Wallace Stevens: The Problems of Painters and Poets
TypePoetry & Art
Of Wallace Stevens’s Collected Poems, poet and critic Hayden Carruth marveled: "I was continually impressed, as I wandered—no other word will do—among the hundreds of poems in this volume, by the way in which they present to us the whole movement of this century in art." Stevens's interest in art is well documented: he frequently referred to artwork and the art world in his letters and essays; he wrote comments regarding art reviews in his notebooks; and most notably, he included his piece, "Relations Between Poetry and Painting," in The Necessary Angel, his collection of essays on poetry.
Stevens first delivered "Relations Between Poetry and Painting" as a lecture at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1951. In this piece, Stevens explored the parallel attributes of poetry and painting, beginning with reference to adages that apply to both poets and painters and culminating with the emphatic conclusion that "it would be tragic not to realize the extent of man’s dependence on the arts."
This crescendo in his argument is based on the notion that, in an age of disbelief, the arts in general are a "compensation for what has been lost. Men feel that the imagination is the next greatest power to faith: the reigning prince." Stevens argues that, because poetry and painting operate at the juncture between imagination and reality, these arts assume a prophetic stature and become a "vital assertion of self in a world where nothing but the self remains, if that remains."
Stevens's approach toward art in his poetry differed from many of his contemporaries. William Carlos Williams, for example, another poet who was often inspired by art, generally wrote ecphrastic poems where the connection with the painting was explicit. As poetry critic Bonnie Costello has pointed out: "All the studies of Williams agree that he takes the analogy with painting literally and strives for an equivalency of effect in words. Stevens’s relation to painting is a far more figurative and conceptual one."
For Stevens, as poetry critic Glen MacLeod has written, "the important relations were in the realm of theory, not technique....The Western tradition of ut pictura poesis has conditioned us to expect that analogies between poetry and painting will involve direct comparisons between particular paintings and poems, usually in terms of their iconography or technique."
Indeed, Stevens purposefully avoids such direct comparisons in his essay on poetry and painting:
I have not overlooked the possibility that, when this evening’s subject was suggested, it was intended that the discussion should be limited to the relations between poetry and modern painting. This would have involved much tinkling of familiar cymbals. In so far as it would have called for a comparison of this poet and that painter, this school and that school, it would have been fragmentary and beyond my competence.
Stevens's unwillingness and declared inability to conduct a specific painting to poem critique supports MacLeod’s position that "such comparisons rarely work in the case of Stevens, whose inspiration came less from individual paintings than from what he called ‘the literature of painting.’" Stevens remarked: "To a large extent, the problems of poets are the problems of painters and poets must often turn to the literature of painting for a discussion of their own problems."
Among the many examples of how the literature of painting influenced Stevens's poetry is "The Man with the Blue Guitar," one of his most successful long poems. It refers to a saying of Picasso that a painting is "une somme de destructions," translated by the poet to mean "a horde of destructions":
Is this picture of Picasso’s, this "horde
Of destructions," a picture of ourselves,
Now an image of society?
Stevens first saw the quotation from Picasso in a special issue of Cahiers d’art devoted to surrealism. This same reference appears in "Relations Between Poetry and Painting," suggesting the extent to which the literature of art could influence poetry: "Does not the saying of Picasso that a picture is a horde of destructions also say that a poem is a horde of destructions?"