Personal anthology: Wallace Stevens

Man Carrying Thing

The poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully. Illustration:

A brune figure in winter evening resists
Identity. The thing he carries resists

The most necessitous sense. Accept them, then,
As secondary (parts not quite perceived

Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles
Of the certain solid, the primary free from doubt,

Things floating like the first hundred flakes of snow
Out of a storm we must endure all night,

Out of a storm of secondary things),
A horror of thoughts that suddenly are real.

We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.

— Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems

A few days ago there was a comment thread (now closed) at 2 Blowhards about "Greats I don’t get": great art that leaves one cold, even when one understands why other people admire it.* Some of the replies — especially the comments by people who describe how they didn’t get something on the first reading/listening/viewing, but changed their minds years later — made me wonder about the tipping point, the moment where something you never used to like starts to look different, to make you sit up and pay attention.

I didn’t "get" Wallace Stevens at first. Too abstract, too philosophical, too intimidating. I’d read the standard anthology favorites and been bewildered: I mean, who gets "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" right away, even if one knows it’s "about" a funeral? Stevens seems to demand a kind of Keatsian negative capability from his readers, a willingness to go along with the poems’ sometimes entirely successful attempts to resist the intelligence. What I didn’t get, initially, was how playful his poems can be, how full of goofy sound effects (ai-yi-yi’s and hoo-hoo’s and tink-a-tink’s) and surreally comic moments. Not to mention his way with titles: "The Revolutionists Stop for Orangeade." "Excerpts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas." "Dance of the Macabre Mice." It was the playfulness (which, granted, is more prominent in the earlier poems than in the later ones) that drew me in; I think at some point I recognized that Stevens didn’t hesitate to veer into nonsense and "gawdiness" amidst the philosophical seriousness that initially put me off.

And it helps if one knows that his favorite topic is poetry itself, and how it does and doesn’t approximate "things as they are" (I’m thinking of "The Man with the Blue Guitar"). I like "Man Carrying Thing" because of the way it grapples with the mismatch between "obvious whole" and "parts not quite perceived," the blizzard of small "uncertain particles" that falls around the reader. Which is how I often feel while reading Stevens, in fact.

* Side note: It makes me rather sad to see so many people putting "opera in general" in their "don’t get" lists. And I could tell several stories about how I wasn’t much interested in opera until my college roommate splurged on a good recording of The Marriage of Figaro and played it over and over and somewhere along the line I was hooked. Or about how Baroque opera wasn’t my favorite thing until I saw Handel’s Xerxes performed live and had one of those "Hey, I get it!" epiphanies. But that’s matter for another post.

3 Responses to “Personal anthology: Wallace Stevens”

  1. Dale says:

    Once every couple years I think, “Maybe now is the time to try Wallace Stevens again.” And I try again, with the same results. I’m not left cold, though. I experience a vehement, visceral revulsion when I try to read his verse. I’ve never been able to analyze it. Somehow for me he conjures up everything I hate about the late fifties and early sixties — there’s something precious, elaborate, involuted and selfish about the steering of his thought that fills me with horror. So many people admire him that I’m sure this response of mine reveals a weakness in my mind, not in his. Maybe in a couple years.

  2. qB says:

    Lovely new home! and comments too… so I can, without having yet digested Mr Stevens (of whom I’m very fond) urge you to go with the opera flow because you’re bringing back memories of Handel’s (oratorio really) Saul performed in mid winter in a very draughty church in Bordeaux.

  3. Amanda says:

    qB: ooh, another for the “recordings to track down and listen to” list! Your Geneva trip sounds wonderful, by the way, and I really liked the marbier photos.
    Dale: ah, well, de gustibus non est disputandum and all that. On my “to be blogged in the indefinite future” agenda is the topic “movies that the critics loved, but I hated,” thereby revealing some of my own visceral revulsions/mental weaknesses.