ON FIRST LOOKING INTO … WALLACE STEVENS
Plato wanted to banish poets from his ideal republic. Wallace Stevens is the most platonic of poets. At the turn of the century, when I first read Stevens in my early twenties, I had, and still have, something of a philosophical temperament. I have never, however, read much philosophy, apart from in synopses, and do not expect to receive from it a parallel pleasure to that gained from the reading of poetry, which is more aesthetically satisfying, more sensual, and which, at its finest, seems to manifest a spiritual region, which eludes rational analysis.
Poetry might, therefore, substantially inhabit the void left by loss of institutional religious belief, as Matthew Arnold anticipated that it might. So did Wallace Stevens. It is always refreshing to read a 20th century poet who believes in something, who is not nihilistic and possessed of a deep-seated sense of anxiety. ‘It is the belief and not the god that counts,’ said Stevens. The subjects of his poems are platonic and archetypal; they are sometimes made up out of teasingly intangible abstractions.
Raised a Roman Catholic, God for me has become an indispensable hypothesis, rather than an omnipotent reality, but my vision of the universe is and will always be, I suspect, in part a theological one. Stevens, at the end of his long life, ostensibly had a deathbed conversion to Catholicism, which disappointed me to discover, partly because his entire artistic endeavour had been to posit a credo that we might plausibly adhere to in the age of eroded religion, and partly because I resent the idea of clinging to the hem of God’s garments as soon as death is at one’s shoulder.
I first encountered his name in The Shaping Spirit, a book by the provocative critic Alvarez. When I tried to get hold of his Collected Poems, I found there was no selection anywhere on the library network in my hometown. The only thing I could find was a book of his essays called The Necessary Angel that contained only one poem, which I later discovered was strangely excluded from his Collected Poems. The poem was called ‘Someone Puts A Pineapple Together’, and the effect of reading it left me disturbingly disorientated. Perhaps this was due in part to whatever else was going on in my life at the time, but also because it seemed so fresh and puzzling. The pineapple had been exploded into its component parts, in much the same way as in a Cubist painting, and considered in its separated segments. It was as much to do with the concept of the pineapple: the original pineapple behind all pineapples.
Stevens is not as well known to the average reader in England as he should be, and I was surprised when I first read him that I had not seen his fingerprints on the work of subsequent poets. I still have no copy of his poetry to hand, but the poems I would strongly recommend from memory are ‘Sunday Morning’, ‘Sea Surface Full of Clouds’, ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’, ‘Credences of Summer’, and ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’. This latter is unquestionably one of the great poems of the 20th century, and its opening struck me immediately as the authentic tone I had been yearning for:
Begin, ephebe, by perceiving the idea
Of this invention, this invented world,
The inconceivable idea of the sun.
You must become an ignorant man again
And see the sun again with an ignorant eye
And see it clearly in the idea of it.
Never suppose an inventing mind as source
Of this idea nor for that mind compose
A voluminous master folded in his fire.
How clean the sun when seen in its idea,
Washed in the remotest cleanliness of a heaven
That has expelled us and our images.
His consistent theme – that of how reality is refracted through the imagination – is essentially a Romantic one, but he is more dispassionate, more cerebral, than the others in that tradition. He might be called the rational Romantic. The controlled movement of his verse is almost Wordsworthian in its relaxed and pensive music, in its absence of anger, but not in its verbal exoticisms: he likes to display the peacock’s tail of his diction.
Reading the work of Wallace Stevens for the first time left me in a state of altered consciousness. For a man in his early twenties who could recite by heart no fewer than a hundred poems, it is perhaps to be taken for granted that the experience of reading poetry so avidly would alter him inwardly, yet this is usually quite subtle. There are rare exceptions when an individual author leaves you palpably enhanced, and this for me occurred most noticeably when I encountered the works of William Blake, Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens. Their poems knew me better than I knew myself. Reading them altered me neurologically, and I emerged from their books feeling exhausted, bewildered and enriched. In each case I had looked at the world through the window of a profoundly original temperament.
The purpose of Stevens’ work, its raison d’etre, must have placed massive demands on himself and on the art, for it attempts no less than substituting substantially a belief in the presence of God. Reading such poetry, we may not find the answer to life, but we just might find a reason to live. Begin, ephebe…
‘The poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and reason is no longer in him: no man, while he retains that faculty, has the oracular gift of poetry.’ (Plato)
Jim Newcombe, 2005