The logical faculty has infinitely more to do with
Poetry than the Young and the inexperienced, whether writer or critic,
ever dreams of.
--William Wordsworth 
What makes the new poetry so bad is its failure to
realize that there is no sound poetry without intelligence.
--James Wright 
[T]he evil of thinking as poetry is not the same
thing as the good of thinking in poetry.
--Wallace Stevens 
Suppose we reverse things. Instead of asking how we can teach poetry,
suppose we ask how it can teach us. What might we learn from Wallace
Stevens, for example, about the art to which he was devoted—was "faithful,"
to use his word? Some of Stevens's lessons are so advanced that only
the best poets and critics will recognize them. But he can also teach us
something obvious yet perhaps startling: that thinking matters crucially
when we read good poetry. Again and again, he emphasizes this, as do
others, for example, Wordsworth and James Wright in my first two
epigraphs. Here is Stevens, offering advice to a young writer and
True, the desire to read is an insatiable desire and you must read.
Nevertheless, you must also think . . . [T]here is no passion like the
passion of thinking which grows stronger as one grows older, even
though one never thinks anything of any particular interest to anyone
else. Spend an hour or two a day even if in the beginning you are
staggered by the confusion and aimlessness of your thoughts.
We need to remember this when we hear Stevens saying, "The poem
must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully" (CP, 350). Resist,
not ignore or flee. Almost successfully, but not altogether
successfully. How long was Stephen Hawking's A Brief History
of Time on the best-seller list? And why was this, if not that
people were hungry to know, to think about, what physicists make of our
universe? At 26, Stevens noted "the capable, the marvellous, poetic
language; and the absence of poetic thought . . . We get plenty of moods
(and like them, wherever we get them) . . . .But it's the mind we
want to fill" (L, 92). At 65, he wrote that "supreme poetry
can be produced only on the highest possible level of the cognitive"
As a long-term goal in teaching Stevens, or teaching any poetry, I
like to show how all good poetry requires thinking. This means combating
several stereotypes: first, the stereotype where thinking is what you do
in mathematics or the physical and biological sciences or philosophy or
psychology; second, the stereotype of an easy division between thinking
and feeling, where poetry is assigned to feeling, and judgments about
feeling go unexamined; third, the stereotype where poetry is divided
between "content" (associated with thought, themes, arguments
that are already in existence) and "form" (associated
with ornament, purple passages, hyperbole, etc., that "express"
what is already in existence); fourth, the stereotypes that prevent too
many people from simply enjoying art, and this includes the enjoyment of
thinking about it. I'll say a word or two about these long-term
goals before some particular remarks about Stevens in the classroom.
Let's start with the atmosphere in which most teachers of
literature work. Here's how Northrop Frye described it in 1975, and
it doesn't seem to have changed much since. Teachers of literature
harassed and bedeviled by the dismal sexist symbology surrounding
the humanities which [they meet] everywhere, even in the university
itself, from freshman classes to the president's office. This
symbology . . . says that the sciences, especially the physical
sciences, are rugged, aggressive, out in the world doing things, and
so symbolically male, whereas the literatures are narcissistic,
intuitive, fanciful, staying at home and making the home more
beautiful but not doing anything really serious, and are therefore
symbolically female. They are, however, leisure-class females, and have
to be attended by a caste of ladies' maids who prepare them for
public appearance, and who are the teachers and critics of literature
in schools and universities. 
The tendency to assign thinking, serious thinking, to any subject but
the arts or humanities is all part of this. So are fallacies of accuracy.
I used to say, "Words are not as accurate as numbers," until
it struck me that this was a meaningless statement. For what did I mean
by accurate? I meant accurate as in 2 + 2 = 4. So all I was
really saying was that words are not accurate in the same way that
numbers are accurate, which is not exactly news. It may sound odd to use
the word accurate in connection with poetry, but it was Stevens's
word: "My dame, sing for this person accurate songs" (Notes
Toward a Supreme Fiction 1.9). And Proust once observed: "In
literature 'almost-parallel' lines are not worth drawing.
Water (given certain conditions) boils at 100 degrees. At 98, at 99 the
phenomenon does not occur. It is better, therefore, to abstain" —if,
that is, the author can't get it exactly right. Getting something
just right in a poem: this can produce as much pleasure and knowledge as
getting something just right in baseball. Getting just the right spin on
a word or a group of words.
Baseball may help. Logically considered, it makes less sense than
poetry. Grown men taking a stick of wood to a small object, and racing
against a set of arbitrary rules? But it's intensely human, this
exercise of physical and mental skill, and beautiful to watch when
seemingly preternatural ability looks effortless. We know from our own
softball games how gifted those major-league players are, and good
commentators help us realize this. So with poetry. We all use words.
Still, there's not much to encourage us to use them really well,
let alone play games with them or write occasional poems. If we played
softball games with words, and also regularly heard the major-league
word-players, with good commentators . . . It's a nice thought. And
nobody supposes for a moment that baseball players don't think,
even if they don't think in philosophical concepts or chemical
numbers. They think in baseball: thinking-in-baseball, we might call it.
Thinking-in-poetry is what poets do.
Movies may help too, except that there are so many third-rate ones
around. We have higher standards in baseball by far. But movies have the
advantage of being one art form that students are relaxed about and
will reflect on. That includes questions of technique. Why this shot and
not that one? What precisely makes Griffith or Chaplin or Renoir or
Hitchcock or X, Y, Z so good? I've watched a number of student
films from a very good film school. You can trace the progress in
learning the mechanics of filmmaking. But the real challenge is
different. It's thinking, imaginative thinking. It's
avoiding the pitfalls of novelty or hyperbole or overambitious claptrap.
It has to do with a sense of proportion, a sense of shaping. It has to
do with attention, passionate attention, to details it has to do with an
active, examining, alive self, a thinking self, as against the passive
self who just accepts without thinking whatever it's fed by the TV
or movie or computer screen.
As for thinking and feeling, there is one great hazard in
separating them. We are accustomed to rigor and discipline in thinking.
We prize it, we strive for it. But we usually do not think of rigor or
discipline in connection with feeling. Our terminology for speaking of
the emotions can be reduced to notions like "expression" and "suppression."
As if these were the only alternatives or indeed were simple matters.
Worse, "expression," any expression, becomes a good in itself,
in the ignorant antipuritanism of pop psychology. What happens, T.S.
Eliot asked, when our feelings are separated from our thinking, and both
from our senses, so that the three function indifferent compartments?
What happens to our capacity to feel? To use our senses? To think? "Instead
of thinking with our feelings. . . we corrupt our feelings with ideas;
we produce the public, the political, the emotional idea, evading
sensation and thought . . . Mr. Chesterton's brain swarms with
ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks." 
As for content and form, the first time that the content-form
metaphor turns up in a class, I stop things. Time to examine this
metaphor, which is nearly always based on a container-and-contained
model. "Content" is the milk or beer or important substance,
what sometimes gets wrongly called the "philosophy" of A or B.
(Here insert growls from good philosophers and good poets alike.) "Content"
can be poured into all kinds of containers. The container or form is
just what's convenient or pretty. One way to shake up this
stereotype is to remember an Aristotelian notion of form, as in: the
form of an oak tree is contained in an acorn. The form of an adult is
contained in an infant. Form suddenly becomes something vital in these
examples of the oak tree or the human being. Similarly with poems.
Enjoying, and this includes enjoying thinking. Here is where I
usually start when teaching Stevens, in order to get students to relax
with the work. Just listening to poems can help. I read myself or else
play a record of Stevens reading. What poems? There are poems of
immediate sense appeal, there are funny poems, there are quirky poems,
there are protest poems. Try a few of the early Florida poems: "Nomad
Exquisite," "Indian River," "Fabliau of Florida."
You could include "Frogs Eat Butterflies . . . " or an early
seashore poem, "Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores." You could
illustrate what Stevens is not doing by reading a bit of the
hilarious mock-poem "Le Bouquet" from Bowl, Cat and
Broomstick (OP, 174). "Six Significant Landscapes,"
no. 6, is funny, centers on a suggestive analogy, curves itself on the
page like its theme, and uses the familiar hat metaphor. (Putting on
your thinking cap. Putting on x hat for x job.) It can
also start a class thinking about thinking. There are other possible
groupings, a seasonal one, for example. A New York Times column
once claimed that nobody wrote poems about February. Is that so? See
Stevens's "Poésie Abrutie." Other possibilities
would be river and seashore poems, starry-night poems, poems of ghosts
and shades, love poems, and so on.
Any one of these groups will lead on to later work, and thereby show
how Stevens enlarges his subjects as he goes on. Stevens's great
river or seashore poems would include the challenging poem "The
Idea of Order at Key West," as well as "Somnambulisma"
and the intensely moving poem of Stevens's late years "The
River of Rivers in Connecticut." But all this comes later.
Enjoying includes the pleasure we take in exactness. As for example,
why this word and not that one? W.H. Auden is said to have given his
students an exercise in which he blanked out several words in a poem
they didn't know and asked them to fill in the blanks. I regularly
use this exercise myself. (You have to play fair, keeping enough key
words.) It's fun to look for poems that use different effects. For
example, "Nomad Exquisite," with its utterly unexpected
alligator. Or the third section of "Someone Puts a Pineapple
Together," with its dozen one-line pineapple likenesses. Or "The
Plain Sense of Things," especially the start of stanza 4. (Here the
surprise is not in a single word or a fresh metaphor but in the force of
logic.) This exercise helps to show readers their own presuppositions
and sometimes their stock responses. (There's a handy essay by I.
A. Richards on stock responses,  and see also Christopher Ricks's
opening chapter in his T.S. Eliot and Prejudice.) 
All this can lead to the pleasure of dictionary exercises, the best
dictionary by far being the generous multivolume Oxford English
Dictionary. For any assigned poem, all students should know precise
lexical meanings. For key words, they should pay attention to all the
information in the OED: the word-root, cognates, and especially
usage as in the illustrative quotations. These last help to give the
connotations or associations of words, which are just as important as
denotations. And we need to remember that poets help make dictionaries;
they don't just follow them. On Stevens's unusual words, there's
useful essay by R.P. Blackmur.  There's also Stevens's own
wonderful remark: "Personally, I like words to sound wrong"
(L, 340). He did like throwing curveballs.
From enjoyment, to single words, to combinations of words. (And
actually words in a poem never exist in isolation but always in
relation.) Yeats once wrote that he only began to make a language to his
liking when he sought a "powerful and passionate syntax." 
Watching sentence structure, our own and others, is always instructive.
(Students may need a little teaching about basic grammar if their schools
have deprived them of it—which is like depriving math students of
the multiplication table.)
Here's one exercise that's fun. Consider James Merrill's
observation about writing workshops:
Last winter I visited a workshop in which only one out of fifteen
poets had noticed that he needn't invariably use the first-person
present active indicative. Poem after poem began: "I empty my
glass . . . I go out . . . I stop by woods . . ." For me a "hot"
tense like that can't be handled for very long without cool pasts
and futures to temper it. Or some complexity of syntax, or a
modulation into the conditional—something. An imperative,
even an auxiliary verb, can do wonders. Otherwise, you get this
addictive self-centered immediacy, harder to break oneself of than
cigarettes. That kind of talk (which, by the way, is purely literary;
it's never heard in life unless from foreigners or
four-year-olds) calls to mind a speaker suspicious of words . . . He'll
never notice "Whose woods these are I think I know" gliding
backwards through the room, or "Longtemps je me suis couché
de bonne heure" plumbing a cushion invitingly at her side. 
Exercise: test this in Stevens. And yes, there are surprisingly few
first-person present active indicatives, one being in the third of the "Six
Significant Landscapes." But then, Stevens does seem to be saying
something Merrill-like to the "I" who talks this way. (See the
ants.) From here, students can go on to think about person in Stevens.
Who are "we" and "he" and, and? (Students
might think about the use of all those at-first-anonymous he's
and she's in modern short stories in contrast to the
properly introduced he's and she's in
nineteenth-century fiction.) There are also matter of verb tense, active
and passive voice, grammatical moods, and so on.
Of course, there's much more, and especially the large question
of rhythm. Hearing poetry read aloud helps to develop the ear, and this
should continue throughout a course. Students often don't hear the
rhythms of poetry—of a phrase, a line, a stanza. (John Hollander's
lively and instructive Rhyme's Reason is invaluable for this.)  Try
reading "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" or the first two
stanzas of "Credences of Summer."
Sooner or later, the question of feeling will come up, often in the
form of feeling versus thought or ideas. "Domination of Black,"
an extraordinary early poem, is a useful case in point. Here is what
Stevens said about it, as he directed the reader away from "ideas":
"I am sorry that a poem of this sort has to contain any ideas at
all, because its sole purpose is to fill the mind with the images &
sounds that it contains . . . . You are supposed to get heavens full of
the colors and full of sounds, and you are supposed to feel as you
would feel if you actually got all this" (L, 251;
emphasis added). Teachers could try blanking out the word afraid
at the end of the poem, and asking students to surmise what feeling they
are "supposed to feel." And then to work out just how we know
that such a feeling has developed rather than, say, a "delightful
evening" feeling. (Stevens, in fact, wrote a funny poem under that
title.) Students might also be interested in thinking about different
kinds of fear. See especially the six different sentences offered by
Wittgenstein, all using the clause "I am afraid," together
with his comment: "To each of these sentences a special tone of
voice is appropriate, and a different context." 
Or take the feeling of rage, and the word rage. Take also the
word order, and do a dictionary exercise with both these words.
Consider likely rhythms for matters of rage and of order. Likely
subjects, likely settings, other poetry on these two subjects. (Try
Shakespeare, via a concordance.) The turn to "The Idea of Order at
Key West," beginning with the title.
Tracing the line of thought in a poem is always necessary, and should
become a matter of course, just as hearing the rhythm, hearing the
sentence structure, hearing the range of diction, hearing the exact form
of verb and pronoun, and so on, should become matters of course. Even if
a poem has a minimal line of thought, we should register this (x
is a minimal-thought poem, working with abc). Everyone is
suspicious of paraphrases, but such suspicion should not banish the
ever-useful précis, which should be tested, every word, against
the actual words of the poem. Is it adequate? (Given that it's
never meant to be a substitute for the poem.) Should it be modified?
How? (Where I live, students used to be trained in the invaluable art of
writing a précis. That has mostly gone, so that some students
have trouble following an argument, and hence of recognizing what's
at stake, if anything.)
See, for example, the implicit argument in "Tea at the Palaz of
Hoon" (CP, 65):
Not less because in purple I descended
The western day through what you called
The loneliest air, not less was I myself.
"Not less was I myself"? Why say this? What's the
logic? The day and the place ("The western day," "there")
will turn out to be extraordinary, but why this opening response? Has
someone said, "You were less yourself that day"? Do we
ourselves say, "I was less myself that day"? No, the usual
expression is simply, "I wasn't myself that day," period.
That's how we often take care of extraordinary days and
experiences, ones that don't fit into our regular routine, ones
that are better (or worse) than usual. And so we guard ourselves against
our other selves, the other better (or worse) selves. Not so Stevens.
This means he can go on to say: "And there I found myself more
truly and more strange."
Stevens talked about how we all carry within us a trunkful of
characters (L, 91). "Hoon" was his strange, true, sublime self
(early style), and he was not about to say, "I wasn't myself
the day I had tea at the palaz of Hoon—or maybe was Hoon himself,
serving tea." (For poetry as tea, see his lovely little poem "Tea.")
And so we learn to think a bit before we say, "I wasn't myself
that day." Weren't we, now?
Thinking extends to the logic of figures. Take, for example, angels. "Am
I not, / Myself, only half of a figure of a sort . . .?" asks
Stevens's late angel, in a wicked pun ("Angel Surrounded by
Paysans" [CP, 496]). There are angels galore in Stevens, a far
better selection than the impoverished angels of modern movies, those
broadly comic figures with standard properties attached—haloes and
wings, "tepid aureoles," said Stevens of such haloes.
"Tepid"? "I suppose that I shall feel sorry about
paysans and tepid by the time this reaches you but they suit me very
well today," Stevens wrote to a journal editor (L, 650). "Tepid"
is fine for a bath sometimes, but not for a cup of tea and not for most
feelings and not for churches. (See Revelation, the last book of the
Bible: "So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor
hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth" [3.16].) An aureole or halo
ought to be glowing, gold, or white-hot surely. A halo that is lukewarm
to the touch is a property rejected by Stevens's necessary angel.
There are early angels in Stevens, but he is mostly anxious to shed
them. "Trees, like serafin" is a simile in "Sunday
Morning" (CP, 66), as if the highest order of angels, the seraphim,
were being explained away in naturalistic terms. And sure enough, in "Evening
Without Angels" (CP, 136), Stevens is explicit:
Why seraphim like lutanists arranged
Above the trees? And why the poet as
Eternal chef d'orchestre?
It is "light / That fosters seraphim and is to them / Coiffeur of
haloes, fecund jeweller." Stevens is still fighting the same
battle. "Sad men made angels of the sun . . ." For him, "Bare
earth is best. Bare, bare, / Except for our own houses." The
reasoning is clear, and the type of argument is common enough.
At some point, Stevens decided not to fight angels but to reimagine
them. After all, they do seem to have appealed to the human imagination
for a long time. Rather than lopping off angels and demons—which
leaves their force in the hands of others—why not reinvent them? "Bare
earth" is fine, but no angelic equivalents at all? This is poverty,
Stevens came to think. And so they start to return, the angels, most
remarkably in 1942 in Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction:
the tired angels, the goatish angels, the angel on a pond in a park, the
angel in the name of Nanzia Nunzio, the capital-A Angel who listens to
Stevens, the Miltonic angel who leaps downward and never lands, the
angels whose functions Stevens takes over in the end. Notes is
for advanced students, although teachers might like to try one or two
cantos with junior students; Nanzia Nunzio is lots of fun.
Then there is the later "Angel Surrounded by Paysans"
(1949), where Stevens invents "the angel of reality. . .the
necessary angel of earth." He liked this angel well enough to use
it as a title for his collected essays in 1951. Here is his comment on
the creature: "in Angel Surrounded by Paysans the angel is the
angel of reality. This is clear only if the reader is of the idea that
we live in a world of the imagination, in which reality and contact with
it are the great blessings. For nine readers out of ten, the necessary
angel will appear to be the angel of the imagination and for nine days
out of ten that is true, although it is the tenth day that counts"
Students often find it nearly impossible to read this angel without
turning it into its contrary: an angel of imagination, after all, and an
angel of heaven, after all. Our habits of thinking about all this are
deeply ingrained. It takes discipline of thought to be able to imagine
an angel of reality. Or discipline of imagination to be able to think of
an angel of reality.
Either way, we hear Stevens writing accurate songs. We hear
thinking-in-poetry. We understand more fully how Stevens can write that
"the evil of thinking as poetry is not the same thing as the good
of thinking in poetry" (NA, 165).
William Wordsworth, letter of 24 Sept. 1827, in Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, 2d ed., vol. 4: 1821-1828, ed. Alan G. Hill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 546. (return to text)
James Wright quoted in J. D. McClatchy, White
Paper on Contemporary American Poetry (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1989), 16. (return to text)
Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays
on Reality and the Imagination (New York: Knopf, 1951), 165. (return to text)
Northrop Frye, "Expanding Eyes," in his
Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth, and Society
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), 102. (return to text)
Marcel Proust, preface to Green Shoots, by
Paul Morand, trans. H. I. Woolf (London: Chapman, 1923), 44. (return to text)
T. S. Eliot, "In Memory [of Henry James],"
Little Review 5 (Aug. 1918): 46. (return to text)
I. A. Richards, Practical Criticism: A Study
of Literary Judgment (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929). (return to text)
Christopher Richs, T. S. Eliot and Prejudice
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988). (return to text)
R. P. Blackmur, "Examples of Wallace
Stevens," in his Form and Value in Modern Poetry (New York:
Doubleday, 1957). (return to text)
W. B. Yeats, "A General Introduction to My
Work," Essays and Introductions (London: Macmillan, 1961),
526. (return to text)
Recitative: Prose by James Merrill, ed.
J. D. McClatchy (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), 21. (return to text)
John Hollander, Rhyme's Reason: A Guide to
English Verse, rev. ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989). (return to text)
See Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty
of Genius (London: Vantage, 1991), 547. (return to text)