The World Imagined

I finally finished reading Stevens' collected poems, all 477 pages of them, and, though they weren't easy to finish, I'm glad I did. Unfortunately, there's another 500 pages in the book, and I'm simply not up to finishing it right now. Although I'd like to read "The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination," I'm going to set the book aside and come back to it later. For me at least, reading Stevens is hard work, rather than an act of love.

Considering that I came to his work with a prejudice against it, I'm actually surprised that I liked it nearly as much as I did. Though I don't think I really accept his view of the importance of imagination, I did find his ideas stimulating, and fear I may have more sympathy for his ideas than I'd like to admit. Of course, if I wasn't sympathetic to the importance of imagination, I seriously doubt that I'd be spending so much time on poetry.

Somehow, the following poems from the section entitled "The Rock" provide a better summary of Stevens' philosophy than I ever could:

NOT IDEAS ABOUT THE THING BUT THE THING ITSELF

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow...
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mache...
The sun was coming from the outside.

That scrawny cry--It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.



Perhaps I like this poem because it reminds me of one of my favorite poems, Thomas Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush," a poem I've mentioned earlier. If that's true, it is indeed ironic, because it would be hard to imagine a poet more different from Hardy than Stevens. Hardy admired and elevated the common man, while Stevens seemed to disdain him. In answering the question "As a poet what distinguishes you, do you think, from an ordinary man?" Stevens replied, "Inability to see much point to the life of an ordinary man. The chances are the ordinary man himself sees very little point to it." As I read Stevens, I realized just how biased I am toward a particular kind of modern poetry, the kind of poetry that made Hardy the first "modern poet." Although Hardy's poetry was soon to be eclipsed by the formal poetry of Eliot and others, it is still that strain of poetry that I find most moving.

"Final Soliloquy Of The Interior Paramour" almost sounds as Stevens wrote it to make his final statement on imagination:

FINAL SOLILOQUY OF THE INTERIOR PARAMOUR

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous,

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one "
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.



The line, "The world imagined is the ultimate good." could almost serve as the thesis for Stevens' Collected Poems and Prose , as could "We say God and the imagination are one"" This seems to me to roughly equivalent to Descartes' famous line, "I think, therefore I am." I'm not sure I'm any more impressed by Stevens' position than I was by Descartes' argument when I read it in college.

Still, I find it difficult to deny "How high that highest candle lights the dark." I cannot even imagine how sad it would be to live without the inspiration of imagination. My world has been shaped by the imagination of great writers, and thankfully so. Still, I am no "Miniver Cheevy," trying to escape the reality of my everyday existence by living in an imaginary past that never truly existed but in the mind of great writers.

Stevens “Auroras of Autumn”

Stevens’ “The Auroras of Autumn” is a rather short volume of poetry published in 1950. It, like the immediately preceding volumes, is dominated by long, meditative poems on the relationship of reality, imagination, and poetry. While I’m often struck by individual lines or even individual poems in these long poems, the poems as a whole simply do not resonate with me, probably because I still remain unconvinced by Stevens’ view of the relationship between reality and imagination.

Whether you agree with his overall point of view or not, Stevens’ poems often force you to consider your own view of reality.

BOUQUET OF ROSES IN SUNLIGHT

Say that it is a crude effect, black reds,
Pink yellows, orange whites, too much as they are
To be anything else in the sunlight of the room,

Too much as they are to be changed by metaphor,
Too actual, things that in being real
Make any imaginings of them lesser things.

And yet this effect is a consequence of the way
We feel and, therefore, is not real, except
In our sense of it, our sense of the fertilest red,

Of yellow as first color and of white,
In which the sense lies still, as a man lies,
Enormous, in a completing of his truth.

Our sense of these things changes and they change,
Not as in metaphor, but in our sense
Of them. So sense exceeds all metaphor.

It exceeds the heavy changes of the light.
It is like a flow of meanings with no speech
And of as many meanings as of men.

We are two that use these roses as we are,
In seeing them. This is what makes them seem
So far beyond the rhetorician's touch.

Stevens’ insistence on seeing the roses as they are, or at least as they are sensed, rather than as metaphors for “love,” etc. rings true. Not everything, even in a poem, is a metaphor for something else. When we look at a painting of roses, we are more apt to see them as “beautiful roses,” to perceive them through our senses, than we are to judge them as metaphors or symbols standing for some greater, though more abstract, “truth.” Perhaps the same should be true in poetry. Surprisingly, though, the main emphasis in the poem isn’t on the physical reality of the roses, but, rather, on how our “sense” of them changes: “Our sense of these things changes and they change,/ Not as in metaphor, but in our sense/ of them.” Thus, our senses, which seems virtually synonymous with “imagination,” take precedence over “rhetoric” and over reality itself.

This idea of the “sense of things” rather than the reality of things, is further developed in:

THIS SOLITUDE OF CATARACTS

He never felt twice the same about the flecked river,
Which kept flowing and never the same way twice, flowing

Through many places, as if it stood still in one,
Fixed like a lake on which the wild ducks fluttered,

Ruffling its common reflections, thought-like Monadnocks.
There seemed to be an apostrophe that was not spoken.

There was so much that was real that was not real at all.
He wanted to feel the same way over and over.

He wanted the river to go on flowing the same way,
To keep on flowing. He wanted to walk beside it,

Under the buttonwoods, beneath a moon nailed fast.
He wanted his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest

In a permanent realization, without any wild ducks
Or mountains that were not mountains, just to know how it would be,

Just to know how it would feel, released from destruction,
To be a bronze man breathing under archaic lapis,

Without the oscillations of planetary pass-pass,
Breathing his bronzen breath at the azury center of time.

As one who is particularly attracted to water, and to rafting rivers, this poem rings particularly true, though perhaps not in quite the same way that Stevens intended it to ring true. Despite his anti-Romantic stance, this poem certainly seems to me to have romantic overtones, with Stevens’ own twist, of course. Ironically, in light of our first poem, this river seems to be more metaphorical than sensual, a metaphor for a constantly changing awareness of our surroundings. It is this feeling of unending change that makes the cataracts so attractive. Of course, the man’s perception of the river is rather different from the true nature of the river, “There was so much that was real that was not real at all.”

Although it is this feeling of constant change that attracts the protagonist, he wants to feel this “same way over and over,” which, of course, is just the opposite of constant change. This constant flux makes the protagonist want “his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest/ In a permanent realization.” Because constant change also brings death, the ultimate change, people dream of being “a bronze man,” “released from destruction.”

Stevens’ Transport of Summer

Stevens “Transport of Summer,” published in 1947 is definitely more philosophical than his earlier books. Surprisingly, because I don’t particularly like “philosophical” poems and because I don’t think I really agree with Stevens’ overall vision, I found myself intrigued by these poems, particularly the longer poems entitled “Esthtique Du Mal,” “Creedances of Summer,” and the particularly long “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” However, I’m going to save any discussion of those poems for a later time, after I’ve read all of his poems and, particularly, after I read the prose selections in the book where he more clearly articulates his aesthetics and view of poetry.

Even without these long poems there are many intriguing poems in this section. Two of these poems seem typical of Stevens’ attitude toward life and art, while the third seems strangely out-of-character for Stevens. The title “Men Made Out Of Words” could almost stand as a summary of Stevens’ philosophy:

MEN MADE OUT OF WORDS

What should we be without the sexual myth,
The human revery or poem of death?

Castratos of moon-mash -- Life consists
Of propositions about life. The human

Revery is a solitude in which
We compose these propositions, torn by dreams,

By the terrible incantations of defeats
And by the fear that defeats and dreams are one.

The whole race is a poet that writes down
The eccentric propositions of its fate.


At first glance, the title seems outrageous. Men are made out of flesh and blood, not words. Considering the first line, though, one begins to suspect the real power of words. Though Stevens doesn’t specify what he means by the “sexual myth” it’s clear that most of us, at least to some extent, are controlled by the myths of our time, by the myths of what it means to be a man or by the myths of what it means to be a woman. We are eunuchs of “moon-mash,” of the lunatic propositions that, unless we are very lucky, or perhaps very unlucky, often control our lives without our ever being aware of them. Our very understanding of ourselves is the result of “propositions” that have been composed by the great dreamers of the human race, dreamers often driven by dreams of defeat. What if life is meaningless? What if there is finally nothing but death?

“The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm” helps to explain how these propositions become part of our lives:

THE HOUSE WAS QUIET AND THE WORLD WAS CALM

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

This poem is strangely seductive for someone like myself who has spent so much time, particularly in the summer when not teaching, reading, meditating on life and life’s meaning(lessness.) Reading, and the willing suspension of disbelief, is almost a form of self-hypnosis where the reader escapes to an imaginary world that, at least for a while, seems more real than the outside world, seems more real than the world held captive behind a glass screen where there never seem to be real victories and people commit unimaginable acts of horror on victims who no longer seem human. No wonder that mere movies can never capture the “true” essence of a book, an essence that can only be distilled in the human imagination.

It’s easy, and comfortable, to become immersed in Stevens’ world of the imagination. Somehow, though, it seemed very strange to be suddenly called to attention by:

THE GOOD MAN HAS NO SHAPE

Through centuries he lived in poverty.
God only was his only elegance.

Then generation by generation he grew
Stronger and freer, a little better off.

He lived each life because, if it was bad,
He said a good life would be possible.

At last the good life came, good sleep, bright fruit,
And Lazarus betrayed him to the rest,

Who killed him, sticking feathers in his flesh
To mock him. They placed with him in his grave

Sour wine to warm him, an empty book to read;
And over it they set a jagged sign,

Epitaphium to his death, which read,
The Good Man Has No Shape, as if they knew.

Now, God knows, I don’t claim to understand this poem, but that doesn’t mean I’m not fascinated by it. This strange little poem seems to fuse Buddha, or at least the Buddhist idea of rebirth, and Christ. I mean, who else but Jesus is associated with Lazarus? But in what sense did Lazarus “betray” Christ? I thought that was Judas? Did the fact that Jesus had the power to raise the dead betray him to Church leaders, leaders who certainly couldn’t stand the competition of someone who REALLY COULD perform miracles? Suddenly, though, Jesus seems identified with all those charlatans or miscreants who were tarred and feathered and driven out of town, though in this case the “sour” wine and “empty book” suggest a slightly different kind of lynch mob. The last line of the poem, which, of course, is also the first line of the poem, because what else can you consider a title like this, seems to suggest that “God,” and perhaps a truly good man is god-like, has no shape, cannot be real. “As if they knew,” of course, seems to suggest precisely the opposite.

Stevens’ “Parts of a World”


Although there were only a few lines and phrases that I liked in Stevens’ The Man with the Blue Guitar, there are so many poems that I liked in Parts of a World, that I’m not quite sure where to start. So, I’ll just start with:

ON THE ROAD HOME

It was when I said,
"There is no such thing as the truth,"
That the grapes seemed fatter.
The fox ran out of his hole.

You....You said,
"There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth."
Then the tree, at night, began to change,

Smoking through green and smoking blue.
We were two figures in a wood.
We said we stood alone.

It was when I said,
"Words are not forms of a single word.
In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts.
The world must be measured by eye."

It was when you said,
"The idols have seen lots of poverty,
Snakes and gold and lice,
But not the truth;"

It was at that time, that the silence was largest,
And longest, the night was roundest.
The fragrance of the autumn warmest,
Closest, and strongest.

At first glance, the narrator’s line “There is no such thing as the truth” seems rather shocking, and it’s hard to see how it could make grapes fatter, much less make the fox run out of his hole. However, when the listener makes the distinction that there are many truths but they are not parts of a truth, we begin to see how such constructs determine how we see the world. In a very real sense, certain words separate us from the world, make us stand alone.

Only when we realize words are just words, there is no magical Word that will allow us to see the Truth, only when we realize that no prophet, no idol, has ever captured the Truth only then do we realize that we must “measure” our world by eye.

When we escape all “truths,” all “concepts,” the world will seem “largest,” “longest,” “roundest,” “warmest,” “closest,” and “strongest.”

"Landscape With Boat" develops this concept even further:

LANDSCAPE WITH BOAT

"An anti-master floribund ascetic.

He brushed away the thunder, then the clouds,
Then the colossal illusion of heaven. Yet still
The sky was blue. He wanted imperceptible air.
He wanted to see. He wanted the eye to see
And not be touched by blue. He wanted to know,
A naked man who regarded himself in the glass
Of air, who looked for the world beneath the blue,
Without blue, without any turqouise hint or phase,
Any azure under-side or after-color. Nabob
Of bones, he rejected, he denied, to arrive
At the neutral center, the omnious element,
The single colored, colorless, primitive.

It was not as if the truth lay where he thought,
Like a phantom, in an uncreated night.
It was easier to think it lay there. If
It was nowhere else, it was there and because
It was nowhere else, its place had to be supposed,
Itself had to be supposed, a thing supposed
In a place supposed, a thing he reached
In a place that he reached, by rejecting what he saw
And denying what he heard. He would arrive.
He had only not to live, to walk in the dark,
To be projected by one void into
Another.

It was his nature to suppose
To receive what others had supposed, without
Accepting. He received what he denied.
But as truth to be accepted, he supposed
A truth beyond all truths.

He never supposed
That he might be truth, himself, or part of it,
That the things that he rejected might be part
And the irregular turquoise part, the perceptible blue
Grown dense, part, the eye so touched, so played
Upon by clouds, the ear so magnified
By thunder, parts, and all these things together,
Parts, and more things, parts. He never supposed divine
Things might not look divine, nor that if nothing
Was divine then all things were, the world itself,
And that if nothing was the the truth, then all
Things were the truth, the world itself was the truth.

Had he been better able to suppose:
He might sit on a sofa on a balcony
Above the Mediterranean, emerald
Becoming emeralds. He might watch the palms
Flap green ears in the heat. He might observe
A yellow wine and follow a steamer's track
And say, "The thing I hum appears to be
The rhythm of this celestrial pantomime"


Although I'm not sure that I agree with, or completely understand, the underlying philosophy of this poem, it does make one who subscribes to transcendentalism or romanticism step back and re-examine their beliefs. In essence, Stevens, much like a painter, seems to be arguing that it's a mistake to reject the concrete reality of nature for some abstract reality. In one sense, he seems to reject Emerson's platonic ideal of transcendentalism, though it might be argued that he seems to be confirming Whitman's celebration of every aspect life.

Stevens rejects the "floribund ascetic," as someone who ignores the very reality of nature, the thunder, the clouds, the blue of the sky for something much more abstract, for the "neutral center, the omnious element,/ The single colored, colorless, primitive. " In other words, the ascetic rejects the physical world and seeks a Platonic truth that underlies this natural world. He seeks a "truth beyond all truth."

Stevens suggests as an alternative that the man himself, not some abstraction of himself, "might be truth, himself, or part of it." Perhaps, "divine things might not look divine." Even, blasphemy of blasphemy, that the "world itself was the truth." Truly seeing this world as it is, seeing "the palms/ Flap green ears in the sun," may be the only was to truly perceive the holiness of the world.