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To Reinvent Invention: John Hollander on Wallace Stevens

Written by

John Hollander
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Year

2007

Wallace Stevens was one of the very greatest of our poets in a century during which the loudest of assertions had started to ring false. Now that his presence has itself become part of our national Nature—as much as his own "River of Rivers in Connecticut" ("a river that flows nowhere, like a sea"), or a mountain of mountains in New Hampshire—his personified Mount Chocorua giving implicit revisionary answer to Emerson's Monadnoc—it is hard to remember how, for poets of several later generations, he was a private discovery and a personal treasure of unguided reading. But by the mid-century his central imaginative project—central to the poetry of our time and to the depth of view of our democratic vistas—had emerged.

His major poetry energetically engaged the task of preserving our cardinal nobilities from decay into trivialization and into mockeries of what they had been, and in finding our very notions of centrality and representativeness in their ever-shifting hiding-places in the world we apprehend. His poems make—in his own words—"The visible a little hard / To see" and "reverberating, eke out the mind / On peculiar horns, themselves eked out / By the spontaneous particulars of sound."

Stevens' formulation of modern poetry as "The poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice" highlights this matter of quest and process so central to all his poetry, writing. His poetry can be quite difficult at times. Consider part of a line: "the intricate evasions of as". The very phrase is work, seen here as a sort of eternal propounding of simile, of "as"-ing, is thereby evading some condition of confrontation, denial, destruction, etc.? And, if so, is this the evasion of a great running-back? or the "evasion" —as opposed to legal "avoidance"—so mercilessly pursued by the IRS? Or, given either of these, does it mean what in life or in the poetry of life evades "as," or the evading that "as" itself accomplishes? It is in the very process of considering these alternatives that the power of the phrase lies, and in the way that it points beyond reductive assertions about reality.

After Harmonium—including poems which have become relatively popular like "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," "Sunday Morning," "Peter Quince at the Clavier," and "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle"—his work comes more and more to confront the Protean falsifications of our very conceptions of the real and the imagined, to help preserve the freedom of invention from the traps of script written for it by others, to reinvent, from time to time, invention itself.

"Poetry," he said aphoristically, "is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right." (At the same time, he could observe elsewhere, "Realism is a corruption of reality," in part acknowledging that isms, as the political theorist George Kateb has observed, become wasms all too soon.) Knowing also that "Sentimentality is a failure of feeling." Stevens frequently makes poetry the locus of his continuing quest for representations that will suffice, even as the American imagination generally has sought to redeem conceptions of nobility, honor, beauty from the older, European, aristocratic statues of them, as it were. But the matter of his quest points beyond the making of poems. His marvelous long poems—"The Man with the Blue Guitar," "Esthétique du Mal," "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," "The Auroras of Autumn," "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven" —represent this search for "what will suffice" in modes of progression and sequence beyond those of narration, and beyond ordinary loss. And, as he affirms at the conclusion of his mediation on a perfect bowl of pink and white carnations in "The Poems of Our Climate"

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.