This is the first in a series of essays in which five poet-critics consider Wallace Stevens, with a focus on Stevens as a “philosophical” poet (or not). The first four were presented as a symposium at the AWP Conference in 2014, then gathered by David Baker and edited for print; the final essay, by Carol Frost, came to NER serendipitously, at about the same time. They all look closely at Stevens’s poetry and why it continues to engage us so deeply, more than a hundred years after he published his first poems.
We think by feeling,” writes Roethke, and then adds with a lyric shrug, “what is there to know?” Roethke articulates in “The Waking” a manner of late, purified, and some have said discredited romanticism—more inspiration than intellect, more sense than sanity or reason. So he doesn’t get lost in his unknowing, in a dark time, Roethke finds his way in and back out of the maze by means of form itself, following the step-by-step, syllable-by-syllable guidance of the villanelle. Otherwise, it might all look like, well, disaster.
Wallace Stevens is one of our supreme knowers, one of the profound thinkers of, and inside, the lyric poem. If Roethke thinks by feeling, then how does Stevens think? All that abstract longwinded highbrow stuff, that tink-a-tink and philosophy, what to do with all that?
Philosophy is my first point, or rather the relation of philosophy to the lyric utterance. One of the persisting characterizations of Stevens and his poems—and it seems everyone has written on Stevens—is that he is a philosophical poet, that particular kind of abstractive thinker. Even a quick amble through recent Stevens criticism will show the commentators as likely to position Stevens alongside philosophers as alongside poets. Of course they situate him with Burke and Kermode, James and Santayana and Locke; but also Stevens with Derrida, Gombrich, Adorno, Bachelard, Blanchot, Wittgenstein, Lacan, Pater, Levinas, Hegel, Schlegel, Kant. Entire books appear about Stevens and the philosophical: The Never-Resting Mind, The Act of the Mind, Stevens’ Poetry of Thought, and A Cure of the Mind. This last title derives from one of those delicious adages from Stevens’s own “Adagia,” those great baffling clarities, those one- and two-sentence zingers of which Americans are so fond. Poetry, he says, is a cure of the mind. He also says there is no wing like meaning. Poetry is a health, he says; but then, poetry must be irrational. He says it is the spirit, but also it is a meteor, it is money, it is a café, it is a daily necessity for “getting things right.” Even while, as he says, “[i]n the end the truth does not matter.” If philosophy is a love of truthful thinking, then is he actually an anti-philosopher?
At some point Stevens says almost everything, includes almost everything. And in the case of criticism, his work can be made to fit, to prove, to substantiate, and to dramatize almost every stance toward Platonism and the Socratic method, but also pre-Socraticism as well as neo-Platonism, Romanticism, Realism, Metaphysics, Phenomenology, and more.
Wallace Stevens is one of the great lyric chameleons. Is he a philosopher?
I have my feelings about that question, but I’m also trained just enough in philosophy to know I’m not well trained in philosophy. So I asked three poetry friends, who by profession are philosophers: Who are the most important philosophical poets, and is Stevens one of them? What is philosophical poetry?
Troy Jollimore, with his specialty in “agent-relative morality,” reports that “I have given this a lot of thought over the last few days [there’s a philosopher playing with you] and come up with very little.” Pope perhaps, he says, as “he does sort of follow a train of argument rather as an analytic philosopher would.” But even here, says Jollimore, “the form overwhelms the inquiry.”
Kascha Semonovich—trained in continental philosophy, where people are “more accommodating to ‘poetic’ philosophy”—says “I personally don’t think philosophy and poetry are terribly similar.” She supposes Oppen is kind of philosophical, and moments of Hass or Graham, but makes a significant differentiation between sustained analysis and mere “philosophical moments”: no system of philosophical position laid out; no sustained justification in the procedure; and “without justification you just have beliefs.”
And John Koethe, with his work on Wittgenstein and on skepticism, makes a great distinction—using Stevens himself, which seems crucial to me—between systematic thinking and “the movements of consciousness.” He concurs with Helen Vendler that “the guiding impulse of Stevens’s poetry is not an intellectual construction but rather a sense of dissatisfaction.” I would add to this: a dissatisfaction in the very system of intellectual construction that defines both philosophy and the logical or reasonable rhetoric of legal argument out of which Stevens’s very day-job derives.
So to the first question: how and when is lyric poetry philosophical? That is, when does it “do” philosophy? Almost never. Maybe some of Lucretius? A stretch or two of Milton, Wordsworth? Milosz? To be philosophy, a text should somehow, somewhere, sustain a specific type of investigation: analytic, reasonable, and progressive. It should enact a system of analysis, a procedure and what Kascha Semonovich calls “sustained justification in the procedure.” And in its procedure, doesn’t a philosophical text accumulate evidence and distill that evidence, summarizing with reason toward a kind of radical synthesis? It works toward a theory of things rather than toward a thing itself. And is that perhaps the opposite of the lyric’s devotion to particularity or specificity; or, in Stevens’s case, oddity and eccentricity, even abstract exceptionalism? Bart Eeckhout, in his essay “Stevens and Philosophy,” determines that “when we try to situate Stevens’s poetry within the most important philosophical traditions in Western history, we cannot but be struck by how relevant almost all of them are to his kind of thinking and writing—with one major exception: that of analytic philosophy.” And he counts among analytic philosophers everyone from Plato and Aristotle to Derrida and beyond.
Let’s say that Stevens is not a philosophical poet at all. Then what is he? We know he was educated at Harvard, took his law degree from New York Law School. Yet it appears he never took a single philosophy course. His contemporary T. S. Eliot wrote an entire doctoral thesis in philosophy, on F. H. Bradley, called Knowledge and Experience, a tract on metaphysics and practical activity. Yet even Eliot’s poetry is less philosophical than narrative—as in “Prufrock”—or dramatic, as in The Waste Land.
I’d like to propose three kinds of rhetorical paradigms in Stevens’s poetry, none of them ultimately “doing” philosophy.
First here—and first in his poetic chronology—are those crystalline Imagist poems. I refer to his early poems with their strange landscapes, their odd characters (pueriles, Polish aunts, inchling chieftains, dawdling wenches, simpering Byzantines with noisy tambourines) doing inexplicable things. These are still-life vignettes, portraits of surreal clarity, devoid of the “plain sense” of things. Or perhaps they indeed are enacting plain or obvious things—they’re just making ice cream in the kitchen, after all, in “Emperor of Ice-Cream,” where that dead lady lies covered-up in the next bedroom—obvious things oddly said. “Out of my mind,” he writes, “the golden ointment rained.” Here it’s not ideas but rather the irrational “golden ointment of imagination” that issues from his thinking. “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.”
Even in the strangeness of his Imagism, he seems inclined to suggest—and to parody—a kind of methodology. Not philosophy but the appearance of philosophical method. What is that famous blackbird poem if not a lyric version of the building of a case, by the evidentiary presence and process of examples? Exhibit A: “A man and a woman / Are one.” Exhibit B: “A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one.” Skipping ahead: Exhibit G: “I know noble accents / And lucid, inescapable rhythms; / But I know, too, / That the blackbird is involved / In what I know.” Ah, evidence and precedent. But what do we know? What do these shards and exactitudes prove, exactly? What is the thinking here, after Exhibit M and Q? He says in summary, as in syllogism: “It was evening all afternoon. / It was snowing / And it was going to snow. / [ergo] The blackbirds sat / In the cedar-limbs.” So he presents not process but a pastiche of process: around and around, ultimately unable to see the whole picture but always aware of the omnipresence, like blunt fate, of that blackbird. Less omen than bird. Less thought than datum. Less meaning, less philosophy, than a tautology of the indecipherable, that darkly comic accompaniment.
As Stevens’s work matures (and remember, he doesn’t publish his first book, Harmonium, until he’s forty-four), he pushes his logical-seeming method of making patterns into something more rhetorically sustained. I’ll call this his second type of lyric: the speculative poem. This stands for Stevens at the rhetorical pole farthest from his Imagist work. Perhaps this is the type that comes closest to philosophy. When one speculates, one takes or aims at a stance, and goes purposefully in search of the end of that stance. This is Stevens as epistemologist. He shares with philosophers a questioning: what do we know, and how do we know what we know? He writes in The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination that the poet seeks a power “to have such insights into reality as will make it possible for him to be sufficient as a poet in the very center of consciousness.”
His great poem “Esthetique du Mal” serves as a speculative example, a poem in which Stevens hopes to “communicate / The intelligence of his despair, express / What meditation never quite achieved.” Here in the “unpeopled” aloneness of things, he “disposes the world in categories,” wondering at the “knowledge of himself.” “Which,” he asks, “is more desperate in the moments when / The will demands that what he thinks be true?” Though he seems to build a careful case, in the end his very speculation creates “a third world without knowledge.” “The extreme of logic” produces, by paradox, “illogic”: “I followed his argument / With the blank uneasiness which one might feel / In the presence of a logical lunatic.” His supposed hero, the logical, is ultimately also the ultimate failure: “he would be the lunatic of one idea / In a world of ideas . . . He would not be aware of the clouds / Lighting the martyrs of logic with white fire. / His extreme of logic would be illogical.” Gone in search of conclusion, what he finds is its baffling opposite. Among his other poems that suit this category—the speculative lyric—I might list “The Comedian as the Letter C,” “Examination of the Hero in a Time of War,” “Connoisseur of Chaos,” “Description without Place,” and “Things of August.”
Finally, in his finest poems, and in the majority of his poems, Stevens exercises his favorite rhetorical method: not doing philosophy, but rather meditating on things and ideas. He notes some dissatisfaction with meditation, as in “Esthetique du Mal,” citing his desire to “express what meditation never quite achieved.” But to me he is most truly a meditative poet. Let’s say his Imagist poems hover, static, halted. And let’s say that to speculate is to drive forward, with determination, a destination in mind. Then to meditate is to amble. Meditation is an open-ended gambit to see less where one ends up than what one notices along the way. It is an amusement, a kind of Emersonian circle—observing, orbiting, musing and amused by “this vast ebb of a vast flow”: Stevens as transparent eyeball, observing, as John Koethe calls it, “the movements of consciousness.” Think of him walking home from work at Hartford Indemnity. In fact, Roger S. Gilbert treats this meditative aspect of Stevens with this same trope: the meditative “walk,” not as a narrative subject but rather its occasion, “the experience out of which the poem seems to arise and of which it is itself a part.”
“An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” is one of Stevens’s great poems and an example of the meditative lyric, composed in blank verse. Here is the category of Stevens’s most frequent rhetoric. He is an “ephebe . . . solitary in his walk”; “a strong mind in a weak neighborhood”; seeking neither the knowledge of the “priest nor proctor,” seeking in fact only a transcript of “the never-ending meditation.” The thirty-one sections of this magnificent poem come to closure not when his analytic method reaches deduction or conclusion, but rather when the walker simply arrives, having trod “the metaphysical streets of the physical town.” “We keep coming back and coming back to the real.” A whirl of amusements—from the theological to the earthy, the personal to the all—the poem in meditation mediates “the philosopher’s search / For an interior made exterior / And the poet’s search for the same exterior made / interior.” It’s as much music as method, and more amusement than analysis. He wants it all, thoughtful discovery but accident, too, comedic unreality: “If it should be true that reality exists / In the mind . . . it follows that / Real and unreal are two in one”; and that “Flickings from finikin to fine finikin” are as substantial as “a shade that traverses / A dust.”
In this grand work we are listening to music in a mind freely playing, openly wondering, and aswirl. So that, so simply—as he writes in “Description without Place,” with its plain purpose to transcribe “the way / Things look each day, each morning”—the imagination may be more alive “with its own seemings.” This effect prompts Gilbert to conclude that the occasion of this poem “becomes a source of authentic vision, a way of seeing the world in its essential integrity while recognizing that it, like the walker, remains caught up in motion . . . [a] fluid process. [It] gives us a metaphysics of the walk, in which movement subsumes real and unreal, visible and invisible, poem and occasion.”
Absolutely Stevens shares with philosophers a love of thinking and an abstractive bent. More important, he shares a fundamental epistemology: questioning what we know, and how we know it. He makes use of systems, procedures, and, at times, a methodology that seems like philosophy. But it is more truly a parody of philosophy: both a comedian’s send-up and an agnostic’s rebuff. Not analysis but meditation; not understanding but, as Gilbert puts it, a “kinetics of experience.” In Discourse on Thinking, Heidegger gives us an exacting distinction: “Thinking may take one of two forms: calculative thinking, which is driven by the will, and meditative thinking, which enables and is enabled by an openness to the mystery of existence.”
There it is. Roethke says, I think by feeling. I propose that Stevens says, I feel by thinking. That may be the closest I can come to an aesthetic theory of Stevens’s poetry. He thinks, and in thinking—deeply, wildly, in ways systematic and unruly alike—his thinking enables his feeling. Thinking makes him nearly ecstatic.