Second Stevens Lecture

From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
That is not our own, and much more, not ourselves --
And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.
----- from "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction"

Today we looked at the way WS's poems both define and enact a program for the human imagination & the work of art that I tried to describe as representatively Modernist. We started with some of WS's prose, from a lecture called "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words." In what WS is saying here about his generation & its place in history you can hear both the reactionary elitism that characterizes the High Modernists (and that helps explain why they deliberately made their art so difficult, as an antidote to what they saw as the vulgarization of culture & as a way to re-inscribe an aristocracy, in this case of education & intelligence). And you can also hear the "Lost Generation's" unrealistic but self-flattering belief that they had been put by modern history into a more difficult place than any previous generation. I hope I made it clear that to me we don't have to share all or any of the assumptions (and prejudices) on which high Modernism is based to appreciate its achievements. From those points I moved on to talk about the way this passage helps define the state of mind from which the Modernist begins: that reality is spiritually violent, & must be resisted by art. As another example of the place WS's poetry springs from, we looked at "The Snow Man, & how it defines what WS called "the first idea": the idea that reality is "the nothing that is there," like "the sound and the fury" in Faulkner's novel that also "signif[ies] nothing.", like "Our nada who art in nada" in Hemingway's short story. Poetry, WS writes, "is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality." The project of the artist (and the quest for mankind in the modern world) is: out of the empty or meaningless chaos to create the order, meaning and plenitude that is art as the willed assertion of the human mind.

I suggested that is what WS is "about" again & again in his poems: both articulating this project & enacting it. I developed that idea by looking at as many of the assigned poems as I could, starting with the paradigmatic "Anecdote of the Jar," where the definitive event is the assertion of the man-made against the chaos of nature: "I placed a jar . . ." I compared that to Williams, who is a modern Romantic in the tradition of Whitman & Dickinson. To them, the poet would have "seen" or "found" a jar, or more likely "seen" or "found" the meaning of the slovenly wilderness -- to Williams, the beauty & wonder that matter are in the world (cf. the broken bottle in "Between Walls"). To Stevens, though, it's the imagination that makes, or creates, or artifices, or articulates beauty & order. We went from "Anecdote" to "The Idea of Order at Key West," with its emphasis on the pathetic fallacy (the sea is not human, says nothing, is a body wholly body) and on the way human agency (the lights of the fishing boats, and especially of course the singing of the woman who makes a world for her self by singing) is what matters. Against the "spiritual violence" of the natural setting ("the meaningless plungings of water and the wind," "the night descend[ing], tilting the air") is the "blessed rage for order" out of which comes the "fiction" of art as a place where we can live, the "idea of" order.

The project is summed up in "Of Modern Poetry" as the "mind in the act of finding what will suffice." What's so representative about WS's work I think will become clearer as we look at Hemingway's and Faulkner's novels, where again the heroic principle is the assertion of the human will against the destructive & chaotic forces of modernity. Reality is "the sound & fury, signifying nothing" -- but The Sound and the Fury as incredibly well-made, intricate, artificed or achieved work of art is the imagination pressing back against that nothingness. In a sense the Modernist artist felt he or she had to take the place of the dead god, and create in art a world of refuge from reality.

The earth, for us, is flat and bare.
There are no shadows. Poetry
Exceeding music must take the place
Of empty heaven and its hymns.
------- from "The Man With the Blue Guitar"


Back to Syllabus