45C Lectures [C. Altieri]


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Stevens Ideas of Feeling: Towards an Exponential Poetics



Charles Altieri

Department of English

University of Washington

Seattle, WA 98195

We are all by now familiar with the calls for demystification

that justify so much contemporary criticism. Yet it remains striking

that so little of this work addresses the danger that it might be

engaged in what Modernist art considered the most mystified practice

of all--the insistence that for thinking to be humanly significant it

had to participate in clear struggles between heroes and villains

over goods crucial to the material and emotional health of some social

body. For Modernist writers, on the other hand, the challenge was to

imagine rich emotional processes not bound to such theatrical

structures: just as eloquence had to be won in a war against rhetoric,

deep feeling had to won in war against received models of emotional

intensity and public seriousness. However the more comprehensively

and intelligently the modernists responded to that challenge, the more

they have reaped as their reward a criticism that simply ignores their

subtlety so that it can inscribe them in dramas of social

responsibility and moral failure which allow the critic, if not the

art, full participation in the old melodramas.

In our climate, Wallace Stevens provides an exemplary theater

for testing these critical assumptions and for trying out alternatives

to them, in large part because Stevens' own prose statement of his

basic ideal--that the theory of poetry be also the theory of life--is

itself melodramatic enough to invite easy cultural criticisms. Aware

of the limitations of that prose, and unwilling to allow the poetry

any more complex or capacious mode of utterance, the most

theoretically "sophisticated" demystifiers of Stevens indict him for

an idealism that fails to confront historical actuality and for an

abstraction that masks or represses the real passions underlying the

work.1 In order to show how limited this stance is (and not only with

regard to Stevens) I shall argue that one can understand the theory of

poetry as a theory of life precisely because of its capacity to free

emotional life from such melodramatic demands so that we can

understand the roles the feelings play in establishing and elaborating



1 For good examples of the idealism charge see Cary Nelson, Poetry 

and Repression and Alan Filreis; For that charge and additional

claims about Steven's emotional cowardice, see Frank Lentrichia ; and

for claims that Stevens represses the dialogical as the grounding for

his solipsistic meditations see Gerald Bruns. If we go back to the

prototype for such attacks, Frederic Jameson, "Wallace Stevens," New 

Orleans Review (Spring, 1984), 10-19, we see clearly that these

criticisms stem in large part from failures on the part of more

traditional critics to cast Stevens idealism in a way that allows it

to bear significant content. Jameson offers a superb formulation of

the odd richness of Stevens' writing as the tension between an

astonishing linguistic richness and a hollowness of content, each

capable of drawing the other into its force field" (10). But then

rather than ask what Stevens might have intended by such emphases and

such loops, Jameson leaps to historical explanation. To do that he

must treat Stevens in terms of the social formations of the 1960's,

thereby offering remarkable testimony to how much criticism can bend

reality in order to maintain political melodrama. Thus while Jameson

understands Stevens' critiques of dramatic modes, he does not take up

Stevens own claims about the importance of poetry as statement (like

Opus Posthumus, 204, 216), and he fails to see how Stevens might put

that critique of his fellow modernists to the purposes that I shall

try to describe here. All poor Stevens can do is reflect a historical

situation that will take place decades after the poems Jameson refers

to were written.

Since I have claimed that such thinking proves sadly

consistent with the best traditional criticism of Stevens, it is

important that I take a moment to show how this essay might modify

that structure of understanding. Take for example Albert Gelpi's very

intelligent chapter on Stevens in his A Coherent Splendor arguing that

Stevens remains bound to symboliste strategies which cannot fully

respect sources of values in the world. Gelpi puts concisely and in

the richest historical context the basic Stevensian effort to find

modes of abstraction within which the mind can come to rely on its own

powers for determining values, powers shaped neither by nature nor by

tradition. But Gelpi does not take the final step. He does not allow

Stevens the intellectual capacity to make those symboliste strategies

the basis for a rich, philosophically coherent rendering of how humans

can develop, modify, and dwell emotionally within a world of values.

Only on such grounds, I must add, can we hope to combine work

elaborating Stevens'own thinking on politics, such as that done in a

fine conference paper by Lisa Steinman arguing for the political

importance of Stevens's refusal to accept a language of heavily

invested commonplaces, with his more general reconstructive ambitions.


The case for Stevens must begin by dismantling the equally

melodramatic framework constructed by earlier generations of Stevens'

critics, who conceived imagination as the fictive projection of

evaluative representations for experience. Clearly there is a good

deal of Stevens that sustains such views. Nonetheless they remain too

crude to get at the power of the poetry because they fail to

distinguish between the hypothetical testing of fictions about the

world and more immanent and intimate processes that play on our senses

of the real and unreal as conditions of apprehension. For this second

view, whose emphasis on relational factors makes good on the claim

that the theory of poetry inseparable from the theory of life, we find

Stevens most eloquent expression in a 1936 letter:


The validity of the poet as a figure of the prestige to which

he is entitled, is wholly a matter of this, that he adds to life

that without which life cannot be lived, or is not worth living,

or is without savor, or in any case, would be altogether different

from what it is today. Poetry is a passion not a habit. This

passion nourishes itself on reality. Imagination has no source

except in reality, and ceases to have any value when it departs

from reality. Here is a fundamental principle about the

imagination; It does not create except as it transforms. There

is nothing that exists exclusively by reason of the imagination,

or that does not exist in some form in reality. Thus reality =

the imagination, and the imagination = reality. Imagination gives,

but gives in relation.2


To gloss this we must emphasize the roles that the feelings

play in establishing connections between the imagination and reality,

since only that focus will keep the basic equation between these

forces constant through endless change. Such attention should then

help us appreciate the factors leading Stevens to offer as his

alternative to the penchant for climactic resolution typical of our

popular cultural forms what he envisioned as an exponential poetics:


The major abstraction is the idea of man

And major man is its exponent, abler

In the abstract than in his singular (CP 388).


Focussing on major man as exponent makes it possible to treat poetry

less as ideas about the thing than as the making of a "vivid

transparence" (CP 380) embodying the mind's relational powers for

quickening our care for phenomena without imposing on them symbolic

meanings or demanding elaborate psycho-biographical contexts to

explain the investments involved. And that shift in emphasis then

helps us free Stevens from the critical binaries that struggle to

contain him either as setting against an oppressive reality a

Nietzschean will absorbed by deferral and free play or as a banal

aesthetic humanist requiring the corrective perspective that cultural

studies can bring. Instead we can concentrate on the values involved

in Stevens turning increasingly to a discursive style, enlivened by a

flow of metaphor defining investments that do not congeal into either

abstract beliefs or the specular satisfactions of the dramatic mode.

Exponential poetics does not depend on metaphors that propose

interpretations for events or desires; rather it focusses attention on

specific intensities and related senses of empowerment that the poem

makes available in an engaged reading. The abstraction necessary for

a philosophical poetry exists not in the ideas but in the scope of the

direct thinking by which the exponential stance engages its subject,

thereby making visible the intimate social bonds such intensities can



2 Letters of Wallace Stevens, ed. Holly Stevens (New York: Knopf,

1972), 364. The other Stevens texts I use will be given the following

abbreviations within the text: The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens

(New York: Knopf, 1964), CP; Opus Posthumus, ed Samuel French Morse

(New York: Knopf, 1969), OP; and The Necessary Angel: Essays on 

Reality and the Imagination (New York: Vintage, 1965), NA.



3 I develop at length this notion of a testimonial dimension of

Stevens work and its relation to similar projects in modernist art in

my Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry (New York:

Cambridge University Press, 1989). In order to see how this model

helps speak about emotions in Stevens I hope the reader will compare

my arguments to those in Helen Vendler's writings on Stevens. Vendler

has been the one critic of Stevens who never loses sight of the

emotional intensities in his poetry, although she often narrows the

range of emotions that he in fact pursues, and she is not much

concerned with how Stevens' thinking about these feelings relates to

his overall philosophical ambitions. It is also necessary now to

cite Barbara Fisher's emphasis on erotic energies in Stevens, but I

think she worries so much about his ideas of feeling that she is not

sufficiently full on how the poems deploy those states or how Stevens'

career can be understood in terms of self-reflexive dialectical

engagements with the emotional pressures fundamental to such




Eventually I hope to elaborate the basic tensions that Stevens

worked his way through as he tried to give the emotions a full life

within a reflective poetry extremely wary of ever letting them take

dramatic forms, and hence of depending on representations of life

rather than on direct exponential energies within the embodied

thinking. Our grasp of that dynamic should then provide a striking

illustration of what we lose when criticism seeks psychological and

political versions of those dramatic situations as its enabling plots.

But in order to facilitate such generalizations from these analyses I

want first to elaborate very briefly a general schema that I think

makes visible what is at stake in the various ways poets grapple with

the emotional features that they try to make self-reflexive within

lyrical experience. I will not have the time to develop the basic

structure fully; nor do I have the character to make Stevens simply a

test case on whom to apply the model. Nonetheless I consider this a

worthwhile digression because it promises to deepen our sense of the

options available to Stevens, to highlight areas where tensions arise,

and hence where Stevens finds it necessary to modify his lyrical

thinking, and to encourage possible comparisons between the course

Stevens charts through these tensions and those taken by other

modernist and contemporary poets.

I propose five basic dimensions for representing the work of

the emotions in poetry, with each dimension taking the form of a

continuum between polar oppositions. 1) Cognition: feelings can be

cast as means of deepening perception by locating attention or by

mediating between the demands of the inner life and the contours of

the outer, for example by how we come to know a face that we love.

But at the same time, feelings block knowledge to the degree that the

inner life they carry proves in excess of its object or imposes

categories that displace its singularity. Similarly feelings can

engage us dynamically in the present, but they can also bring to bear

supplemental energies subordinating that present to past or future

considerations. 2) Expressivity: The dynamic force evoking feelings

or leading them to seek expression can be located primarily in the

scene, that is in features of particulars or of contexts which dispose

agents to contour desire to what takes control over them. But it can

also be located in a teleology or psychodynamics internal to the agent

and only mediated by objects, with the excess again requiring

supplements imposing various contexts on the phenomena. 3)

Expressability: once we define how we feel we must explain how we can

articulate those feelings in language. Clearly the expressions cannot

be simply third-person extensional descriptions. But we are left with

two radically different models. If we stress metaphoric means of

expression we can show how the emotions have significant scope because

the metaphors relate them to larger paradigms within the culture and

therefore allow deep recurrent structures of desire to take form (as

we see most fully in Frye's treatment of metaphor as a symbolic mode).

But under such a model we encounter problems particularizing the

relational intensities and we are haunted by the tendency of metaphors

to end on the dump. So we find Stevens repeatedly distinguishing

between metaphor and figure, with the latter term affording a

function of imagination that does not seek encompassing fictions but

maintains momentary, fluid linkings of psyche and flesh (CP 199).

This fluidity exacts a price, since it does not produce the

speculative synthetic force metaphor can provide. But it does make it

possible to envision a mode of eloquence which can locate the

constructive force of language simply in how it gives life and body

within a plain style. 4) Identity: given the realization that at

their most intense the emotions lead us to exclaim "out of what one

sees and hears and out/ Of what one feels, who could have thought to

make / So many selves, so many sensuous worlds" (CP 326), we must ask

which of our several selves is created by emotions, as well as what

powers and filiations the emotions afford the self they make visible?

Such questions require our speaking about how persons adapt to

changing intensities, to different degrees of personal investment, and

to different ways of negotiating between the central of the self and

its eccentricities. Moreover, when we pose questions of identity in

social terms, we must ask how we can imagine the conditions of feeling

being known or shared--how do the selves called up by or for feeling

migrate through social situations and cultural differences? 5)

Reflexivity: we must distinguish between first-order feelings

directly focussed on objects and second-order feelings that take as

their objects our response to the way first-order feelings are

negotiated or how they dispose us as agents. Stevens provides a

telling example in "A Duck for Dinner" from Owl's Clover:


... They see

The metropolitan of mind, they feel

The central of the composition, in which

They live. They see and feel themselves, seeing

And feeling the world in which they live. (OP 64)


Poetry then opens complicated tensions between the values we attribute

by virtue of what the moment affords and the values we attribute

because of how we engage or use what the moment affords. These

tensions then compose a theater within which several different value

struggles can take--ranging from attention to the difficulties of

adapting judgment to the immediacy of feeling to the possibility of

making the self-reflexive activity that the poem defines and elicits

the vehicle for certain large scale affirmations aligning the will to

overall fatalities.4


4 The best place to Stevens grappling discursively with the range of

issues raised by the emotions is his "Effects of Analogy" (NA 105-30).

The most interesting feature of that essay from my perspective is

Stevens effort to work his way beyond simple emotional analogies to

more intricate relational complexes extending the emotions into

second-order issues of "rightness" (115) and centrality.



While this schema helps define what is at stake during

various phases of Steven's career, we cannot simply apply it. His

grasp of the issues is so complex, and his own self-reflexive energies

so intense that the best way way to understand the ideas of feeling

that engage Stevens is to track his work chronologically,

concentrating on how he comes to recognize and adjust to the limits of

specific imaginative orientations. Conventional as this strategy is,

it still promises the richest access to Stevens' intricately

dialectical mind, and thus it promises at once to help us appreciate

several different moments in his career and to recognize all the

pressures that come to bear in his richest confrontations with his own

ambitions. Such tracking will require considerable oversimplification

and the flattening of those eccentric speculative moments common in

Stevens work. But ultimately the better we grasp the overall contours

of his career the better we shall be able to explore the differences

constituted by these errant projections.

Harmonium provides an auspicious beginning for this project

because there we find both the basic terms of his critique of other

models of the emotions and the ideals of "immanent naturalism"

providing the logic for the distinctive model of poetic emotions which

motivates his initial flirtations with experimental modernism. The

critique is best expressed in "Commedian as the Letter C":


These bland excursions into time to come,

Related in romance to backward flights,

However prodigal, however proud,

Contained in their afflatus the reproach

That first drove Crispin to his wandering.

He could not be content with counterfeit,

With masquerade of thought, with hapless words

That must belie the racking masquerade,

With fictive flourishes that preordained

His passion's permit, hang of coat, degree

Of buttons, measure of his salt. (CP 39)


Without "Grotesque apprenticeship to chance event," enabling the role

of "A clown perhaps, but an aspiring clown" (CP 39), lyric emotions

easily become traps for the spirit. For the demand to take emotion

seriously tempts one into melodramatic theaters that at once invite

and displace passionate speech. And the more deeply we define our

emotional lives within those theaters, the more we confine ourselves

within prescribed plots imposing narrative patterns on the emotions

and forcing them into the ideological structures governing the

prevailing social practices (see, for example, CP 161). Worse, the

more ardent we are to name our feelings, or to locate our identities

within large scale dramatic emotions, the more we find these plots

leading us to identify with specific metaphoric equivalents for the

inner life that turn out to reduce the impossible possible

philosopher's man to a tawdry seducer trading on public expectations

that in the long run force him to conform to the shape that the

audience desires.

The dilemma here is far too general to allow attributing it

entirely to Romanticism. But romanticism would prove Stevens' most

dramatic and most effective way of defining for himself a version of

this general cultural condition which he might be able to combat.

Two basic problems define the issues. First, romanticism insisted on

using lyrical emotion to validate a momentous shift from the

fundamentally generic or typical poetic subject to the activities of a

specifiable expressive individual, but then how could the individual's

emotions be taken seriously unless they covertly echoed something

generic. So while passion promised individuality, it also had to seek

its permits from the social order it tried to oppose. And it would be

very difficult to take the individual seriously unless the emotions

sustaining that individuality had an intensity worthy of attention.

But such intensity, with such demands for covert submission to the

audience one proposes as one's antagonist, leads back to the

melodramatic, now inseparable from the ironies of the will to power.

The poet seems to demand that the audience accept his authority and

his emotional authenticity, but in so doing he also becomes dependent

on the very terms that he claims his truth can alter, so that he seems

condemned either to a self-destructive integrity or a self-deluding

capacity to fascinate an audience that in fact seduces him. How then

can poets locate lyrical emotions that do not doom them to imitating

Ahab or Byron?

Second, once emotions must carry personal identity for

a public, and once they require "passion's permit," how can poetry

both provide a sense of intimacy and at the same time propose itself

as worthy of serious public attention?5 In the struggle to preserve

cultural currency for poetry, emotion gets displaced into rhetoric or

gets theatricalized as a melodramatic end in itself, or gets

channelled into pastoral escapes from the pains of seeking public

authority. But, Stevens would come to think, if poetry could develop

geniunely philosophical emotions, it might grow so abstractly concrete

that it could offer publically significant emotional intensities that

are far more intimate than those dependent on performative egos, that

restore for thought a version of the generic, transpersonal lyric

subject, and that free the mind from those temptations to melodrama

that an expressivist tradition had confused with fully responsive

self-consciousness. A relational model for emotional intensity would

make this poetry possible by insisting on emotions that do not attach

directly to significant objects but instead depend entirely on the

connections they make possible. Thus one can imagine poetry engaging

the deepest levels of subjective being without depending on an agent's

psychic heroics. Indeed one can imagine such emotion proving

sufficiently mobile and "fluent" that this sense of subjective life

might be won at a level relatively free of those self-staging roles

that in more autobiographically or dramatically oriented poetry trap

the lyrical activity into serving as a surrogate for the audience's



5 Speaking of Shakespeare, Stanley Cavell proposes the ideal of a

criticism that offers a generalized intimacy earned through the text.

This I think is what Stevens thought a philosophical poetry could

achieve, and indeed had to achieve if its particular means of

abstraction were to speak to the lives of other people even though it

did not rely on propositions. But Cavell then seeks that intimacy by

attempting to revive fundamentally romantic vocabularies. Here he

provides by contrast a good measure of why Stevens and the other

modernists sought instead an abstraction and an anti-theatricality

that might allow poetry to begin the developing of alternative, less

melodramatic ways of exploring what imagination can do when it is not

tied to the ambitions of expressive subjectivity.


But Harmonium is still a long way from that philosophical

poetry, a distance that perhaps Stevens could bridge only because he

realized that he could not escape the difficulties created for him by

his effort to develop an alternative to "romanticism." I call this

alternative an "analogical naturalism" because it locates lyric

emotion primarily in the correspondences between atmosphere and

temperament suggested by Impressionist materialism (soon to be made

the stuff of lyrical emotion by the Symbolistes). From this

perspective, romantic models of emotion were doubly flawed: not only

did they displace the immanence they desired into subjective self-

staging, they also continued to understand the emotions in terms of

roughly Platonic structures. These structures then cast the poet's

work as purifying feelings of their specific, momentary filiations

with bodily experience so that they could develop the ethical or

religious force latent in the idealizable aspects of the connections

to the material world which emotions afforded the psyche. Harmonium,

in contrast, concentrated on those states in which one can imagine

direct, unmediated parallels between a causal force in the environment

and a parallel mode of intensity within the psyche. Stevens' richest

direct statement of that ideal takes place in "Sunday Morning,"

ironically the poem of his most closely bound in form to the greater

romantic lyric's discursive and symbol governed principles for

expressing emotions:


Divinity must live within herself:

Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;

Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued

Elations when the forest blooms; gusty

Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights.

All pleasures and all pains, remembering

The bough of summer and the winter branch.

These are the measures destined for her soul. (CP 67)


Rather than interpret emotions or seek a divinity only symbolically

expressed within nature, Stevens calls for a fully immanent divinity

inseparable from our own capacity to attune spirit to the actual

weather defining its landscape. But how can the speaker of this poem

be faithful to the principles he invokes? Analogical naturalism is

situational and mobile. Its energies depend on constant adjustment to

changes in natural and affective climates, so it cannot be bound to

insistent thematic argument or the integrative symbolism of the

greater romantic lyric. And how could such mobility mediate between

the solipsistic moments of correspondence and the demands for public

significance that poetry had to satisfy if it were to claim cultural

centrality. Consequently "Sunday Morning" proves deeply divided, a

text seeking to contain what motivates it under discursive principles

contrary to both the model of emotions it is developing and the

juxtapositional structure necessary for spelling out the relational

field required for articulating such emotions.

All the rhetorical energy in the poem seems committed to

allowing a purely secular image of mind this gorgeously public

extension of its wings, as if Stevens' stately periods could fully

naturalize the the greater romantic lyric's integrative symbols and

could locate in its own resources a sufficient counterforce to the

deadness within and without threatening to reduce it to the pressures

of reality. On that basis the symbolic figures in the last stanza

carry a ritual weight enabling the natural scene to answer the woman's

religious needs. But even with this integrative power, Stevens'

poetic stance breaks from its heritage in significant respects. For

example he goes much further than the romantics did in shifting from

arguments for a particular thesis to emphasis on the process of

adjusting to overall attitudes which then determine what beliefs

people can hold. Therefore the poem cannot offer the faith the woman

desires; it can only promise to adjust sensibilities so that agents

make of divinity what their nature allows. And here there is no

promise of immortality, no hope that the mind's orders can in fact

handle the sense of impinging death oppressing the entire volume.

Three other features of this meditation do not so much vary

the greater romantic lyric as define tensions which will eventually

require a radical break. The poem's efforts at symbolic integration do

not fully register the irony implicit in having so much depend on that

most unromantic of birds, the pigeon. In fact the entire last stanza

manages simultaneously to celebrate the lyrical integrative powers of

spirit and to darken hopes by reminding us of how bare must be the

terms of reconciliation to the world. In the psychological register

that same sense of reductive pressure takes the form of suspicions

that this mode of address cannot fully accommodate the complex emotions

released by having the younger man assuming such serious wisdom

towards an older woman. Those potential ironies are then reflected on

a more public, thematic level because it proves difficult to grant the

speaker's ideas the same authority that his rhetorical control seems

to demand. While the rhetoric depends primarily on an entirely

sensual ground for feelings, the claim to wisdom requires mediating

that ground through shared systems for evaluating emotional


Eventually Stevens would develop public modes for handling all

these openings to ironic relativism. But we will fully appreciate

those modes only if we first recognize the very different direction his

early poetry took in negotiating between the desire to elaborate

qualities of a plein air mobility of perspective more responsive to

the underlying Impressionist naturalism and the nagging voice of

public authority and public decorum that Stevens both sought and

feared.6 For the full capacities of this emotional mobility we must

turn to smaller, quirkier, and ultimately more suggestive poems like

"Stars at Tallapoosa":


The lines are straight and swift between the stars.

The night is not the cradle that they cry,

The criers, undulating the deep ocean's phrase.

The lines are much too dark and much too sharp.

The mind herein attains simplicity.

There is no moon, on single silvered leaf.

The body is no body to be seen

But it is an eye that studies its black lid.

Let these be your delight, secretive hunter,

Wading the sea-lines, moist and ever-mingling,

Mounting the earth-lines, long and lax, lethargic.

These lines are swift and fall without diverging.

The melon-flower nor dew nor web of either

Is like to these. But in yourself is like:

A sheaf of brilliant arrows flying straight,

Flying and falling straightway for their pleasure,

Their pleasure that is all bright-edged and cold;

Or, if not arrows, then the nimblest motions,

Making recoveries of young nakedness

And the lost vehemence the midnights hold. (CP 72)



6 Obviously "Sea Surface Full of Clouds" is Stevens' most elaborate

and most insistent rendering of this Impressionist naturalism. However

I think Stevens uses Impressionism both as a literal model and as an

analogical one for exploring possible inner states, so it is the second

that I shall stress here. And I should note Stevens' affinities with

Mallarm‚'s analogical sense of capturing in verse the shuddering that

the soul can share with the leaves on a tree. That view too comes out

of Impressionist links between temperament and atmosphere, then seeks

to develop the terms for inner life which the analogical base allows.


Here all the integrative energies lead to a terrifyingly

intense, fundamentally private realization of how the self can attune

itself to a wildness at once deeply internalized and elaborately

contoured to its immediate surroundings. The poem's first two stanzas

set the stage by shifting from metaphoric to analogical stances

towards the night. As the speaker adjusts to the specific qualities

of the lines between the stars, he cannot accept conventional

lyrical claims that the night sustain lullabies. Rather the sharpness

of the lines entails drawing parallels that resist the psyche's hunger

for expansive and comforting images of itself in favor of tight

analogies to the mind's powers to simplify its world. The result is a

different kind of inwardness--not one based on a mythology shared by the

criers but one emerging from a proprioceptive sense of the mind's own

direct powers. Naturalist analogues then lead easily into the sense

that the self is the weather, that the full alliance of weather and

temperament is a deeply private, although not deeply inward state.

On such a basis the third stanza can open a new lyrical afflatus,

marvellously transforming the concentrative movement towards the eye

studying its black lid into a cosmic journey for the solipsist become

secretive hunter. Then the poem can return to that self in full

analogical self-awareness. In this state a new lushness emerges, a

lushness earned in the delights of cold analysis and open through that

to the full sexuality that the night also figures. To have gone

directly to that sexuality would only have repeated another set of

criers, and would therefore have had no strong analogical base within

the lyrical subject. But by taking this route, the external scene at

once purifies the mind and then gives it access to its own deepest

erotic fantasies.

Then the public rhetoric of "Sunday Morning" becomes the

irreducible inwardness of the erotic solipsist. What begins in the

lines between stars becomes in the more assertive self-reflection of

"Jasmine's Beautiful Thoughts Underneath the Willow":


The love that will not be transported

In an old, frizzled, flambeaued manner,

But muses on its eccentricity,

... like a vivid apprehension...

Of bliss submerged beneath appearance,

In an interior ocean's rocking,

Of long capricious fugues and chorals. (CP 79)


Such intensities are not mere sensualism, tests of the dandy's verbal

powers. Instead they cast that sensualism as a distinctive mode of

intoxication, with strong claims on the inner life that are figured in

the way this movement of the ocean sustains two analogies--the first

to the artificial sensuality of music, and the second to those

secretive self-exulting feelings which the music elicits.

How, though, are we to assess this achievement? Can this

solipsism suffice as a model for the character of the poet? I am

tempted to answer that had Stevens stayed in this mode he might be our

exemplary postmodern. But Harmonium could not be so confident.

Stevens could not expel the voice that made social demands on such

emotions, even though he lacked principles that might give that voice

a clear role within his lyrical ideals. So he was forced to face the

fact that an essentially unmediated version of emotional authenticity

cannot be easily reconciled with ideals of social responsibility, nor

will it enable the poet's sensibilities to serve as an emblem for an

eloquent sincerity capable of defining emotional values forging

communal bonds despite deep differences among individuals.

Consequently this celebratory privacy is not the dominant voice in

Harmonium. Instead the dominant presence involves various versions

of the tensions within "Sunday Morning" that arise as one tries to

link the sense of privacy and fluidity in the naturalist analogical

model with public forms that might mediate the emotions for others or

allow Stevens a rendering of them that he could maintain without

shame. Thus the volume seems in large part a series of efforts by the

secretive hunter to develop more indirect and more wary means of

converting "our bawdiness" into palms that he might then brandish at

the moral law (CP 59). The dominant tone becomes a deeply ironic

playfulness constantly negotiating two fundamental blocking forces.

At one pole the anatagonist is the pervasive sense that in a world

reduced to natural forces death haunts every pleasure and every effort

to develop the imaginative implications of those pleasures. At the

other pole, the lyrical self must negotiate the pressure of other

people, both as emblems of social decorums and as figures for the

internal divisions that occur because one cannot be a perfect

solipsist (even if, as "The Apostrophe to Vincentine" has it, one

comes to love others when one manages to share their feeling for their

own illimitable spheres [CP 52]).

If one accepts this account as the fundamental emotional plot

for Harmonium, the poem most fully delineating its basic emotional

strategies becomes "The Doctor of Geneva." Here instead of simply

elaborating analogical naturalism, the poet develops its cost, and then

defines a mode of irony capable of handling the shift from the ritual

calm of the lady's morning meditation to the eccentric excesses of the

solipsistic voluptuary. Suppose that this voluptuary took the

pursuit of the "lost vehemence the midnights hold" to its logical

extreme. Poetry would become the effort to make pure dreams actual

realities, as occurs in poems like "Six Significant Landscapes,"

"Lunar Paraphrase, and the "The Bird with Coppery Keen Claws." A

radical naturalistic immanence brings us from nature to dream, and

hence to Freud, but Freud then returns us to the desparate ironies of

bourgeois self-consciousness struggling to control what it projects as

an authenticity beyond its own powers:


The doctor of Geneva stamped the sand

That lay impounding the Pacific Swell,

Patted his stove-pipe hat and tugged his shawl. ...

He did not quail. A man so used to plumb

The multifarious heavens felt no awe

Before these visible, voluble delugings,

Which yet found means to set his simmering mind

Spinning and hissing with oracular

Notations of the wild, the ruinous waste,

Until the steeples of his city clanked and sprang

In an unburgherly apocalypse.

The doctor used his handkerchief and sighed. (CP 24)


This is the bourgeois version of the "interior oceans's

rocking/ Of long, capricious fugues and chorals." The doctor

understands the new worlds that his responsiveness to dreams opens.

But, given the social and professional commitments figured in his

stove-pipe hat, he experiences these "oracular notations" primarily as

a disturbing clank confounding his burgherly existence. In order to

preserve that public identity, the doctor's only means of lyric

expression is a complexly positioned sigh, perhaps the most evocative

and probably the most pathetic of intransitive states. In part the

sigh is defense against the call of those voluble delugings, as if it

had the strength to anchor this short concluding sentence and thus

to contain the intricate expansiveness of the previous sentence

devoted to those delugings. In part the sigh is also a way of

ennobling the task of renunciation, because it measures the difficulty

of pursuing those laws which might underly and explain the oracular

notations of the wild. And in part the sigh is the doctor's self-

protective release into that apocalypse, as if he could not but

express this degree of attachment to his own "simmering mind."

Ultimately the sigh is the poet's. For there is no more

encompassing ironic gesture allowing one both to acknowledge the force

of certain feelings and to honor the distance necessary to protect

oneself from that which what nonetheless wants to enjoy, even to revel

in, as one can imagine Freud revelling imaginatively in the case

studies he tried to submit to detached analysis. Freud here, like

Stevens throughout the volume, finds himself attached to a model of

feeling as excess which for the bourgeois professional can only be

experienced as a threatening otherness marking his own civilized lack,

even as he thereby praises his own repressive powers. While the poet

may dream that "in excess continual/ There is cure of sorrow" (CP 61),

the terms of that excess keep the speaker trapped in an unbridgeable

distance between the expansiveness tying feeling to the world and the

measures of control necessary to prevent the attendant solipsism from

totally isolating or embarassing the poetic reflections. Given these

conditions, perhaps the best the poet can do is switch from Freud's

mostly passive sigh to Peter Quince's active play in and upon a range

of analogical musical feelings allowing him simultaneously the self-

indulgence of the elders and the self-discipline of the reflective

musician (CP 92). Such music registers all the fluctuations of

passion, yet it also internalizes death's ironic scraping by masking

embarrassing feelings within an artifice so excessive that it can make

the expression of lack fascinating in its own right. Here then the

solipsist may be able to keep lost vehemences without submitting to

the terrifying possibility that such feelings require for their full

enjoyment removing stove-pipe hats and indulging in utterances far

more voluble and vulnerable than the master's sigh.





The better we grasp the radical naturalism of Harmonium,

the better we can appreciate the dialectical efforts undertaken by

Ideas of Order to develop ideals of feeling that contain principles of

mediation within themselves and that thus allow a public dimension not

trapped in the self-protective recesses of the ironic mode. Consider

first how this second volume shifts the imaginative roles assigned to

women, especially in the somewhat vulgar and revealing mating ritual

staged by its opening two poems. In "Farewell to Florida" the poet

must cast off the the female mind that binds him in secret lascivious

plenitude, so that he can actively assume the phallic power capable of

forging communities of men bound neither to ritual orgies nor to

foppish ironies:


To be free again, to return to the violent mind

That is their mind, these men, and that will bind

Me round, carry me, misty deck, carry me

To the cold, go on, high ship, go on, plunge on. (CP 118)


Then in "Ghosts as Cocoons" he seeks a new bride, demanding that "she

must come now" (CP 119) because he can imagine himself facing the

brutalities of history in the service of the love that only she can

reward. Here all of the solipsist's intensities remain in the speaker's

picture of domes resounding with "chant involving chant," but now the

imagination must remain incomplete unless it can "wed its life with

life" and thus learn to see and to speak to the bride who must affirm

both the renunciations and the new efforts to engage social realities.

The task of the volume as a whole is to flesh out these

introductory fantasies by developing a model of feeling that can at

once demand this heroic sense of the self's enterprise and mediate its

intensities so that the poet can claim social significance for them.

As my basic example of the heroic program I shall turn first to the

admirably concise directness of "Sailing After Lunch," then I shall

use "Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz" to illustrate how that project allows

Stevens'to place irony within a larger ontological framework, a

framework most fully articulated in the patterns of mediation making

"The Idea of Order at Key West" so different a meditation from "Sunday


"Sailing After Lunch" begins with all the pathos that binds "A

most inappropriate man in a most inappropriate place" (CP 120) to a

paralyzing sense of his entrapment in romantic tropes. But the sense

of ironic condition proves too direct for ironic handling, so he

attempts to turn against that oppressive historical consciousness by

proposing a very different model of feeling:


It is only the way one feels, to say

Where my spirit is I am

To say the light wind worries the sail,

To say the water is swift today,

To expunge all people and be a pupil

Of the gorgeous wheel and so to give

That slight transcendence to the dirty sail,

By light, the way one feels, sharp white,

And then rush brightly through the summer air. (CP 120-21)


Stevens here establishes basic claims for a relational model

of imaginative activity which he will spend the rest of his career

testing and developing. At first this poem's equation of light with

the way one feels seems to echo the naturalist analogical model which

we have been discussing, but now Stevens provides a framing context

that requires reversing the direction of fit. Now the light does not

so much shape the feeling as derive from it. It is the saying what

one feels which gives the transcendence to the dirty sail. And that

saying is neither the expression of deep private passions nor the

negotiating of them under an oppressive self-consciousness. The

saying is simply an engaging of the self in the specific details of

its situation. Rather than express inner states, this saying is

content to give the imagination a role in intensifying the immediate

present. And that contentment radically transforms the relation of the

subject to those feelings. It remains true that "Where my spirit is I

am," but now the "I" has the force of spirit simply in how it speaks

in and for the outer life. The speaking itself becomes a form of

light which then creates the analogical parallels to the feelings

rather than defines itself in their terms.7 Consequently there is

considerably less need to develop strategies for expressing and

protecting the inner life. The investments carried in the speaking

here prove sufficient to elicit a clear course of action, itself now

pervaded by that light.


7 Many subsequent poems pick up this relation between speaking,

affirming and aligning the self to a situation; see especially "Some

Friends From Pascagoula," and the marvelous ending of "Evening Without

Angels." All these poems trade on a contrast with the "Speak it"

which concludes Harmonium because they emphasize the internal

distances between the self that issues imperatives and the recesses of

dream where the sources of poetic emotion reside. It is also

important to note a parallel connection between the sense of "how

easily the feelings flow ... over the simplest words" (CP 151) and the

development in "Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery" and Man With a 

Blue Guitar of what might be called the long poem built on notational

rather than dramatic or argumentative principles. The relations

developing over time provide sufficient intensity for poetry--"below

the tension of the lyre" but enough to feel the world speaking

continuously with our speech.


On the basis of this relational model, the next poem, "Sad

Strains of a Gay Waltz," develops a version of immanence that can

acknowledge the imperatives to irony while including them within a

more comprehensive reflective framework. Again the antagonist is

romanticism, this time because its forms like the waltz no longer

provide active modes carrying desires and weaving shadows within the

clarities defining an objective and impersonal world. Even those like

Hoon, whose sense of their desires takes form by negating the social

form of the waltz, find themselves unable to figure their own solitude.

And with individuals unable to find means of expression, social life

becomes dominated by mobs "crying without knowing for what" and

"requiring "order beyond their speech." But the condition of need

itself proposes shapes which may be "modes of desire," and thus which

offer the possibility of a new epic sense "uniting these figures of

men and their shapes. To develop this possibility, however, the poet

cannot hope for simple positive forms. Instead the temptations to

scepticism must themselves provide both content and form for that new

music. What once required ironic stances now can invite a relational

imagination so engaging the roles irony performs that it makes the

irony itself a mode of cultural order and a ground for lyrical

dwelling within the shadows it renews:


Too many waltzes--The epic of disbelief

Blares oftener and soon, will soon be constant.

Some harmonious sceptic soon in skeptical music

Will unite these figures of men and their shapes

Will glisten again with motion, the music

Will be motion and full of shadows. (CP 122)


"The Idea of Order at Key West" develops the full self-

reflexive powers inherent in this model. It is no longer the poet who

produces the scene of instruction. Now the woman possesses the

necessary attributes, so the male poet must learn to adapt to the

immanence she offers. And here there are no fantasies of orgies on a

summer morn, nor elaborate figures for aligning the emotions with

natural contexts. The poet's role is simply to listen. Yet his is an

active listening which locates within its own processes feelings that

in their dependence on a public scene take on the capacity to mediate

a "we" increasingly thickened through the poem's reflective processes.

It helps that the woman's song is not the laborious weaving of

fictions idealized in "To the One of Fictive Music" (CP 87-88) because

of their ability at once to "give ourselves our likest issuance," and

to preserve the "strange unlike" necessary for the defenses and

seductions of the ironist. The song at Key West does not create

images; it composes phenomena and adjusts its own intensities to the

place it occupies. Rather than take emotion from the sky, this voice

quickens our attention to a particular liminal moment when the sky in

its vanishing seems to return in and as her song. Therefore there is

no need for the singing to seek an authenticity within itself. It can

fulfill itself in defining a place for its own energies. And that

radically shifts the locale of poetic emotion from an absolute

inwardness difficult to express to a relational process continually

made visible. Expression now resides in the very processes of

adaption and directions of imaginative activity organized as the voice

engages its environs: expressive energies would be destroyed if the

poet turned in on himself unless he staged that turn as part of the

process of engagement.

The poem's last two stanzas develop the social implications

for this new model of inwardness. "Sunday Morning" had allowed no

interchange: the man spoke and the woman presumably listened in

frustrated acknowledgment. "The Idea of Order at Key West" also

supercedes the woman's perspective, but now in the service of what I

think is a plausible (and gender-neutral) sense of how art engages

communal concerns. The woman's song has no discernable contents. We

hear only about its effects; then we see the narrator trying to codify

those effects. Expression then is not primarily psychological, not a

matter of representing deep sources of emotion but of creating effects

through the song which establish how the auditors come to view their

own relation to what they hear. The locale of poetic emotion shifts

from a absolute inwardness incapable of expression to a relational

process continually made visible. That is why the speaker can

eventually turn from the song to the presence of a companion left

unmentioned until this point. He now needs this interlocutor, as do

we, because the song's magnifying power in relation to the scene has

created a strangely simple sublimity leading beyond the parameters of

individual self-reflection. Such a rush of feeling turns him to an

other person in the hope that the transformation of self has been

towards sociality rather than towards even deeper isolation. Sublimity

then invites a testing of community, a testing that confirms the power

of her expressive energy to provide relational terms around which

social bonds can form. Intensely experienced, these terms allow two

levels of sociality--one a momentary sense of community and the other

using the enhanced night scene to focus on more enduring powers

enabling that vision. So now that creative energy is not the

problematically held possession of any one subject. The understanding

between the speaker and Ramon becomes an exponential emblem for

several levels of transpersonal self-consciousness:


Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,

The maker's rage to order words of the sea,

Words of the fragrant portals, dimly starred,

And of ourselves and of our origins,

In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds. (CP 130)



Stevens general commitments as a poet would not change much

after this. But it is not general commitments that convince. Two

problems in "The Idea of Order at Key West" made it necessary for him

to do a good deal of work examining how the imagination carries this

relational force and analyzing the properties of the feelings that

make themselves visible as the mind adjusts to its situation. First,

the ideal of order itself seems in part a residue of the romanticism

Stevens is trying to escape. Why must the force that arranges,

deepens, and enchants night be cast primarily as an ordering

principle, especially since the ideal of order suggests modes of

closure that for Stevens belie the relational energies he wants to

celebrate? It makes sense to invoke ideals of order if one is

concerned primarily with the basic contrast between "meaningless

plungings of the water" (CP 129) and what the poet makes of the scene,

but that focus leaves the making itself a mystery, and perhaps a

monstrosity relative to that which it orders. So we arrive at the

second problem: relying on ideals of order will severely limit how we

can address these compositional energies because it tempts us to

locate them as ghostlier origins where there reside powers that cannot

be grasped by any descriptive stance. And then desire seems

intelligible only in metaphoric expressions, expressions whose

dependency on ideology makes inescapable the questions posed by the

final lines of "Cuisine Bourgeois":


Who, then, are they seated here?

Is the table a mirror in which they sit and look?

Are they men eating reflections of themselves? (CP 228)


These problems set the stage for "Man with a Blue Guitar,"

where Stevens shifts from constructing heroic figures exemplifying

imaginative power to concrete analyses of how this power creates the

effects of deepening night and of projecting ghostlier demarcations.

By turning from mediation to analysis he can begin to separate the

relational force of our investments from abstractions like the ideal

of order; he can be more responsive to the permissions and blockages

that occur as the mind circulates around those investments, especially

permissions that open new directions for imaginative work because they

locate teleological principles within the very effort to align the

sensibility to its situations; and he can develop specific linguistic

foci for internal relational dynamics allowing feeling to color the

world without displacing it into metaphor. All these effects then

make it possible to envision reconciling the solipsistic impulse with

the deepest levels of sociality because the poetry can be abstract

enough to reflect intimate levels of feeling which then take quite

diverse content.

It would be a mistake to argue that this recasting of the

relational imagination resolves the problem of reconciling mind and

world. The poem's achievment is more Wittgensteinian: rather than

resolve the problem, it gives us a general perspective from which to

dissolve the oppositions into a more fluid sense of interacting

movements shifting in and out of balance and serving a wide variety of

functions. The most important of these functions for Stevens' subsequent

work is a sense that the suplemental desire within relational moments

does not require an ironic stance because self-reflection reveals two

important teleological projections within this excess--one deepening

"the feelings to inhuman depths beyond the particulars (CP 191), the

other implicating us in the quest to identify with a more than human

giant fully articulating affirmative powers that go far beyond an

imperative to order.

The poem inaugurates these movements by replacing the ordering

work of sublime song with the relational play of a casual guitar:


The man bent over his guitar,

A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, "You have blue guitar,

You do not play things as they are."

The man replied, "Things as they are

Are changed upon the blue guitar."

And they said then, "But play you must,

A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar

Of things exactly as they are." (CP 165)


Such reflections entail changing the emphases of "The Idea of Order at

Key West" in three crucial registers. First, "Man with a Blue Guitar

shifts from a female agent to be meditated upon as a figure of the

sublime to a male agent immediately engaged in confrontational

dialogue. Whatever the imagination is, it will have to account for

itself in this public space and in this dialogical forum (even if the

dialogue is confined to a single mind). Second, this audience brings

an insistent demand: you must play a tune beyond us yet ourselves. So

the diverse contents of the guitar's music all contribute to two basic

social tasks: the playing must conform to the sense of reality the

audience has, and yet it must allow an idealization within that

reality which will project future possible identifications and

identities. Finally, the poem's own playing on "as" introduces what

will prove for Stevens a crucial means of dramatizing the concrete

relational forces linking the permutations of feeling to the

experience and projection of value. In effect the "as" becomes that

concrete part of ourselves capable of carrying tunes that both link

emotions to the world in a range of modalities and project through

that linkage paths for exploring other possible identities and

possible worlds.8


8 In my Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry I have

elaborated at some length what I take to be the four basic modalities

that the "as" governs. Here I hope to supplement that treatment by

showing how these modalities are not simply semantic operators to be

appreciated for the abstract self-reflexiveness they allow. We must

see the "as" as fundamental to a relational model of feeling, and

therefore we have a good example of the ways in which for Stevens the

most abstract reflections engage us in the most concrete and intimate

emotional dispositions.


The major challenge created by this poem emerges from the

radical implications of its governing metaphor. For if Stevens is be

true to the differences he claims from a symbolist poetics, he must

deny himself any generalizing integrative resolutions. Rather than

establish the significance of the guitar-player in the language of the

poet-observer or poet-composer, Stevens must make his own writerly

activity conform to the improvisational mode preferred by the

guitarist, yet his must be an improvisation capable of interpreting

what it makes possible. To achieve this Stevens treatsrelational

movement as a structural as well as a thematic principle: the poem's

meaning is the way in which it constantly negotiates the "composing of

senses of the guitar" (CP 68) as its moods and modes change. So this

negotiating becomes a balancing between an "I" that is "merely a

shadow" before a world that exceeds it and an "I" that destroys "the

crust of shape" to be purely itself in an Emersonian plenitude not

available within empirical experience.9 Since such movements prove

far too fluid and complex to take up here, I can dwell only on the

poem's climactic section, which focusses on the intricate tasks that

the "as" performs in such balancing acts. The "as" evokes our most

intimate feelings of adjustment, as they move between trying out ideas

and turning back on the modes of lyrical identity that become possible

as we reflect on what is expressed within the poem as well as in our



I am a native in this world

And think in it as a native thinks,

Gesu, not a native of mind,

Thinking the thoughts I call my own,

Native, a native in the world

And like a native think in it.

It could not be a mind, the wave

In which the watery grasses flow

And yet are fixed as a photograph,

The wind in which the dead leaves blow.

Here I inhale profounder strength

And as I am, I speak and move

And things are as I think they are

And say they are on the blue guitar. (CP 180)



9 I am aware that claims are regularly made about "The Man with a

Blue Guitar that stress its breaks from thematic argument and its

leaps into something like a Heidegerrean ontology. But it is

important that we see the same phenomena from the point of view of how

feelings are organized and allowed to influence formal matters.


The initial positioning here is tonally quite complex. The

poet asserts that he is a native, but from a considerable distance.

From that distance the initial positing of identity through the "as,"

requires the abstract predicate "native" to be repeated several times

and its various misleading associations defeated. Ultimately Stevens

sustains this claim for identity by trying to demonstrate that a

native thinks in the world rather than in the mind, but the struggle

is so imposing that this line of thinking cannot exemplify what it

thematizes. In order to become the native, the speaking voice must

work through some concrete contrasts defining what can then be

gathered by uses of the "as" far more intense and intimate than the

tautological expression "thinking as a native thinks." The basic

transition here beautifully marks the differences involved because the

"It" of "it could not be a mind" both repeats the referent of the

previous "it"--the world--and leaps forward to the images that the

mind uses to distinguish itself from the world. The world for the

native cannot be a mind because the fixed images that the mind imposes

as photographs of its embodiedness cannot compose an actual sense of

place. But at the same time, these images cannot really be mind

either, although they can be its products, because the mind is

constantly in action and not fixed as a photograph or a conduit for

dead leaves.

These different possible readings then become crucial for the

shift inward that occupies the final two stanzas. Where is "here," we

must ask. Our answer will not be able to propose any specific place.

That would entail too simple a model of what it means to be a native.

"Here" is the place in thinking won by reflecting on the poem's

contrasts to dead images. So the only way to locate that place

precisely is by elaborating the "as I am" in connection with the

profounder strength available in the air cleared by those contrasts.

In this air the condition of being a native involves a dynamic link

between thinking, being and saying, all captured in the equations

possible between "as I am" and "as I think they are." Now we can

understand being a native from the inside. It is not an attribute

linked to place, not an echo of Williams, but an attribute basic to a

particular intimacy of feeling, an intimacy best captured by poetry

when it makes the reader's acts of self-definition part of the very

process of taking a place in place. Ultimately that stationing of the

reader then introduces second-order possibilities for affirming that

which makes us accept such limitations.


Once Stevens becomes confident in this internal dynamics, he

takes on directly what "Esthetique du Mal" defines as the deepest

emotional problems facing his culture:


[He] That has lost the folly of the moon becomes

the prince of the proverbs of pure poverty.

To lose sensibility, to see what one sees,

As if sight had not its own miraculous thrift,

To hear only what one hears, one meaning alone,

As if the paradise of meaning ceased

To be paradise, it is this to be destitute.

... Yet we require

Another chant, an incantation, as in

Another and later genesis, music

That buffets the shapes of its possible halcyon... (CP 320-21)


Bound not merely to argue with its past but to dismantle its ways of

thinking, Modernism's culture of decreation leaves it the enormous

poverty of having no plausible positive language for desires that lead

beyond the most banal of satisfactions. Incantation seems merely

madness, so there is neither vehicle for idealization nor means of

satisfying the excess fundamental to our desires. That is why desire

is difficult to tell from despair. And that is why there is a second

correlative problem: our accounts of human motivation no longer

provide principles for incantation that connect idealization to the

projection of possible selves on which we stake our identities.

Stevens thinks he can address both problems by elaborating the

teleological dimensions that emerge as we watch feelings at once

attach to the real and project through it. For then the relational

qualities involved lead beyond particulars to possible second-order

visions of how we might affirm identities. Reason has failed to lead

beyond the poverty of describing our world in all its flatness. But

feelings open alternative paths because they position us in and

towards the world in modes that we cannot fix by names, while also

enabling us to characterize those events on levels deeper than

rational thought can provide because their relational qualities

constantly test who we become and what we pursue by virtue of our ways

of thinking. Thus it is no wonder that the climax of Stevens basic

pronunciamento, Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction turns obsessively on

the relation of unreason to reason. The setting for the poem is the

realization that for modern culture no particular doctrinal system can

successfully link its analytic project to a mode of idealization

applicable to social life because our disenchantment is so deep that

we will not agree on possible grounds capable of sustaining the

arguments. The claims become interests and the arguments manipulatory

devices. If that situation is to be changed, the arguments of the

philosopher must yield to the imaginative activity of testing possible

characters of the poet. Thus fictions are not arguments in a weaker

form; they are means of framing our being in the world so that we can

recognize certain features of who we are in how we think. In such

activity we locate a "sense" of possibility within the very processes

of disenchantment. Then particular poems can open quite different

paths of idealization, ranging from the sense of the elements

compromising love in " Montrachet le Jardin" to the feel for the force

of "singular," independent substance which Mount Chocurua comes to


Steven's figures for an exponential poetics provides the best

defense for these claims about unreason as reasoning "with a later

reason" because it affordsrich transitions between first-order and

second-order feelings, thus showing how the conditions of thinking

become inseparable from possibilities for willing, as hence how the

act of constructing is the most complete of acts because it

incorporates a feeling for the whole (for example, OP 273). We find

his best prose rationale for this model of feeling in his remarkable

"A Collect of Philosophy":


The philosopher's world is intended to be a world, which yet

remains to be discovered and which, at bottom, the philosophers

probably hope will always remain to be discovered and that the

poet's world is intended to be a world, which yet remains to be

celebrated. If the philosopher's world is this present world

plus thought, then the poet's world is this present world plus

imagination. If we think of the philosopher and the poet as

raised to their highest exponents and made competent to realize

everything that the figures of the philosopher and the poet, as

projected in the mind of their creator, were capable, or, in

other words, if we magnify them, what would they compose, by

way of fulfilling not only themselves but also by way of

fulfilling the aims of their creator (OP 199).


But we need Stevens' poetry in order to turn these questions into

literal affirmations of unreason. Let us go then to a moment in

"Credences of Summer" where the idealizing exponential force is

located in how the poet models his subject matter. Something "more

than visible" must make us experience the "visible announced," so

that as a "complex of emotions falls apart" there must be "another

complex..., not/ So soft" (CP 377), that will accompany "the successor

of the invisible":


This is the substitute in strategems

Of the spirit. This, in sight and memory,

Must take its place, as what is possible

Replaces what is not. (CP 376)


Reason cannot engage "what is not." The projecting of

possibility is by definition an unreason, an opening beyond the

categorical towards what we can measure only by reflecting on desire,

and hence on a process of articulating feelings and reacting to the

projected states of the subject which these articulations afford. The

articulations then set in motion the exponential process constituting

the new reason within our unreason because it is that process which

transforms "crude compoundings" into a "sense" of vital reality. That

"sense" is not mere recognition; it is willed attachment to an

irrational that becomes rational because the "I" can engage the

complex blend of asserting and describing that goes into saying "I

have not but I am and as I am, I am." The fiction that results from

feeling then proves itself by our attachment to what we can name in

its name (CP 404-06). So feelings manage both to attach us to the

world and to lead us beyond its facticity. Feelings bring the self to

life and to need, but the satisfactions they then offer become

temptations to other kinds of idealization, and hence of displacement.

To handle that threat we must shift from expounding ideas to

exploring the full exponential effects created by the second-order

work the feelings can be asked to perform within poetry. The most

efficient way I can do that is to return to a passage which my

Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry treated as

exemplifying the testimonial mode because there Stevens insists on

replacing claims that language makes on the world beyond it by an

emphasis on values demonstrated simply within the processes of reading

that the poem composes. Now I want to dwell on the progression of "as

if"'s within the passage in order to display the work feeling does in

defining possible idealizations and in giving readers terms for

assessment that bypass the entire edifice of argument:10


It is not an image. It is a feeling.

There is no image of the hero.

There is a feeling as definition.

How could there be an image, an outline,

A design, a marble soiled by pigeons?

The hero is a feeling, a man seen

As if the eye was an emotion,

As if in seeing we saw our feeling

In the object seen and saved that mystic

Against the sight, the penetrating,

Pure eye. Instead of allegory,

We have and are the man, capable

Of his brave quickenings, the human

Accelerations that seem inhuman. (CP 278-79)


The assertive mode depends entirely on hypotheticals, since by

definition we cannot know the object of the assertions. How then can

one support such confidence or get to emotions without images?

Stevens responds by developing analogies for the feelings which call

upon proprioceptive senses rather than specific objects, and thus

which try to locate empirical conditions for projecting heroism within

the emotions set in action by these hypotheticals. Both the content

and the form of the "as if" constructions require first seeing our

seeing as itself a charged activity, then recognizing that we can work

through to significant second-order feelings by refusing to let sight

be consumed by its objects. Second-order feelings place the object

within the frame afforded by the subject, as if all our seeing were in

the mode of "as if," the mode where we can measure who we become as we

see. Then with feeling so abstracted, and thereby made so concretely

a part of the activity of seeing, the poet can propose a clear

alternative to allegory. Where allegory is necessary to give

significance to objects of sight, the concluding lines here can locate

the significant idealization simply in self-reflection on what the

hypothetical emotions have brought to bear within the poem. And then

the entire mode of apprehending the poem becomes a demonstration of

what it claims about the hero. We can look beyond images to the

feelings that we bring to them, and we can find in the quickening that

occurs as we look precisely the expansiveness and sense of possible

lives that makes heroism possible. While the poem may not prove that

heroes exist now, it does make us recognize in ourselves desires and

needs which will not let us accept any lesser state. (Correlatively

the brilliant little quickenings created by letting "capable," then

"human" stand momentarily undefined at the end of sonorous lines

creates a demand on poetry that will not be satisfied by our

prevailing contemporary images of the poet.)


10 I cannot resist also making an argument on the basis of Stevens'

claims. We see his political relevance if we realize that the logic

here is one basic to any academic or theoretical movement that most go

beyond supporting the material interests of groups to making claims

about the nature of those interests. Take feminism as a test case.

In the political realm there is little need for an "idea" of woman.

It suffices to support various female interests that can be

empirically observed. But if one tries to make women the subject of

academic study, one needs not only the empirical facts about women's

interests but some idea of women that allows predicates explaining or

extending the nature of those interests. One cannot just point to

what women do; one must rationalize how that relates to why they act

and what they might best do next. However the demand for an "idea"

brings with it the inescapable problem of essentialism: ideas sort the

empirical and, for theories, provide relational structures for

propositions. So if one is to have the domain of the idea and resist

essentialism one needs even for radical movements the logic developed

in this very conservative passage.


Stevens'last step in responding to the crises of desire and of

maintaining idealizable aspects of motivation takes the form of

recontaining as idea what the second-order exponential poetics

dramatizes as act, in the poem and for the audience. It seems as if

he wants his last volumes not only to demonstrate a pragmatics of

affirmation but to test the possibility of secular religion as the

ultimate consequence of being able to reason "with a later reason."

In "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" this generalizing ambition took

the form of attempting to reconcile the three abstract imperatives

organizing the poem. Abstraction had to so open possible attitudes

toward change that change itself, or, better, the idea of change

itself, might provide a constant principle of pleasure. Imagining

that general condition, and exploring how one could explore the

feelings composed by such abstraction, then opened the way for the

reflective scope and the simplicity of resigned affirmation

characterizing his late poetry. Instead of delineating the various

fictions providing our parts within the world, Stevens could

increasingly focus his attention on how the individual imagines all

those parts forming a whole that contains him and that must be

affirmed if the particular parts are to have significant meaning.

Thus "Primitive Like and Orb" sets itself the task of

projecting a comprehensive poem that we grasp only at the margin of

lesser poems (CP 440). Yet if we imagine the thinking that informs

all of these poems, we can treat "each one, his fated eccentricity,/

As a part, but part ... of the giant of nothingness, each one,/ And

the giant ever changing, living in change" (CP 443). The giant takes

form from our thinking about the desires informing our eccentric

choices, and it becomes an emblem of the whole because we can

recognize ourselves desiring not only those eccentricities but the

conditions of affirmation that pervade them all, as if each could

desire the desire of all. This is why a sense of history proves

inseparable from both projecting the giant and taking on Nietzsche's

criteria of eternal return as the most demanding test for second order



... Yet the sense

Of cold and earliness is a daily sense,

Not the predicate of bright origin. ...

... To re-create, to use

The cold and earliness and bright origin

Is to search. Likewise to say of the evening star,

The most ancient light in the most ancient sky,

That it is wholly an inner light, that it shines

From the sleepy bosom of the real, re-creates,

Searches a possible for its possibleness. (CP 481)


Stevens then proposes three basic ways of engaging this sense

of possibleness. The first is an epigram whose concision is

inseparable from its scope, from its affirming the total condition it



The romance of the precise is not the elision

Of the tired romance of imprecision.

It is the ever-never-changing same,

An appearance of Again, the diva-dame. (CP 353)


The second, concluding one of his longest poems proposes a

synthetic abstraction in which feelings become particles whose

simple motion takes on direction because of the desire elicited by the

images of desire:


These are the edgings and inchings of final form,

The swarming activities of the formulae

Of statement, directly and indirectly getting at,

Like an evening evoking the spectrum of violet,

A philosopher practicing scales on his piano,

A woman writing a note and tearing it up.

It is not in the premise that reality

Is a solid. It may be a shade that traverses

A dust, a force that traverses a shade. CP 488)


And finally there is the eliding of scope into radical concentration

that characterizes the best of Stevens' last poems, like "To An Old

Philosopher in Rome," "A Quiet Normal Life," "The World as Meditation"

and "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour, with its intense

rendering of a mode of dwelling in which Heidegger's house of being is

transformed into the simple realization of being there together, the

"we" of "Idea of Order at Key West" inseparable from pure self-



None of these last poems need discussion here--that is part of

their strength. But I do want to turn to one more poem, written a

little earlier, in order to address the difficulty that most obviously

continues to haunt what I am saying: what difference does this

essay's way of looking at feeling make for our aesthetic pleasure in

Stevens's work and, more generally, for our understanding of possible

lyrical feelings not bound to a romantic emotional economy. By

treating feeling so abstractly and philosophically, have I not turned

it into idea, without remainder or excess. I like to think not. On

the simplest level, one could recall how the poems we have been

considering treat as feelings both linguistic operators for linking

ideas and the ways the mind uses those links to shift into sudden

fluency, or adjust tonally to failed or altered expectations (as in CP

413), or hover on the edge of sense as it reaches towards some beyond,

a beyond that at its most terrifying becomes the form of death defined

by "Owl in the Sarcophagus." So feeling is inseparable from Steven's

relational thinking. But what force can such feeling have? And what

relationship does the feeling have to action? These are much harder

questions. In my Painterly Abstraction in Modern American Poetry I

argued for the political force of the transpersonal features that

Stevens makes so intimate, and clearly the more we connect those

features to the feelings, the more we can appreciate their possible

effect on political fealties. But here I want to face the deeper

issue of how Stevens manages to face the slippages and potential

ironies that attend any effort at affirming explicitly thematized

values. So I shall focus on "Bouquet of Roses in Sunlight" (CP 430-

31), a poem extraordinarily sensitive to ironic slippages between

mind, will, and world, even as it uses testimonial strategies in order

to make its own plain style a sufficient means for affirming the

mind's counter-pressure to the pressure of modern reality.

The poem's first two stanzas insist on a crude actuality in

the bouquet that makes "lesser things" of any imagining we bring to

its colors or any metaphors we attribute to its force. But because

this actuality cannot be confused with objectivity we need the rest of

the poem:


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.


It is tempting to locate the imaginative force of the poem in its

display of the ironist's refusal to accede to that actuality. After

all, all the ironist's skills are on display, from the intricate pun

on lies to the final plays on seeming. Yet the poem also clearly

reaches beyond the irony, as if the most irony could do is qualify

sense so that there can be a completing of a man's momentary truth,

and beyond that, so there can be a sense of sense and of lying still

as lucid preparations for death. On the level of content this sense

of completeness requires coming to terms with sense as our only

reality, as well as the realization that the giant consists simply

in the awareness that change itself so opens the process of meaning

that we come to see it as the steady container of who we are as users

of language, that is as dwellers in this seeming beyond the touch of


However as soon as one asks why one should take these contents

seriously, it becomes clear that to accept the reality of a giant not

the opponent of change but its affirmation we must shift from feelings

basic to the drama of ideas that the poem discusses to feelings basic

to the specific enactment of those ideas within the poem. Then the

flow of language described thematically becomes also the carrier of

possible feelings that are distinctive for their eloquent directness.

Aesthetically this invitation suggests that we ask how that language

modifies our sense of the capacities of poetry, and hence of the

powers that readers can evoke. It seems as if we participate in

what for Stevens is the ultimate secularization of lyric: song grows

inseparable from the plain, fluent movement of meaning, (from the

seaming of seeming), and we shift entirely from the romantic

expressive "I" back to a generic persona who, nonetheless, engages the

audience's most intimate concerns. Then similar second-order

emotional engagements allow us to draw philosophical implications from

that aesthetic disposition. Locating lyrical effulgence within

direct, self-reflexive statement provides a perfect example of how the

relational view of feeling becomes a significant basis for sustaining

an exponential model of value. From this perspective the drama in

the poem stems from the need to tease out from perception the excess

that makes "sense" the only adequate measure of the real while at the

same time confining the excess to a language that can carry the

emotional truth of those investments without relying on the displacing

effects of metaphor. Thus we need the puns on lies in order to

challenge our understanding of poetic language: we participate in a

process of transforming lies into a completing of truth simply by how

the flow of sense engages the constant pressure of change. Once again

the "as" provides the basic operator, since it offers a model of

relationship continuously generating modal changes and yet

establishing an overall frame we see we can maintain as the condition

of making investments in what changes and in taking pleasure because

of our relationship to those investments. Then we can put the same

point in more general terms. Tracking the lies which give sense to a

person's situation becomes the vehicle for affirming a completing of

truth. And reflecting on that link between lies and truth establishes

the possibility of "sense" extending the way we feel into the way we

will. Sense resists metaphor in the service of the feelings that can

fluently adapt themselves to the flow of meaning, as if it were in the

full willing of that flow that one actually achieved the completeness

we could call truth for a singular individual. Completeness then

takes two forms. The subject must identify with the light as it

changes; and the subject must affirm a participation in change that

affords identification with a collective "as we are."

But why is Stevens not lying, or at least not indulging in the

rhetorician's touch? The best answer resides in the feelings created

by the poem's reflective movement. This process seems entirely

transparent, even though that transparency is not based on

description. The transparency is one of sense, not of reference.

Sense suffices to establish a remarkable testimonial relation between

what is asserted by the language and what is accomplished in the

reading of it as it resists both metaphor and the rhetorician's touch.

Sense here literally moves from perception, to the negation of

metaphor, to the intricate self-reflexive flow which seems to earn its

"we" simply by the feelings it creates in the using. Because "we"

participate directly in what the final half of the poem refers to (by

contrast to the relying on illusory references in the treatment of the

bouquet), "we" can understand how a sense of shared identity is won by

capturing in the direct fluencies of language the fundamental feeling

of change as sense seeks its satisfactions. Therefore while all

"we"'s are matters of seeming, not all seemings are illusions. The

seemings that thread our affective discourse define the "difference

that we make in what we see" (CP 344) and thus become the simple

theater where our deepest feelings of privacy provide terms for a

shareable public life.