In the spring of 1941—amid grim news issuing from the European theatre of war—Wallace Stevens delivered a lecture at Princeton University called “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” in which he made an elegant and passionate attempt to deal with poetry’s relationship to reality. How, Stevens asked his audience, ought poetry and art in general to deal with the onslaught of extreme events? It is a question that has been on my mind since September of 2001. In the wake of that catastrophe, I found myself returning to Stevens’s words for an answer.
One does not tend to think of Wallace Stevens, who was often accused of being overly urbane and ornate, as a poet preoccupied with current events; yet the way in which contemporary reality affects our imaginations was an issue that concerned him deeply. In his earlier, 1936 Harvard lecture “The Irrational Element in Poetry,” he noted the impact of the Great Depression: “If I dropped into a gallery I found that I had no interest in what I saw. The air was charged with anxieties and tensions.” For Stevens, the pressure of reality had been “constant and extreme” since the First World War. “No one,” he tells us “can have lived apart in a happy oblivion….We are preoccupied with events….We feel threatened.” As for the poet, Stevens believed his task was to resist such pressure.
What did Stevens mean by resist? “Resistance,” he states, “is the opposite of escape.” According to Stevens, the poet must absorb the spirit of his times and convert it into poetry. His goal is to provide a voice, a lexicon, a rhythm commensurate with that spirit. But because reality is “ominous and destructive” and has a limiting effect on the imagination, the poet must not deal directly with the subject at hand. Poetry is not journalism. Literalism diminishes the poet’s effectiveness. A subject stared at directly will have the Medusa effect of paralyzing the artist. A painter can capture the age, Stevens observes, by painting “a guitar…and a dish of melons.” It is not the painter’s subject that determines the contemporaneous, but rather his style and sensibility. So for the poet, the reality of his time can be heard in the rhythms of his lines, in his choice of words, and in the pauses between those words.
The enormity and intensity of World War Two heightened Stevens’s concerns. In “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” he describes a pressure far more ominous than the Great Depression and as if to counterbalance its effect he affords the poet a magisterial position. The poet—the Noble Rider—must do nothing less than “help people to live their lives”; his imagination has the power to serve as “the light in the mind of others.” This help is concrete: in giving us words—the very sound of words—as a force to counter the onslaught of reality, Stevens sees the poet providing the necessary resource to bring us through dark times. The poet “makes us listen to words…loving them and feeling them, makes us search the sound of them for a finality, a perfection, an unalterable vibration…” These are not the phrases of a mere aesthete delighting in the carnality of words. For the sounds are curative. They affirm Kenneth Burke’s claim that literature can “serve as equipment for living.” Stevens’s commitment to the effectiveness of poetry results in a dynamic definition of the art. “It is,” Stevens states, “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.” Poetry is both a shield and a sword. It not only protects us from those inimical forces arrayed against us, it counterattacks as well. His definition is especially bracing when one considers that “It”—and this is apparent only if one has read the entire passage—refers not to poetry, but rather to the nobility of poetry. The distinction is important: Stevens wishes to remind us of poetry’s power to preserve our dignity and maintain our spirit under excruciating circumstances.
Stevens’s stature as a poet is assured: the finely-tuned nuances of his language, the liberating richness of his imagination, secure him a station somewhere between his “necessary angel” and his metamorphic blackbird. Yet Stevens—by far the most influential modern American poet—took a stance that has proven in one sense limiting and restrictive. Delmore Schwartz, an early enthusiast and keen interpreter of Stevens’s poetry, saw the issue clearly when he stated that in Stevens’s work “everything is turned into an object of the imagination….[T]he poet is too poetic.” Oftentimes Stevens abstracted himself into an ethereal realm, where, as Robert Lowell noted, “His people are essences, and his passions are impressions.”
In modern times there have been two major camps of poets: those who acknowledge the public functions and implications of poetry and those who follow Mallarmé’s dictum that “a poem is not made of ideas but of words,” that it is a verbal construct whose subject is itself. By claiming that the very sound of words is useful and restorative, Stevens gave us an ingenious defense of poetry, affirming poetry’s public worth, while remaining in the Mallarmé camp.
The negative influence of his aesthetic was noted early on. In the 1940s, Robinson Jeffers, an almost forgotten American poet once known for his remorselessly clear and ascetic verse, sensed the poet’s separation from his public and warned of the consequences. He complained that poetry in our nation was becoming “slight and fantastic, abstract, unreal, eccentric,” and declared, “It must reclaim substance and sense, and physical and psychological reality.” More recently, Dana Goia, in his book Can Poetry Matter?, notes the inability of working poets to write about their professional worlds, and contends that this is “symptomatic of a larger failure in our verse—namely its difficulty in discussing most public concerns.” Noting “the paucity of serious verse on political and social themes,” Goia states:
our poetry has been unable to create a meaningful public idiom….[It] has little in common with the world outside of literature—no reciprocal sense of mission, no mutual set of ideas and concerns….At its best, our poetry has been private rather than public, intimate rather than social, ideological rather than political…. It dwells more easily in timeless places than historical ones…. [M]ost of our poets have tried to develop conspicuously personal and often private languages of their own.
Poets no doubt gained from this inwardness and freedom to experiment, but, as Goia points out, they lost their audience. Nevertheless, Stevens’s aesthetic continues to dominate. Pick up a literary journal and you see that for contemporary poets, an allegiance to pure or hermetic poetry has not diminished; in Stevens’s phrase, the poet sees himself as “the priest of the invisible.”
While Stevens’s impeccable ear and virtuosity of language contribute to his enduring effect, there are strong cultural and social factors that account for his dominance. I am willing to venture that there is something quintessentially New World about Stevens’s unwillingness to take on historical and social reality. His determined detachment from historical particulars—his poetic strategy—may well be a reflection of America’s isolationist proclivity. Evading or resisting reality allows the poet to maintain an imaginative “fortress America.” The forces behind this isolationist tendency are strong. The myth of the New World as Arcadia—as an alternative to Old World oppression and decay—persists. And what we think of as our energy and optimism does in fact stem from a purposeful and healthy forgetting of former prejudices, a disavowal of Old World rank and station.
Contributing to the malaise is our obsession with self-improvement. The “art for art’s sake” movement believed the imagination ought to heal those wounds inflicted by the anonymity of mass society and the mechanization of humankind. With the falling off of organized religion, art became the prime provider of spiritual sustenance, its masters – custodians of the injured soul. In its new therapeutic role, art became inner-directed, endeavoring to re-create those who are broken. The result has been a diminishment of the poet’s role. Who today would pretend to the outgoing reach of Milton or Blake? Who today would affirm Pope’s grand assertion that “a poet’s life is warfare on earth.”
Of course, in our time we assume such a commitment to reality to be the prerogative of the novelist, an assumption that further relegates the poet to otherworldly regions, to self-reflective musings—despite the examples of poets who have made a powerful claim on reality. Czeslaw Milosz’s contention that poetry ought to be “a passionate pursuit of the Real” is validated by Wilfred Owen and Keith Douglas who respectively confronted the horrors of the First and Second World Wars; by Mandelstam and Akhmatova, who opened a window onto the Stalinist terror; by Robert Lowell and Robert Bly, who captured the political turbulence of the war in Viet Nam. These poets achieve their ends without relinquishing their linguistic eminence or disregarding poetic craft—the usual pitfalls of poetry that attempts to proclaim and correct injustices. Their work is an effective fusion of language and moral commitment.
When extremist politics play themselves out in areas once thought of as “off limits,” our wish to see these upheavals dealt with in poetry is natural. Those poets who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature over the last two decades have without exception come from areas of political unrest: Szymborska (Poland), Heaney (Belfast), Walcott (the Caribbean), Paz (Mexico), Brodsky (USSR), Siefert (Czechoslovakia). Now that we know politics, in the words of Terence des Pres, “as a primary ground of misfortune,” we might ask: will these events historicize our poets? Cultural sensibilities run deep and it is not certain that a cataclysm—even one as traumatic as that of September 11—will redirect them.
Yet our health may depend on such a shift. Poetry reflects a nation’s thinking and an inordinately subjective use of language suggests an inability to deal with reality. Images of assassinations, famine, and military incursions play repeatedly on television and laptop screens, and each of us has become, if not his brother’s keeper, then at least his mesmerized witness. In such a climate it is entirely reasonable to expect poetry to grapple with the actual. But shouldn’t the poet remain free to practice his life-sustaining gift? Yes, but at the same time we’d like our poets to confront those forces that threaten us; if they do not enter the fray we want them, at least, to heed the voice of Joseph Conrad’s Stein, who in Lord Jim advised submitting oneself to “the destructive element.”
Stevens’s “violence from within,” ennobling us and restoring our dignity, need not limit itself to the talismanic sounds of words. The force he spoke of can confront today’s events, transform and refigure them so that we may bear their implications.