras of Autumn,” 1948; and “The Planet on the Table,” 1953) covering his early, middle and late work in both forms. 

I do not pretend that this is a comprehensive overview or that I may even presume to be conclusive in this large undertaking. And certainly five poems are not representative of Stevens’ enormously impressive body of work. But, within the confines of this column, I have attempted a documented view of criticism done on his work, and I have read all his poems and essays.

Frank Kermode notes that “Stevens thought of his poetry as a world, which to distinguish it from the ‘real’ world, he called his mundo.”[i] Stevens’ nonsense language, images and assertions create this world. 

Helen Vendler, in the introduction of her study of his work, notes that she does not focus on Stevens’ imagery because “[it] is not particularly obscure once one knows the Collected Poems: It is a system of self-reference, and is its own explanation.”[ii]

The title, “Tea at the Palaz at Hoon”[iii] , is an example of Stevens’ unusual language, his world. The poem seems to have nothing to do with having tea anywhere and “Hoon” is nowhere to be found in the poem. 

I believe there is some purposeful nonsense in this title.

Dana Gioia appears to agree. He says, “Nonsense can be serious stuff, and from this point of view, Stevens is the finest nonsense poet in American literature, an Edward Lear for epistemologists. Unfortunately, this endearing aspect of his work is too often missed by his sober academic commentators.” Gioia quotes the first stanza of this poem and says that Stevens, after his day at the office, let “himself go by inventing foreign-sounding words and names, prizing paradoxes, and giving his difficult poems brilliant but mysterious titles.”[iv]

Stevens’ play with language here and elsewhere creates his world. 

Gass notes that “it is impossible to imagine that the language of literature is not ontologically of another order than that of ordinary life, its chronology, concerns, and accounts.”[v]

In this same essay, Gass plays with nonsense: “And roses are intolerably frivolous too, and those who grow them, snowmen and those who raise them up, and drinking songs and drinking, and every activity performed for its own inherent worth”—a fragment of poetic prose to make his point that the writer, “is villain, who puts words together with no intention of stating, hoping, praying or persuading … only imagining, only creating … [Gass’s ellipses].”[vi] 

But in contrast to Gass, who makes no pretense toward the spiritual, Stevens asserts that whatever is spiritual comes out of the mind:


Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,

And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.

 

His choice of the words—“ointment,” “hymns”—is far from the nonsense in his title. These are words from the vernacular of religion placed now in the speaker’s consciousness.

Harold Bloom explains the poem this way: “[The poem] is directed against what is absent in the reader, which is the imagination or a felt potential of the reader’s own power of representation.”[vii]

Moreover, Bloom calls the title “Sublime” (his capital letter ‘S’ in mid-sentence).[viii] Bloom implies that Stevens is confronting the absence of the Absolute, but how then can the title with its nod to the absurd be also Sublime with a capital ‘S’? 

I am not saying that Bloom is wrong; I am saying that Stevens has in the confluence and paradoxes of his title and his text (his choice of religious words) placed the absurd in the context of the spiritual.

Am I to read the poem’s stanzas ironically? Perhaps so. 

In 1936, before the publication dates of the next two poems I focus on, Stevens addresses spiritual belief and poetry in his quite serious essay “The Irrational Element in Poetry.” He says that “while it can lie in the temperament of very few of us to write poetry in order to find God, it is probably the purpose of each of us to write poetry to find the good which, in the Platonic sense, is synonymous with God.”[ix]

And certainly Stevens affirms the spirituality that I see placed in “Tea at the Palaz at Hoon” when he says, in this same essay, that poets “purge themselves before reality … in what they intend to be saintly exercises.”[x] 

These assertions are not the assertions of Gass—Stevens goes further than Gass here.

He, in fact, approaches Ozick’s view in this same essay. As if with the same breath that he asserted the saintly work the poet does, he places in perspective with his use of the word “seductions” the discovery of the unknown through the irrational: “We accept the unknown even when we are most skeptical. We may resent the consideration of it by any except the most lucid minds [and I assume that he is not referring here to himself]; but when so considered, it has seductions more powerful and more profound than those of the known … . The poet cannot profess the irrational as the priest professes the unknown.”[xi]

I do not find Stevens clear here. I find his words in the essay somewhat obscure, elliptical, if you will. 

I do, however, find him quite clear in the poem “Tea at the Palaz at Hoon” when he says in the first stanza that the speaker’s words are discovered in “The loneliest air” and that the speaker found himself there, in the mind or, as Stevens puts it, “what I saw/ Or heard or felt came not but from myself ... more truly and more strange.”

The speaker in loneliness and not entirely from himself, but from his mind, has found something of the spiritual. It is a gorgeous poem from its nonsense title to its beautiful and quite regal opening line: “Not less because in purple I descended.” 

But I also think this poem and others come perilously close to Ozick’s definition of literature as idol.

Moving on to Stevens’ middle years, I choose the poem “On the Road Home” (1938)[xii] because I believe it indicates that Stevens is aware of the idolatry possible in the search for “truth.” 

The poem begins, “It was when I said,/ ‘There is no such thing as the truth,’” and continues, “You . . . You said,/ “There are many truths,/ But they are not parts of a truth.’”

Vendler says this poem represents “Stevens’ unresolved wish that the sum of the parts should be more than the parts.”[xiii]  This is a brilliant synthesis, in one brief sentence, of all of Stevens’ work, of the nature of his search through poetry and prose. 

Vendler’s summation contrasts with Frank Doggett’s more specific reading of this poem in the context of William James’ comment, “The Truth: what a perfect idol of the rationalistic mind.” Doggett asserts that “Stevens, too, finds the truth falsely enshrined.”[xiv] Doggett is referring to the last stanzas of the poem:

 

It was when you said,

“The idols have seen lots of poverty,

Snakes and gold and lice,

But not the truth”;

 

It was at that time, that the silence was largest

And longest, the night was roundest,

The fragrance of the autumn warmest,

Closest and strongest.

 

The post-modern critic Ihab Hassan also discusses Stevens in the context of James’ book Pragmatism, but his gloss is different from Doggett’s, as I see it. Hassan says James’ pragmatism “or rather she, as he [James] often calls pragmatism, ‘widens the field of search for God ... . She will count mystical experiences if they have practical consequences. She will take a God who lives in the very dirt of private fact—if that should seem a likely place to find him.’ ”[xv]

Hassan goes on to stress the differences between Stevens and James: “However widely Stevens cast the net of imagination, it remains a collection of intricate holes stitched together with verbal twine. It simply lacks the feel of belief as we experience it in marrow or mind.”[xvi]

Stevens in “On the Road Home” might be acknowledging the potential, as Ozick might see it, for his own words to become “idols.” I say this because, in the penultimate stanza of the poem, the line, “It was when you said,/ ‘The idols have seen lots of poverty ... but not the truth’ ” is an answer to the speaker’s words that precede: “It was when I said,/ ‘Words are not forms of a single word ... .’ ” 

My point is that Stevens is not only, as Doggett wisely points out, expressing the danger of the Truth, he is also here speaking of the power of his, the poet’s, words, and acknowledging what Ozick might call the seductive nature of those words as idol.

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

The more vexing question I pose is this: 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?

 

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



[i] Frank Kermode, Harmonium  and The Ideas of Order, Wallace Stevens (New York: CHIP’S BOOKSHOP, Inc., 1979), p. 25. 

[ii] Helen Vendler, On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), p.9.

[iii] Wallace Stevens, Harmonium, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), p. 65. 

[iv] Dana Gioia, “Business and Poetry,” Can Poetry Matter (Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1992), pp. 129-30.

[v] William Gass, “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses,” The World Within the Word, p. 304. 

[vi] Gass, The World Within the Word, p. 300.

[vii] Harold Bloom, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 64. 

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Stevens, “The Irrational Element in Poetry,” Opus Posthumous, p. 222. 

[x] Ibid., p. 227.

[xi] Ibid., pp. 228-9. 

[xii] Stevens, Collected Poems, p. 203-4.

[xiii] Helen Vendler, Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1984), p. 22. 

[xiv] Frank Doggett, Stevens’ Poetry of Thought (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1966), p. 211; Doggett’s footnote here is unclear on which essay of James he is using, but earlier he refers to James’s book Pragmatism and later to the essay “Pragmatism and Humanism.”

[xv] Ihab Hassan, “Imagination and Belief: Wallace Stevens and William James,” Rumors of Change (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1995), p. 122. 

[xvi] Ibid., p. 124.




  

 


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

Sep 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "Many people have dipped their toe into the lazy gardener’s life through “no mow May” – a national campaign to encourage people not to mow their lawns until the end of May. But you could opt to extend this practice until much later in the summer for even greater benefits. Allowing your grass to grow longer, and interspersing it with pollen-rich flowers, can benefit many insects – especially bees. Research finds that reducing mowing in urban and suburban environments has a positive effect on the amount and diversity of insects. Your untamed lawn won’t only benefit insects. It will also encourage more birds, such as goldfinches, to use your garden to feed on the seeds of common wildflower species such as dandelions."
Aug 30th 2023
EXTRACT: "Eliot remarked that Shakespeare's greatness not only grew as the writer aged, but that his development became more apparent to the reader as he himself aged: 'No reader of Shakespeare... can fail to recognize, increasingly as he himself grows up, the gradual ripening of Shakespeare's mind.' "
Aug 25th 2023
EXTRACTS: "I moved here 15 years ago from London because it was so safe. Bordeaux was then known as La Belle au Bois Dormant (The Sleeping Beauty). It's the wine capital of France and the site of beautiful 18th century architecture arrayed along the Garonne river." ---- "What’s new is that today lawlessness is spreading into the more comfortable neighborhoods. The favorite technique is to defraud elderly retirees by dressing up as policemen, waterworks inspectors or gas meter readers. False badges including a photo ID are easy to fabricate on a computer printer. Once inside, they scoop up most anything shiny as they tip-toe through the house."
Aug 20th 2023
EXTRACT: "The 1953 coup d'etat in Iran ushered in a period of exploitation and oppression that has continued – despite a subsequent revolution that led to huge changes – for 70 years. Each year on August 19, the anniversary of the coup, millions of Iranians ask themselves what would have happened if the US and UK had not conspired all those years ago to overthrow Iran’s democratically elected leader."
Aug 18th 2023
EXTRACT: "Edmundo Bacci: Energy and Light, curated by Chiara Bertola, and currently on view at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, is the first retrospective of the artist in several decades. Bacci was a native of Venice, a city with a long and illustrious history of painting, going back to Giorgione and Titian, Veronese and Tiepolo. As a painter, he was thoroughly immersed in this great past – as an artist he was determined to transform and remake that tradition in the face of modernity and its vicissitudes, what he called “the expressive crisis of our time.” That he has slipped into obscurity affords us, at the very least, an opportunity to see Bacci’s work essentially for the first time, without the burden of over-determined interpretations or categories."
Aug 12th 2023
EXTRACT: "Is Oppenheimer a movie for our time, reminding us of the tensions, dangers and conflicts of the old Cold War while a new one threatens to break out? The film certainly chimes with today’s big power conflicts (the US and China), renewed concern about nuclear weapons (Russia’s threats over Ukraine), and current ideological tensions between democratic and autocratic systems. But the Cold War did not just rest on the threat of the bomb. Behind the scientists and generals were many other players, among them the economists, who clashed just as vigorously in their views about how to run postwar economies."
Aug 5th 2023
EXTRACT: "I have a modest claim to make: we need Bruno today more than ever. This is because he represents an intellectual antidote to the prevailing ideology of today which tells us that we are doomed to finitude, which comes down politically to the assertion that there is no alternative to the reign of global capitalism. Of course, Bruno did not know about capitalism, globalization or neoliberalism. What he did know however is that humanity is infinite. That we are limited only by our own narrowness of vision."
Jul 26th 2023
EXTRACT: "We studied 55,000 people’s dietary data and linked what they ate or drank to five key measures: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, water pollution and biodiversity loss. Our results are now published in Nature Food. We found that vegans have just 30% of the dietary environmental impact of high-meat eaters. The dietary data came from a major study into cancer and nutrition that has been tracking the same people (about 57,000 in total across the UK) for more than two decades."
Jul 26th 2023
EXTRACT: "Art historians have never understood economics, and as a result they believe they can ignore markets: in their view, the production of art can be treated in isolation from its sale.  This is of course disastrously wrong.  But their ignorance has led to a neglect of the economic history of art. "
Jul 13th 2023
EXTRACT: ".....art purchases and prices have plateaued. The prevailing mood at this year’s Art Basel was one of anxiety, as dealers roamed the halls searching for answers. Some speculate that the state of the art market indicates declining confidence among the world’s richest people. When the economy is booming, collectors are more inclined to invest in art and take on leverage, especially when borrowing costs are low. But these dynamics can shift quickly during downturns. The 2008 crisis, for example, caused art prices to fall by 60%."
Jul 13th 2023
EXTRACT: "But even if you’re having trouble motivating yourself to exercise, many types of physical activity may be helpful as long as you do them regularly. For example, walking, gardening and household chores (such as cooking, hoovering and dusting) may prevent symptoms worsening and improve quality of life. And, these activities may be easier to incorporate into your daily routine than a gym workout."
Jul 12th 2023
EXTRACTS: "Insect populations are declining worldwide at a rate of almost 1% per year. This decline is alarming. Insects play a crucial role in pollinating crops, controlling crop pests and maintaining soil fertility. In the UK alone, pollination provided by bees and other insects adds over £600 million to crop production every year. That’s about 10% of the country’s total annual crop value. Through pollination, insects also make sure that fruit and vegetables are packed full of the vitamins and minerals needed for healthy human diets. Insufficient pollination would result in lower-quality foods, less choice and higher food prices." .... "Just like fertiliser and water, these insects should be considered a legitimate agricultural input that needs to be protected and managed sustainably."
Jul 6th 2023
EXTRACT: "But whatever the truth may turn out to be, the Lindemann affair raises a question that has been hotly debated over the past few years, especially in the United States, but more and more in Europe, too: must art be judged by the private behavior of its creator? It has become fairly common for critics to denounce Pablo Picasso’s paintings because he made women in his life suffer. A well-known movie critic declared that he could no longer view Woody Allen’s films in the same way after the director was accused, without any evidence, of abusing his seven-year-old adoptive daughter. Roman Polanski’s movies are no longer distributed in the US, because he drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl in 1977."
Jun 25th 2023
EXTRACT: "There’s a great deal of research showing that people with negative personality traits, such as narcissism, ruthlessness, amorality or a lack of empathy and conscience, are attracted to high-status roles, including politics. In a representative democracy, therefore, the people who put themselves forward as representatives include a sizeable proportion of people with disordered personalities – people who crave power because of their malevolent traits. And the most disordered and malevolent personalities –the most ruthless and amoral – tend to rise to the highest positions in any political party, and in any government. This is the phenomenon of “pathocracy”, which I discuss at length in my new book DisConnected."
Jun 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "Although there’s still much we don’t know about flavanols – such as why they have the effect they do on so many aspects of our health – it’s clear from the research we do have that they are very likely beneficial to both memory and heart health."
May 4th 2023
EXTRACT: "My recent book on them 25 Unforgettable French Faces covers a wide range of individuals, from an aging Brigitte Bardot to architect Gustave Eiffel. Both of them changed the face of France. In the upcoming sequel, 25 More Unforgettable French Faces, I have completed my collection of 50 examples. The new book, now in progress, ranges from The Bad Boy of the 18th Century (Voltaire) to A Man of Principle (Jean-Paul Sartre) and Big Dark Eyes, (the actress Audrey Tautou)."
May 4th 2023
EXTRACT: "Silicon solar cells are an established technology for the generation of electricity from the sun. But they take a lot of energy to produce, are rigid and can be fragile. However, a new class of solar cell is matching their performance. And what’s more, it can now be printed out using special inks and wrapped flexibly around uneven surfaces."
Apr 21st 2023
EXTRACT: "You learn from your mistakes. At least, most of us have been told so. But science shows that we often fail to learn from past errors. Instead, we are likely to keep repeating the same mistakes." .... "Sometimes we stick with certain behaviour patterns, and repeat our mistakes because of an “ego effect” that compels us to stick with our existing beliefs. We are likely to selectively choose the information structures and feedback that help us protect our egos." ..... "....there are simpler things we can do. One is to become more comfortable with making mistakes. We might think that this is the wrong attitude towards failures, but it is in fact a more positive way forward."
Mar 17th 2023
EXTRACTS: "The intensifying concentration of wealth, and unjustifiable level of income inequality is proving disastrous in many ways. Here are just a few of them. First, less equal societies typically have more unstable economies, and this country is no exception." --- "Second, there is an incontrovertible link between economic inequality and violent crime. The fact is that rates of violence are higher in more unequal societies." --- "Third, the undeniable fact is that the greater the economic inequality that exists, the worse it is for general health outcomes. What is sometimes overlooked is that income inequality is bad for health outcomes across economic strata, not just for those in poverty. To be sure, poor health and poverty are closely linked; but the epidemiological research shows that high levels of economic inequality “negatively affect the health of even the affluent, mainly because… inequality reduces social cohesion, a dynamic that leads to more stress, fear, and insecurity for everyone.” People live longer in countries with lower levels of inequality, as the World Bank reports. In the United States, for example, “average life expectancy is four years shorter than in some of the most equitable countries.” "
Mar 10th 2023
EDITOR: "Quantum mechanics, the theory which rules the microworld of atoms and particles, certainly has the X factor. Unlike many other areas of physics, it is bizarre and counter-intuitive, which makes it dazzling and intriguing. When the 2022 Nobel prize in physics was awarded to Alain Aspect, John Clauser and Anton Zeilinger for research shedding light on quantum mechanics, it sparked excitement and discussion. But debates about quantum mechanics – be they on chat forums, in the media or in science fiction – can often get muddled thanks to a number of persistent myths and misconceptions. Here are four."