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A Music of Austerity: The Poetry of Wallace Stevens | The Nation

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A Music of Austerity: The Poetry of Wallace Stevens

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Stevens first became himself in one of the earliest poems reprinted in the Selected Poems. "The Death of a Soldier" was written in response to the letters of Eugène Lemercier, a French soldier who was killed in World War I, but it feels as if the poem could be about anyone.

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James Longenbach
James Longenbach’s most recent books are the poetry collection The Iron Key (Norton) and, in prose, The Virtues...

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In his music and his prose, Virgil Thomson perfected a whimsically deadpan sensibility.

Censors thought it dirty and rebellious, but what makes Ulysses radical is its dramatization of the unending conflict between good and evil.

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,
When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.

The cycles of the natural world cannot stop to record Lemercier's death; the clouds go nevertheless in their direction, which can't be specified, because it's theirs, not ours. For Stevens, there is immense consolation in this disregard for an individual human life--an assurance that the natural world will prevail despite the human appetite for destruction. The language of Stevens's most characteristic poetry partakes, in small ways, of this consolation: "The Death of a Soldier" does not mention Lemercier, who has already disappeared.

Stevens did not always write with the incandescent plainness that distinguishes poems from "The Death of a Soldier" to "The River of Rivers in Connecticut." Sometimes he is a poet of extravagant verbal energy, a show-off who indulges in lines like "Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan/Of tan with henna hackles, halt!" And sometimes he is more celebrated for such showiness than for the austerity that more truly becomes him. Stevens himself thought that the interplay of plainness and fanciness (or what he called reality and imagination) was central to his work, and he placed a programmatic account of this interplay at the center of "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," a long poem that asks to be treated as a masterpiece:

Two things of opposite natures seem to depend
On one another, as a man depends
On a woman, day on night, the imagined
On the real. This is the origin of change.

"Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" is an enactment of this notion; the poem oscillates between an imperative to perceive the world plainly and a complementary imperative to imagine the world extravagantly. We need continually to create "fictions" that explain our world, and we need, as our world changes, to wipe such fictions away, returning to a plain sense of things that is itself an imaginative achievement. "In the absence of a belief in God," said Stevens in one of his most willed moments of self-confidence, "the mind turns to its own creations and examines them, not alone from the aesthetic point of view, but for what they reveal, for what they validate and invalidate."

This quasi-philosophical aspect of Stevens seemed very attractive in the later decades of the twentieth century, especially after the death of Eliot, whose Christianity sometimes inflected the academic critical establishment that championed his poems. Today this aspect of Stevens feels threadbare--as if the professional lawyer came to imagine that he was also a professional philosopher. I don't find what Stevens called his "reality-imagination complex" very engaging, and neither does John Serio, who says in his introduction to the Selected Poems that while many of the longer poems "do spur us intellectually," they "may not move us emotionally." Serio sees Stevens primarily as a lyric poet, and while he has excluded some of the longer poems from his selection ("Extracts From Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas," "Examination of the Hero in a Time of War," "The Pure Good of Theory"), I have trouble imagining the house growing quiet enough for even a devoted reader of "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" to become the book.

At issue here is not a preference for shorter poems; at issue is the particular kind of language that most authentically constitutes Stevens's gift.

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations--one desires
So much more than that.

This opening stanza of "The Poems of Our Climate" begins in an idiom that mirrors the stillness of the scene described, but when Stevens says that one desires "so much more" than an arrangement of pink and white carnations, the poem takes a peculiar turn. I'm convinced that Stevens thought he should desire more, but I'm not sure he actually did. His deepest inclination was (to quote the one phrase in the poetry that sounds like it was written by an insurance executive) to remain "within what we permit." So when Stevens reaches for sensual exuberance ("Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan") or passionate commitment ("Taste of the blood upon his martyred lips") or philosophical profundity ("Two things of opposite natures seem to depend/On one another"), the language often seems willed, as if the poet were embarrassed by his own taste for deprivation. "Is it bad to have come here/And to have found the bed empty?" asks Stevens in a little poem called "Gallant Château." The answer, undeflected by the wish to be different from oneself, is "It is good."

In the poems that matter most, this question needs neither to be asked nor answered: the language carries its own conviction. Early Stevens--"The Snow Man":

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow.

Midcareer Stevens--"The Man With the Blue Guitar":

It is the sea that whitens the roof.
The sea drifts through the winter air.
It is the sea that the north wind makes.
The sea is in the falling snow.

Late Stevens--"The Course of a Particular":

Today the leaves cry, hanging on branches swept by wind,
Yet the nothingness of winter becomes a little less.
It is still full of icy shades and shapen snow.

These poems, like any of Stevens's best poems, make deprivation feel seductively like plenitude.

All the best poems are preserved in this collection, a culling that is considerably more severe than that of the selected volume it supersedes, The Palm at the End of the Mind, edited by Holly Stevens and published in 1972. The whole of Stevens is represented here--the plain, the fancy, the philosophical--but the latter two categories have been pruned, affording the best of Stevens more prominence. This winnowing is over time inevitable (nobody reads the whole of Wordsworth or Tennyson), and I would go further: it's hard to imagine a need to reinhabit "Description Without Place" ("It is possible that to seem--it is to be") or "Late Hymn From the Myrrh-Mountain" ("Unsnack your snood, madanna"). Without the distraction of this willed language, the greatest of Stevens's poems, the movingly stark poems written during the last five years of his life, stand out even more vividly as the culmination of his career:

No soldiers in the scenery,
No thoughts of people now dead,v As they were fifty years ago:
Young and living in a live air,
Young and walking in the sunshine,v Bending in blue dresses to touch something--
Today the mind is not part of the weather.

Some readers might prefer the fanciful or the philosophical; others might argue that austerity cannot fully exist without its complements. But when we hear the sound of Stevens in poems by subsequent poets, it is most often the music of austerity, at once worldly and otherworldly, that we hear. Mark Strand: "From the shadow of domes in the city of domes,/A snowflake, a blizzard of one, weightless, entered your room." Louise Glück: "I can't hear your voice/for the wind's cries, whistling over the bare ground." Donald Justice: "In a hotel room by the sea, the Master/Sits brooding." Carl Phillips: "The wind's pattern was its own, and the water's also." To say that these lines are indebted to Stevens is like saying that fish are indebted to water: the sound of Stevens has entered the sound of poetry in the language.

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