My rating: 4 of 5 stars
On my long, slow tour of 20th-century poetry—often an apology tour, when I beg readers’ forgiveness for my manifest inadequacy to difficult modern verse, as here on Hart Crane or here on Rilke—we last left Wallace Stevens in 1923 as a belated Romantic skeptic and aesthete. In his first volume, Harmonium, he projects a sensuously abstract poetry beyond all moralisms. His own sensibility wavers between “a mind of winter,” attentive to the chilly bareness of the real beneath all our creative misprisions, and an attraction toward a fantasized “south,” considered as a locus of tropical exotica figuring the poet’s imaginative power.
For the purposes of Goodreads cataloging, I cast this second essay on or at Stevens as a “review” of the popular posthumous collection, The Palm at the End of the Mind, edited by the poet’s daughter. As with my copy of the selected Rilke, I’ve owned this volume since high school and have never read everything in it and have understood even less than I’ve read. I have, nevertheless, now gone through all of Stevens’s celebrated long poems, most of them later works, products of the period from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. My quarry here is his 1942 masterpiece, irresistibly titled Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, with a few detours into the earlier Man with the Blue Guitar and the later Auroras of Autumn and An Ordinary Evening in New Haven. Some shorter lyrics, effective as glosses on the longer ones, will also make an appearance. All in all, then, notes toward Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.
I should start by confessing to a preference for Stevens’s earlier poems over his later ones and his shorter works over his longer. The earlier work abounds in imagery and strange sonic textures, funnier and more inventive than the austere later verse, especially at length, when it veers between straightforward philosophical statement and quasi-nonsensical divagation.
Stevens’s nonsense has long been a matter of critical contention. For that maven of mid-to-late-20th-century modernist criticism, Hugh Kenner, Stevens was the heir to Edward Lear, a poet who’d realized the arbitrariness of poetic language in relation to the real and so resorted to nonsense guised as poetic form. Otherwise—resembling Virginia Woolf as she likewise appears in Kenner’s criticism—Stevens stands for an elitist, dilettantish, muddle-headed Late Romanticism ill-equipped to grapple with the 20th century’s vast technological, social, and linguistic changes, as the radical modernists Pound and Joyce more effectively did.
Fredric Jameson, restating Kenner’s reproach in a Marxist idiom, reads Stevens as the modernist precursor to structuralist and early poststructuralist literary theory. To substantiate the claim that Stevens’s discourse is “theory,” a secondary source rather than a primary, having almost more in common with Barthes or Bloom than with Eliot or Pound, Jameson quotes perhaps the most well-known lines from the recondite An Ordinary Evening in New Haven:
This endlessly elaborating poem
Displays the theory of poetry,
As the life of poetry. A more severe,
More harassing master would extemporize
Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory
Of poetry is the theory of life,
As it is, in the intricate evasions of as…
For Jameson, Stevens breaches the boundary of philosophy and poetry to demonstrate his keen experiential awareness that all language is a self-referential system (“the Symbolic Order”) standing above reality. Because he takes this for a timeless and universal existential axiom, however, Stevens is naively unaware of the historical forces impelling this mediatic hypertrophy of discourse in the 20th century or of its function in and as capitalist ideology, or so Jameson claims.
We don’t need to go as far as Kenner and Jameson to restore the affront Stevens’s version of modernist obscurity might have offered to his first readers, before he was entombed in the canon. In one of those temporal paradoxes of influence explored by Stevens’s much more admiring exegete, Harold Bloom, the late long poems sound like the work of a man who’d just read John Ashbery: in the sonorous and sober framework of the poetic meditation, a witty voice alternates direct theses in poetics and epistemology with all manner of verbal bizarrerie and a campy miming of logical form absent sequential argument.
How might Stevens answer his critics? In “Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue,” the Republican Stevens writes in reply to an ambivalent review of his verse by Stanley Burnshaw in the leftist New Masses during the red ’30s. “Will Stevens sweep his contradictory notions into a valid [i.e., Marxist] Idea of Order?” Burnshaw had inquired. It depends, of course, on what one means by “valid.” Stevens reduces Marxism to public statuary—in his symbolic lexicon, always a sign of bad art, a frozen sublimity requisitioning the public imagination and lacking the proper poetic attitude’s transformative suppleness. “They are not even Russian animals,” Stevens complains of his imagined equestrian monument, with one eye toward communism’s schematic imposition on culture, whereas, “In the rudest red / Of autumn, these horses should go clattering along the thin horizon.” In lines we might take as Stevens’s final statement on the relation of poetry to politics, he writes:
Mesdames, one might believe that Shelley lies
Less in the stars than in their earthly wake,
Since the radiant disclosures that you make
Are of an eternal vista, manqué and gold
And brown, an Italy of the mind, a place
Of fear before the disorder of the strange,
A time in which the poets’ politics
Will rule in a poets’ world. Yet that will be
A world impossible for poets, who
Complain and prophesy, in their complaints,
And are never of the world in which they live.
This both honors the true revolutionary imagination—here represented by Shelley, whose visionary “Italy of the mind” cannot be dismissed as so much statuesque propaganda—while insisting that the poets’ utopian visions must never be formalized as a garrisoned utopia if poets are to fulfill their mission to refresh the polis with ever-new prophecy, if they are to accomplish what only poetry and not politics can offer: a permanent revolution. When Stevens gently censures the leftist revolutionary for “fear before the disorder of the strange,” a theme reprised later in the canto with an assurance that “even disorder may…have an order of its own,” we hear the credo of the American libertarian going back to Emerson or even to Franklin: the commonweal is not the dictator’s fiat or a committee’s decision but rather the emergent property of a billion private transactions—an eminently contestable idea in political science, but in poetry one truer to the lyric spirit than any ode to the state could ever be.
Politics with a capital P—politics from the top down, crushing individuals and organic communities alike—is only one aspect of a more general problem, a problem about which almost all the Romantic and modernist poets agreed despite their many other differences. Stevens captures it in The Man with the Blue Guitar:
Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark
That it is this or that it is that,
But do not use the rotted names.
Both the modern burgeoning of public language—from newspapers to social media, from the politician’s demagogy to the entertainer’s sensationalism—and the immemorial encrustations of philosophical and religious tradition have desensitized us to primary experience, have dulled both perception and expression. In such conditions, the artist must seek what of reality lies beneath these “rotted names” and find a form of novel and expressive utterance that may transform “things as they are.” The eponymous “blue guitar” represents such a style, blue not only in homage to Picasso’s melancholy epoch but also in allusion to Mallarmé’s “Azure,” as many critics have surmised. Those “intricate evasions of as” quoted above from An Ordinary Evening in New Haven allude to what Stevens in a short poem calls “the motive for metaphor”: a desire to elude the merely given, to escape the “A B C of being.”
Two dangers arise from this imaginative activity. We’ve seen the first in Stevens’s contest with the Marxists: that the imagination in revolt will impose itself on reality, become just another authoritative image in the public square to which a captive public must crook the knee. The second—and the one Stevens’s harshest critics rebuke him for succumbing to—is frivolity, “escapism” in its worst sense, mere mental masturbation. If Stevens abandoned in his later work at least some of the rococo wordplay that marks Harmonium so vividly, if even much of his late obscurity has an austere gravity, it may have been to avoid this charge, especially as he grew to poetic seniority.
Speaking of seniority, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction—we arrive at last—aren’t just any notes; they’re lecture notes, explicitly addressed to an “ephebe” on “some hazards of the course.” (Mea culpa: the last quoted phrase is not Stevens but in fact Ashbery.) In the poem’s coda, Stevens even strangely turns from the poetic ephebe to address his G.I. counterpart, this to explain the more rarefied conflict in which the poet is engaged:
Soldier, there is a war between the mind
And sky, between thought and day and night.
Monsieur and comrade,
The soldier is poor without the poet’s lines…
Written in the early 1940s and somehow likening the classic confrontation of subject (“mind”) with object (“sky”) to that between Allied and Axis forces, this dramatic declaration of existential war asserts a public function for poetry in giving the non-poet, the ordinary citizen, a refurbished language and a novel set of myths for and in which to die. As in Auden’s elegy for Yeats, the modern poet should “[t]each the free man how to praise.” Whether or not this is persuasive, the notion of “a war between the mind and sky” returns us to one of the poem’s early statements:
There was a muddy centre before we breathed.
There was a myth before the myth began,
Venerable and articulate and complete.
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.
Such moments of metaphysical manifesto justify Stevens’s frequent choice in the late long poems of a stanza that, while unrhymed, at least resembles Dante’s terza rima; Shelley doesn’t live alone, it appears, in “an Italy of the mind.” Yet Dante could insist at the end of the Middle Ages that the poet ought to follow nature and in so doing model his art on God’s creation. Stevens, living in a gnostic century, stresses by contrast our primal alienation in this cosmos, our strandedness on the foreign ground of this strange existence. The good news is that “a muddy centre” exists at all, a kind of true, primordial, and ur-myth on which the “supreme fiction” of the poet’s artifice may yet be based. (Stevens tends to be a genial existentialist, not prone to Heideggerean solemnities or to the panting horror of Sartre’s Nausea.) For this “supreme fiction”—the phrase is a self-quotation from “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” (“Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame”)—Stevens establishes three criteria in the titles of the poem’s three cantos: “It Must Be Abstract,” “It Must Change,” and “It Must Give Pleasure.”
This fiction must be “abstract” in the sense that it should not only record sensory impressions of phenomena but also register phenomena’s previous and potential framings in language, myth, and ideology. When Stevens enjoins the ephebe to see the sun “clearly in the idea of it” early in the poem, he plays on this necessary interchange or intercourse between abstract and concrete. The phrase “in the idea” carries two meanings: to see the true sun, the thing in itself, within the idea that obscures it, but also to understand how the “idea” of it enables us to see it at all, since human beings live inside language and concept, even if these always require refurbishment in some asymptotic approach to the receding horizon of the real, “the muddy centre.”
This fiction must “change” because otherwise it will be a frozen monument, a totalitarian command, as we saw in “Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue.” Stevens even echoes the earlier poem with an excursus on a statue of the French Revolutionary General du Puy, a statue whose merit and power as art is nil:
Nothing had happened because nothing had changed.
Yet the General was rubbish in the end.
Effective poetry, the supreme fiction in its utility to the common soldier, will commune with the populace and potentially alter their ideas, thus their sense of reality, a sense given back to the poet for further variations, just as this fiction passes from abstract to concrete and concrete to abstract:
The poem goes from the poet’s gibberish to
The gibberish of the vulgate and back again.
If Stevens’s phrasing is self-parodic—the supreme fiction as universal “gibberish,” no less to the poet than to the people—it may be to avoid aggrandizing such a theory of change into a full endorsement of poem-as-propaganda rather than as a delicate probing at the bounds of fiction and reality.
To avoid drubbing the public with political or moral injunctions, this fiction must finally give pleasure, pleasure of an admittedly rarified kind. In this canto, one of Stevens’s mock-personae, Canon Aspirin—his very name evocative of pleasure-as-pacification, the opium of the people—dreams a “nothingness” that “was a nakedness” and from the Stevensian zero-point builds from “the very material of his mind” a kind of pleasure dome in air. Yet the attentive reader will notice that he peoples his capitol with statues—never a good sign in Stevens—and “imposes orders as he thinks of them.” For this imposition, for this vain erection of monuments, the Canon earns a rebuke from Stevens that forms the poem’s magnificent crescendo:
But to impose is not
To discover. To discover an order as of
A season, to discover summer and know it,
To discover winter and know it well, to find,
Not to impose, not to have reasoned at all,
Out of nothing to have come on major weather,
It is possible, possible, possible. It must
Be possible. It must be that in time
The real will from its crude compoundings come,
Seeming at first, a beast disgorged, unlike,
Warmed by a desperate milk. To find the real,
To be stripped of every fiction except one,
The fiction of an absolute—Angel,
Be silent in your luminous cloud and hear
The luminous melody of proper sound.
With his angel of the absolute, the needed goad to all our immanent self-transcendence in our quest after the real, Stevens come very close to the Rilke of the Duino Elegies, an occultist with whom our metaphysical skeptic otherwise has little in common. When Stevens goes on to hail as his emblem of the real a corpulent young woman, however, we may question the gesture’s tact, as if an athlete had in supercilious magnanimity invited an awkward outcast in an ill-fitting dress off the wall for a pity dance in a sweaty middle-school gym:
Fat girl, terrestrial, my summer, my night,
How is it I find you in difference, see you there
In a moving contour, a change not quite completed?
The work of poetry goes on, and speaking of bad taste, it’s philistine to ask a major poet to be a poet other than he is. Yet I suffer for the lack of the terrestrial in Stevens’s poetry, for the paucity of actual fat, actual girls. His personae are cartoons—to Canon Asprin, add Nanzia Nunzio and Ozymandias in this poem alone, not to mention Mrs. Alfred Uruguay, Peter Quince, and others—and his landscapes are, well, abstract and unobserved. Delmore Schwartz, reviewing The Man with the Blue Guitar as it appeared in the 1930s, draws up this particular indictment:
From beginning to end, in Harmonium as well as in the present volume, these poems are absorbed in “responses” to various facts. They are absorbed to such an extent that the facts can scarcely get into the poems at all. We may compare Stevens to William Carlos Williams, whom he admires and who may be said to represent the other extreme, a poet whose whole effort is to get facts into his poem with the greatest exactitude and to keep everything else out.
I prefer a poetry between these extremes: Yeats and Eliot before Stevens, Bishop and Walcott after, poets for whom fact and response, sky and mind, are more of a verbal unity even at their most violent conceptual variance.
I am beguiled by The Auroras of Autumn among the late long poems even as I understand it least of all. It suggests both a mythical and a personal matrix for Stevens’s corpus, beyond just the alienated human condition or the arbitrariness of language in general. It begins, “This is where the serpent lives,” suggesting a commentary on Genesis, that founding supreme fiction. Later, we read:
The mother invites humanity to her house
And table. The father fetches tellers of tales
And musicians who mute much, muse much, on the tales.
The father fetches negresses to dance,
Among the children, like curious ripenesses
Of pattern in the dance’s ripening.
Poetry always seems for Stevens to be women’s work, a lunar affair, in contrast to the paternal and Platonic authority of the sun in all its solar glory. If the young Stevens berated domestic woman in the guise of “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” who didn’t understand the niceties of amoral aesthetics, the older poet more mercifully identifies maternal plentitude as the very womb of his art. Then there are the “negresses”—no way to talk by our standards, but politer than the racist Stevens was in other moments—whose dance patterns are part of the white children’s Bildung. Whether this is sexual-racial vampirism or something like Ellison and Murray’s “Omni-Americanism” or a bit of both, I will leave you to decide. Still later, the poem imagines an early Edenic domestic innocence, from which the serpent of individuation and sexuation both liberates the imagination and obscures its source in maternal song:
There is or may be a time of innocence
As pure principle.
That we partake thereof,
Lie down like children in this holiness,
As if, awake, we lay in the quiet of sleep,
As if the innocent mother sang in the dark
Of the room and on an accordion, half-heard,
Created the time and place in which we breathed . . .
With these candid lines in mind, might we recast the songstress in “The Idea of Order at Key West” not as the poet’s surrogate but as the poet’s mother?
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there was never a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.
These Biblical intimations of family romance in The Auroras of Autumn, and even its encoded racial drama, still vaguely but more richly peopled than much of Stevens’s other work, ground his “endlessly elaborating poem” and the virtuoso voice that expatiates upon it in circumstances more contingent and emotions more fragile than he elsewhere essays. “Farewell to an idea,” not for nothing, is this poem’s refrain. In these autumnal lines, we find not the imposition of any theory, but a poet’s true discovery of whatever may be discovered on this alien earth.
 I wonder if we can compare Stevens as lyrical Late Romantic among the astringent modernists to the composer Rachmaninov in relation to the likes of Stravinsky or Schoenberg as discussed in Alex Ross’s recent New Yorker article. Classical music is well over my head, but I mention it only because Rachmaninov was my introduction to the tradition—a much more musically gifted friend made me a tape in about 1998 with the Third Piano Concerto on Side A (and A Love Supreme on Side B)—and may remain, pillory if you must, my favorite composer. (I like Chopin too. I tell people by way of apology that I have the taste of a 14-year-old Russian girl whose ancestral estate is about to be expropriated by Bolsheviks.) Roland Barthes’s self-positioning also applies: “at the rear-guard of the avant-garde: to be avant-garde, one must know what is dead; to be rear-guard, one must still love it” (“Interview with Tel Quel” in The Tel Quel Reader ).
 With some poets—from Browning and Dickinson to Eliot and Glück—it is urgent to distinguish the poet from the speaker or persona who utters the poem. But in the case of a poet like Stevens, who seems to speak in his own voice and prefers to write of fictional characters in the third person (as in “Sunday Morning” or “The Comedian as the Letter C”), this gesture would be nothing more than a pointless and pedantic pedagogical device.
 I cite Bloom, Burnshaw, Jameson, and Schwartz from Critical Essays on Wallace Stevens (1988) edited by Steven Gould Axelrod and Helen Deese. Kenner’s critique of Stevens can be found in A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (1975).
 Robert Bly once proposed Etheridge Knight, a poet of the Black Arts Movement who wrote visceral verse of prison life, as Stevens’s anti-type in American literature. To sharpen this contrast, we might juxtapose some of Knight’s celebrated haiku with Steven’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”:
Eastern guard tower
glints in sunset; convicts rest
like lizards on rocks.
To write a blues song
is to regiment riots
and pluck gems from graves.
Making jazz swing in
Seventeen syllables AIN’T
No square poet’s job.
 Michael Hofmann’s bad review of a doorstopping biography may be my favorite essay on Stevens—not that I’ve read them all. Hofmann disputes the need for any biography at all because, he parenthetically suggests, most of what we need to know of the poet comes from Shakespeare:
all of Stevens is like a greatly expanded version of the drama and relations of The Tempest: the magic, the tropics, the search for a different earthly orientation or accommodation
Speaking of tropics, I can’t resist another selection from Hofmann. He goes into raptures over Harmonium while finding the later poems “orotund,” “their ceremoniousness tending to bombast,” “more and more about less and less.” But in the early work he discovers, if not a whole world, a whole half of one:
Largely by accident, he is left looking like a Floridian pendant (or a hammock-dwelling pendant Floridian) to the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez; the good-humoured Latinity of the vocabulary, the flexibility of the constructions, the originality of the combinations, the gorgeousness of the imagery; the one with his Aureliano and José Arcadio protagonists, the other his Ramon Fernandez and Fernando interlocutors. At times, only a few miles of Gulf separate them: the one from Aracataca, the other from Reading, but sojourning in the Keys, where a young Elizabeth Bishop with bicycle and binoculars would try to espy him. Both Márquez and Stevens look with a kind of dread at the North, the world, for Stevens, of ‘Depression before Spring’ and ‘Disillusionment of Ten o’Clock’, the world where ‘Rationalists, wearing square hats,/Think in square rooms,/Looking at the floor,/Looking at the ceiling’ or ‘One has a malady, here, a malady. One feels a malady’ or ‘The doctor used his handkerchief and sighed.’ Stevens would much rather write (and I mean just the titles), ‘Hymn from a Watermelon Pavilion’, ‘The Load of Sugar-Cane’, ‘The Revolutionists Stop for Orangeade’, ‘Floral Decorations for Bananas’, ‘On the Manner of Addressing Clouds’, or ‘The Bird with the Coppery, Keen Claws’ (‘A pip of life amid a mort of tails’). Yet, by temperament, he was not exuberant and inclusive, not a Whitman or Schiller calling out to the millions to let him embrace them; he was a standoffish Republican (Mariani dubs him an ‘American xenophobe and typical anti-Semite’, but from the poems you would hardly know it). It’s both lovely and a caution to imagine Stevens, not just with Tampa cigars and ‘big, rough lemons’ to put in his drinks, but an unshaven patriarch with sandalled feet and a mob of grandchildren. He reads and feels like a hemispheric poet: one not just of and for and from the United States, but of and for and from all the Americas.