[Decoding the Inner Stevens] [10.29.07]

Like that of many of his contemporaries, Wallace Stevens’ writing revealed an aversion to the sentimental lyric, a tendency to avoid the appearance of an indulgence in the personal he strove to disguise if not remove himself in his own work. Helen Vendler, in her book, “Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire,” writes that “many of Stevens’ strategies for freshness and originality are strategies of concealment, chiefly concealment of the lyrical ‘I.’” [1] Among her suggestions to the new reader of Stevens, the first and most direct is to transpose all third person references – usually he or she but sometimes abstracted, as in a jar, or a black bird – into the first person. No such practice should trump or ignore the implications of an impersonal or abstract construction, however; Stevens is certainly able to write directly about his own emotional life, but seems to prefer to keep his own consciousness at a remove.

When Stevens seems cold or even absent, even if only as narrator, it is more likely a function of this subdued “I” than it is a lack of empathy or concern for his characters. Indeed, his inclination toward a concealed subjectivity might speak to a strong attachment of the poet to his subjects. It is not uncommon or unlikely that someone prone to strong emotional reactions may learn to hold those reactions close to the vest, as a protective measure, a sort of counter-balance. Joan Richardson, in her biography of Stevens, points out the correlation between sensitivity and anxiety:

The young man sensitive to himself and the world around him felt the anxiety of the age as the century became more self-conscious and, at the same time, more deceptive in its rationalizations. [2]

An underlying element of Stevens’ first book of poetry, Harmonium [3], one that follows the observations of the two authors above, is that he imbues internal or contained objects with qualities of their surrounding, external landscapes. Note this relationship made explicit in the poem, “Anecdote of Men by the Thousand”:

There are men whose words
Are as natural sounds
Of their places
As the cackle of toucans
In the place of toucans. (l. 9-13)

With Vendler’s advice in mind, the poem reads as the poet’s observation that people tend to take on attributes consistent with the qualities of their backdrop. Not only humans, but also their creations, so that the “mandoline [sic] is the instrument / Of a place” (l. 14-5), and a dress made in Lhassa “is an invisible element of that place / Made visible.” (l. 20-1) The environment soaks into its objects and allows those objects to project the particular, recognizable characteristics of their place. Stevens states his thesis plainly at the outset of the poem:

The soul, he said, is composed
Of the external world. (l. 1-2)

Even in those instances where he does say “I,” Stevens avoids the kind of self-involved introspection of the later confessional mode. One of the ways he achieves the distance he deems necessary – the mix of Protestant and Puritan ethics that under-girded his childhood demanded such self-denial – he achieves by his choice of titles for his poems. There are a few examples of titles that contain the word “anecdote,” and many more that promise a glimpse into another person’s private thoughts or experiences, as in the poem, “From the Misery of Don Joost.” The poem opens in the first person, but “I” diffuses quickly as the poet does his best to cloak himself:

I have finished my combat with the sun;
And my body, the old animal,
Knows nothing more. (l. 1-3)

He relegates the personal ever further away, and renders himself just a body, an animal that knows nothing. Then “the old animal” becomes “the very self of the storm / Of sun and slaves, breeding and death” (l. 7-8). The self’s experience of itself, as a storm, as “the powerful seasons…themselves the genii / Of their own ends” (l. 4-6), is a whirlwind of contrasted elements. It breeds, it dies, it guides its own course through life, and out of the world.
In another, final example, “Another Weeping Woman,” the title of which implies a recurrence of misery, the poet again sees the affect of environment on its inhabitants. Overfull with unhappiness, a widow grieves and wallows “in the water of tears” (l. 5), but the speaker of the poem warns: “Poison grows in this dark.” (l. 4) Her salvation lies in her imagination, which is, to Stevens, “the magnificent cause of being…the one reality / In this imagined world” (l. 7-9). The weeping woman has been a carrier of grief, and has not left room for her other faculties to thrive. The neglect is her own poison; so neglected, her imagination abandons her in return, and leaves her “with him for whom no phantasy moves” (l. 11). In the end, she is empty of everything, a vessel “pierced by” (l. 12), and ultimately drained by, a death. Stevens offers no grace to her who has squandered the magnificence of her existence, and one suspects that he has lent himself no such leniency, either.


[1] Vendler, Helen. Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire. (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1985.) 44.

[2] Richardson, Joan. Wallace Stevens: A Biography: The Early Years, 1879-1923. (New York: Beech Tree Books, 1986.) 159.

[3] Stevens, Wallace. Harmonium. (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1923) (Rpt. New York: St. James Press, 1975).

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