After weeks of late winter & spring away from home & away from my books & the library, spending time with my parents at the nursing home, one day last week I had a sudden desire to travel to Wallace Stevens Land. I was apprised of a good local bookstore during the AWP invasion, James & Mary Laurie Books, & went back there & got a copy of Stevens' collected writings, and The Dome & the Rock, by James Baird (a study of Stevens' architectonic tectonics).
Wallace Stevens... what can one say. The man is a great artist and American genius, & as representative of the "modern" as Dante is of the "medieval" or Shakespeare the Renaissance or Milton the Reformation. Representative, that is, as a kind of quintessence or benchmark or perihelion of achievement. Refinement, acumen, absolute originality, conscious artistry taken to the limit. & mostly just an utter wonder to read, sparkling with vitality & intellectual force.
That (inadequately) being said, Stevens is a constant challenge to my own way of thinking. This is part of the bracing experience of the encounter - the sense that deep down I have these qualifications which at the same time I have difficulty shaping into a proper argument. There seem to be so many pitfalls involved in challenging a poet's basic "worldview" - it seems unfair & liable to blinders & mis-reading.
Stevens himself, unsurprisingly, encapsulated my problem for me. As he put it in one of his Adagia : "Life is an affair of people, not of places. But for me life is an affair of places and that is just the trouble." Baird's study fully amplifies what an "affair of places" - of topos, of landscape, of habitations - actually meant for Stevens. He argues that Stevens' entire oeuvre is an "amassing harmony" of coordinated elements, one Grand Poem whose form is a mighty arc, a dome built on rock - the rock of the absolute self, a post-Emersonian Adamic American imagination. The central (& here, American) self - not king, not emperor, not God, but Man as master of reality - is the sole source of true & vital perception. It is a sort of post-romantic Renaissance Romanticism - a disenchanted naturalism (reality) brought to life again by the human spirit (imagination).
But there's no need here to clamber down into a sort of academic gully. The encounter with Stevens occurs, as he constructs it, only on a plane of pure poetry. It is a master building of the absolute spirit of the unique builder - it does not stand for, symbolize, myths & paradigms, but is rather their source.
What I find challenging about all this is that my own "sense of reality" seems to be constructed intellectually (reasonably or not) on an entirely different foundation. Stevens seems to be part of the central Emersonian spine of American thought & poetry, the tone of "self-reliance", which challenges all past tradition as out of date - because it is recognized as essentially a (continually-obsolescent) myth-making process. The Christian tradition is a burden and oppression on the free mind & spirit of the present, the American here & now. When Frost, for example, blends his narratives into an arc of Christian interpretations, he is folding himself under another master, he is choosing to renounce the absolute Kantian-Romantic freedom of the human mind, that categorical enlightened Subjectivity which makes the exterior world what it will. This is the "modern" (Cogito ergo sum).
But my own mind & imagination have always seemed to trend in a counter-direction. Stevens' imaginative "dome" is like the under-layer or the photo-negative of the freedom & exaltation of the believing Spirit. & "life is an affair of people" is a very apt summation of the ground of this other way of seeing. The Emersonian drive for the spirit's autonomy seems to stumble on the question of "other people" : the nature of the relation (the ratio, the Logos) we call Love. If the "affair of persons" is a matter of intersecting arcs (rather than sole solar domes) then suddenly we have the potential to imagine "the person" as extending into infinite mystery, and of reality as a whole grounded in this very personal threshold.
Which is a view of things, by the way, which seems to correspond to some elements of traditional Judeo-Christian faith. I think Stevens understood all this : & further exploration of his poetry will no doubt reveal (& probably has already) such undercurrents.
I like to think of my own attitude as oriented somewhere between Eliot & Stevens & Crane : accepting Eliot's "historical sense" & reverence for tradition, without falling for his reactionary & doctrinaire pessimism. Thinking of poetry as involved in the creative re-imagining of old sacred meanings - so as to see them in the present in a changed light, a different relevance.*
But let's conclude this boring lecture & get back to Stevens now. "The most beautiful thing in the world is, of course, the world itself."
*p.s. reminder to self : it was the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam who enabled this attitude for me. Mandelstam's own utterly nonpareil poesie der poesie is yet comparable with Stevens. The neo-classicism and traditional Judeo-Christian grounding of Mandelstam's & Gumilev's Acmeism resonates with Eliot. & yet Mandelstam's Dante - in his famous essay "Conversation about Dante" - is not Eliot's paragon of the medieval mind, but rather a kind of playful "futurist" - a voice from an earth to come. Thus Mandelstam allowed me to find a way between the antipodes of American modernist poetry, and has been a taproot for my own branching these past 35 years.