Wallace Stevens: The Making of Harmonium
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.” It must be allowed that Stevens wrote many poems to sustain precisely that assertion. “The image must be of the nature of its creator,” he wrote like a good Kantian in “A Mythology Reflects its Region.” “The chief characteristic of the mind,” he quoted from Focillon, “is to be constantly describing itself.” In the light of Mr. Sukenick’s book it is indisputable that Stevens meant what he said; if we have not taken him at his word, our excuse must be that in the next breath he was sure to contradict himself. There is, it appears, no contradiction; if we look for tokens of unity where alone they may be found, in the perceiving subject, not the ostensible object. “The center that he sought was a state of mind,” Stevens writes in “Artificial Populations,” “Nothing more.”
The critical question is to choose where the center of Stevens’s poetry is: in states of mind, articulations of feeling, landscape, Florida, “the ultimate Plato,” liaisons between the mind and its environment. Mr. Sukenick knows that a hundred lines may be quoted to defeat his reading. In the “Esthétique du Mal” Stevens ponders a man’s desperation “in the moments when / The will demands that what he thinks be true.” The answer is that this, too, is only a moment, one of thousands, however representative. Any critic can quote Stevens to his purpose. When Stevens muses the obscure, Mr. Sukenick argues, it is the musing that counts; the obscure is merely what happens to be congenial and ready.
So the poems are chapters in the life of the poet’s mind, and Mr. Sukenick glosses them on this understanding. He does not say much about the poetry as a whole, or even about the bearing of one poem upon another; only enough to establish his own position, his sense of Stevens. He knows that many of the most illuminating things in the criticism of Stevens are said by readers who have taken the whole body of work into their minds and now let one part bear upon another. There is also the question of the poet’s development. The Rock is not the same as Harmonium or Ideas of Order. Yeats wrote an essay on “The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry,” meaning by philosophy the lively coherence of the poet’s images, the degree to which his caverns, lakes, and domes conspire in the poetry as a whole, joining their energies to make a “world.” A philosophy in this special sense may well be present in Stevens’s poetry, as in the poetry of Shelley, Blake, and Yeats, even if philosophy in the ordinary sense is disheveled or contradictory. Mr. Sukenick knows this, but it is marginal to his interests. He is rather impatient with other critics, particularly with the latitude of their concerns. He is not a pupil of J. V. Cunningham for nothing. He rarely “tracks the knaves of thought” beyond the single poem; he is bored by general ideas.
But one of the differences between master and pupil is that master picks out the best poems and confines the discussion to these, setting everything else aside as inferior; pupil does not say why he chooses these 47 out of that body of work, 377 poems. “My choice of poems for full explication is not an attempt to promote a Stevens canon,” Mr. Sukenick says: instead, he chooses the poems which seem to him to require explication, whether these are the best poems or not. It is too much to expect that this arrangement will please everyone. Some of the poems which Mr. Sukenick explicates seem to me sufficiently clear already: “The Paltry Nude,” “Of Modern Poetry,” “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.” In “The Comedian as the Letter C” Stevens says: “The plum survives its poems.” Mr. Sukenick notes:
It is not that poems are pointless in face of plums, but that plums have their own existential integrity beyond language about them.
It is somewhat heavy, as a gloss. This applies also to the explication of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” another poem which is in common possession. On the other hand there are poems like “The Auroras of Autumn,” “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” “The Bouquet,” and “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” which I find difficult and opaque even after Mr. Sukenick’s commentary. Things which are obscure to one reader are clear as day to another. In “Holiday in Reality” Stevens says, “It was impossible to breathe at Durand-Ruel’s.” This may be lucidity itself to Mr. Sukenick and other readers, but it has stumped me. Paraphrasing “The Idea of Order at Key West” Mr. Sukenick says of the singer:
When she sang, the sea took on the identity that her song gave it. When we recognised this we realized that her world was the one she made up in her song, that of the imagined. Thus the spirit is the imagination, mediating between the self and reality, neither one nor the other.
Mr. Buttel seems to agree. For him, the singing girl “symbolizes the union of nature’s sound and the music of the imagination.” This reading may be right, but I find some difficulty in reconciling it with the text. The girl seems to me a more aggressive force, more predatory, than anything implied in the idiom of unity and mediation:
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker….
We are bound to disagree. To me, the singer is the demanding imagination, philosophically idealist for the moment, reducing all experiences to experiences between the mind and itself. In this mood, Nature is nothing, the imagination is everything. I exaggerate, to throw some force against Mr. Sukenick and Mr. Buttel. In general, by the way, Mr. Sukenick seems to make Stevens more of a realist philosopher, when he is a philosopher at all, than the poet seems to me. He remarks at one point:
The imagination for Stevens is not a way of creating, but of knowing. The imagination creates nothing, in the sense that it presents us with nothing that is not already in the world to be perceived.
There is a sense in which this is true; but not if it implies that Stevens is willingly immured in the given. Indeed, more than any other modern poet Stevens insists upon “the spirit’s alchemicana,” upon the possibility of escaping “to principium.” Mr. Sukenick recognizes a state of mind in which the mind rejoices in its release from content, the ball and chain; “a psychological equilibrium without any particular intellectual content.” But, accepting this as a psychological condition, he refuses to recognize in its achievement a certain mode of the imagination. It seems to me that there are many poems in which Stevens presents the imagination as a way of creating, which, for the moment, is not identical with a way of knowing; that is, if knowing implies of necessity an object of knowledge, a reality “independent of its constituting consciousness.”
BUT TO REVERT to the specific: glossing some lines in “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” (II.I):
Night-blue is an inconstant thing. The seraph
Is satyr in Saturn, according to his thoughts….
Mr. Sukenick says:
Therefore the blue of night passes away, and when it returns is subject to variation. The character of the seraph may change completely, “according to his thoughts.”
Yes, as far as the paraphrase goes; but it leaves “satyr in Saturn” dark to me. I have sometimes wished that a textual emendation might be possible, changing “in” to “or”: it would make things easier. A few lines down Stevens writes:
An erotic perfume, half of the body, half
Of an obvious acid is sure what it intends
And the booming is blunt, not broken in subtleties.
Mr. Sukenick refers to “the sensual smell of life, of the body, and of an undisguised sexual acid, not for esthetic appreciation, but intent on copulation.” But Stevens implies that the perfume is erotic because of its bodily half, so the obvious acid is unlikely to be merely a duplication, “sexual acid”; it must be different or at least more general. In a letter to Hi Simons, January 12, 1943, Stevens said of these lines: “I don’t actually recall what I had in mind when I said ‘obvious acid,’ but it is clear that the meaning is visible change.” These are details. The fact is that Mr. Sukenick’s readings are remarkably acute, so that even to disagree with them is exhilarating. He is particularly helpful with “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” “Asides on the Oboe,” and “Extracts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas,” But he is helpful even where more help is needed.
MR. BUTTEL’S BOOK is a study of influences and materials. Perhaps its most interesting chapter is the account of Stevens’s literary setting, men like Walter Arensberg, Carl Van Vechten, Donald Evans, and Pitts Sanborn. The relation between Evans’s poems, for instance, and Stevens’s early pieces is demonstrably close. Mr. Buttel is a judicious critic and he knows that he is dealing with pretty thin stuff. Perhaps he might have fattened it a little by pursuing certain influences, some of which he mentions in passing. It is assumed that Santayana’s Interpretations of Poetry and Religion was important to the early Stevens, but the exact nature of the relation is not common knowledge. Stevens read William Carlos Williams’s Al Que Quiere carefully enough to transcribe one of its poems, “El Hombre,” and then to write “Nuances of a Theme by Williams,” two nuances to go with the original. There are cadences of Eliot, I think, in “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle”: “Shall I uncrumple this much-crumpled thing?” Mr. Buttel moves in other directions: Verlaine, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Whitman, the Imagists, modern painting, the Cubists, the Armory Show of 1913, Laforgue. These are interesting affiliations, as far as they go, but they cannot really be asked to explain how Stevens came to write a masterpiece like “Sunday Morning.”
Indeed, the impression which persists when we have given the early influences their due is that they are extraordinarily fragile. We often meet this situation in Stevens; the noblest poems issuing from a cultural situation seemingly impoverished. In After Strange Gods Eliot spoke of the disability from which Hardy, Hopkins, and Yeats suffered, that of lacking a living and central tradition. The fact that he did not choose to keep that book in print does not mean that he disowned its sentiments. We feel, of Stevens, that the context in which his early poems were written gave him little or nothing of a central tradition, or indeed of any tradition. To look back to the Pennsylvania Dutch was a pleasant exercise, but it was merely picturesque, not a going concern.
The result was that Stevens had to do nearly everything for himself, and the first requirement was to convince himself that he was capable of doing so. John Crowe Ransom said of Harmonium that many of its poems were written “only to exhibit the poet to himself as a virtuoso, exulting in his mastery; not as yet necessarily in possession of his grand theme and program.” I think Mr. Buttel would agree that the materia poetica available to Stevens in the early years was, to say the least, unprepossessing, and that only a man of heroic assurance could have undertaken to transform it. To mark the limits of Stevens’s sensibility in any direction is merely to say that a poet, even this poet, “gifted with a prodigious power of word and phrase,” cannot do everything for himself. Irving Howe has defined these limits in A World More Attractive: he is a poet of Saturn, not Jupiter, only barely alive to the quotidian world in which men live. “He did not write poetry that had to do with people in social relation,” Mr. Sukenick says. In “The Comedian as the Letter C” Crispin manufactures what he needs:
What counted was mythology of self,
Blotched out beyond unblotching….
Even if this is only the first scene of the comedy, it is a scene never entirely abandoned by its maker.
Mr. Buttel quotes a letter which bears upon this theme and also upon the argument of Mr. Sukenick’s book. Stevens is writing to Williams, complaining of the casual character of the poems in Al Que Quiere. “Personally I have a distaste for miscellany,” he says. And then:
My idea is that in order to carry a thing to the extreme (necessary) to convey it one has to stick to it…. Given a fixed point of view, realistic, imagistic or what you will, everything adjusts itself to that point of view; the process of adjustment is a world in flux, as it should be for a poet. But to fidget with points of view leads always to new beginnings and incessant new beginnings lead to sterility.
The point is that both poets engaged in improvisation, so the question of miscellany had to be met. The difference was that Williams took the self for granted and consigned it, nonchalantly, to the objects of its attention. The more objects, the richer the self. Williams saved his poetic soul by contact with the daily world: salvation by a miscellany of objects. This was possible because he delighted in the miscellaneous character of the world, its wonderful sundry; he could find himself at any moment, secreting himself in the world at large. Stevens, to be sure of himself, had to feel the force of attraction, a continuous imaginative power drawing everything into its own circle. The perceiving subject was fixed at the point where every relevant object found itself adjusted and, in that degree, reconciled. It is Stevens, not Williams, who says:
But one looks
at the sea
As one improvises, on the piano.
It is Stevens, not Williams, who speaks of reducing the monster to himself; the monster being Nature, everything, “what one faces.” Williams looks at the sea hoping to find there something other than himself, something wonderfully irreducible. When we are annoyed with him, it is because he refuses to make any distinction between one object and another, citing the impartiality of the imagination. When we are annoyed with Stevens, it is because he takes every state of mind with equal gravity. The trouble is that if you start by entertaining every state of mind that happens to come along, you give a psychological answer to every question; that is, no answer at all, from any other point of view but your own. Perhaps this is why Yeats detested the literature of the point of view: because it left the mind a slave to its own moods. To Yeats the imagination was creative in choosing its roles, playing several parts, putting on its proper masks: nothing casual there. The perceiving subject was a mode of dramatic energy, consciously theatrical. Anything short of full choice was merely a way of driving the mind into quicksand.
Stevens, then, was a moody poet: a poet given to his moods, on the assumption that a man’s life is only the sum of his moods. Reducing the monster to himself, he engendered another mood. This was his way of defeating monsters. If we disapprove, thinking that monsters deserve more consideration, we tend to exaggerate the reduction, forgetting that after every reduction the monster is only vicariously defeated. There remains, on that side, the unsubdued reality before and after the poem. There remains, on the other side, the poet’s imagination: feeling, will, sensibility, and the circle of their desires. Stevens yielded to his moods because, according to that aesthetic, moods are content, substance, the only available circle. One mood after another makes up the materia poetica; the poetry itself is the mood, endowed with everything it needs in the way of liveliness and self-possession. And then, the last grace, the words. Yvor Winters spoke of Harmonium as exhibiting the Hedonist’s Progress; but he refuses to take moods seriously, unless their credentials are in rational terms impeccable.
IN THE EPILOGUE to The Last Puritan Santayana considers the question of truth and fiction:
The truth cannot help triumphing at the last judgment. Perhaps it cannot triumph before. Perhaps, while life lasts, in order to reconcile mankind with reality, fiction in some directions may be more needful than truth.
It is part of the official record that Stevens took the composition of fictions as his grand program, especially in his middle books. Another part implies that in his last poems he reached an accommodation with reality, according to fictions humane and unassertive. He made an honorable peace, near the end. In “The Planet on the Table” he wrote:
His self and the sun were one
And his poems, although makings of his self,
Were no less makings of the sun.
“His poems were alive to him,” Mr. Sukenick glosses, “because they had captured the sense of his existence.” As a paraphrase, it will serve, though Mr. Sukenick has done better on more difficult occasions. Another way of glossing the lines is to place beside them the invocation to the two Romes in Stevens’s poem to Santayana:
The threshold, Rome, and that more merciful Rome
Beyond, the two alike in the make of the mind.
It is still a psychological release, and we know from Mr. Sukenick that if it were not, Stevens would not give it. Mr. Buttel refers to the serenity of these last poems; but the serenity marks a mood, within, which is at the same time an accommodation, without. The two violences are, as Stevens said elsewhere, “equal and inseparable.” The lines from “The Planet on the Table” embody a fiction, if you like, but I see no reason to distinguish the fiction, on this occasion, from truth. The fact that truth cannot help triumphing at the last judgment does not mean that it may not have a few local victories in the meantime. Stevens’s last poems seem to me to be true, in that sense: the image is still of the nature of its creator, a psychological fact, but it is also of the nature of its object. That is why Ariel’s poems, makings of his self, are no less makings of the sun. In “St. Armorer’s Church from the Outside” we read of life, itself, “the presence of the intelligible / In that which is created as its symbol.” These last poems do not refute Mr. Sukenick’s argument: rather, they qualify it by implying a state of mind, near the end, in which the demands of truth and the desires of fiction are simultaneously fulfilled. As the Soothsayer pronounces at the end of Cymbeline, the vision is “full accomplished.”