Fabulous Salad

Wallace Stevens: The Making of Harmonium

by Robert Buttel
Princeton, 269 pp., $6.95

On December 21, 1922, Wallace Stevens wrote to Harriet Monroe:

Knopf has my book, the contract is signed and that’s done. I have omitted many things, exercising the most fastidious choice, so far as that was possible among my witherlings. To pick a crisp salad from the garbage of the past is no snap….

The book was Harmonium, published on September 7, 1923. Mr. Buttel has been studying the witherlings, the early undergraduate poems printed in the Harvard Advocate, a few stories, and about thirty manuscript poems which have not yet been collected. His particular interest is the relation between these things and Harmonium, that fabulous salad. Mr. Sukenick’s interest is different. He has been to school with Irving Howe and J. V. Cunningham, two of the most penetrating readers of Stevens, and now he is certain that we have all made too much of the poet’s theory, the ideas, the philosophy. I think he means that the published criticism of Stevens has been too high and mighty, too planetary, too Platonic. What is required now is explication, sober, patient exegesis, paraphrase, line by line. So he has chosen 47 of the 377 published poems for detailed elucidation. Each of the remaining poems is given a line or two, a signpost, at the end of the book.

What emerges, when we attend to both books, is an idea which should have come to us before; that the only unity among Stevens’s local creeds is a psychological unity, the coherence and posession of his own mind. We have spent too long looking for unity among the materials themselves, or a logic among the ideas, a strict philosophy. It is the great merit of Mr. Sukenick’s book that he diverts us from this enquiry. Mr. Buttel’s book is busy with other matters, but its implication is similar, that Stevens’s peculiar force is the force of attraction, the energy with which he draws disparate materials toward his imagination, composing a “mythology of self.” “It is the belief and not the god that counts,” Stevens says; and again, “In the long run the truth does not matter.” Mr. Sukenick quotes these adagia and comments:

For the dogmatist, for the philosopher, and for the didactic poet it is the truth that matters, and the adjustment to it is secondary. This is a poetry that adheres to a psychological mode of meditation whose end is resolution, as opposed to the discursive mode of the didactic whose end is demonstrated truth.

In practice, this means: anything goes, so long as it gives pleasure, “With regard to the apprehension of reality,” Mr. Sukenick observes, “sometimes [Stevens] says one thing and sometimes he says the opposite.” In “The Man with the Blue Guitar” and similar poems we are to attend to the process without expecting a conclusion: if these poems have a structure, “it is fundamentally the structure of the poet’s mind as it is realized in the act of improvisation …

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