45C Lectures [C. Altieri]


Curriculum Vita

Visual aids


Link not working? please e-mail Darrend Brown


Intentionality as Sensuality in Harmonium

                                                                                               Charles Altieri

                                                                                                English Department

                                                                                                UC Berkeley

                                                                                                Berkeley CA 94720-1030


            Having been asked to compare Wallace Stevens’ early poetry with his later work, I found myself eager to write about what I thought were innovative aspects of Harmonium that Stevens was later to reject entirely. These innovations seem to me to establish a relation to philosophy drastically different from the efforts in his later work at explicitly thematizing what self-consciousness produces, and so they hold out the possibility of an avant-garde Stevens much less assimilable to humanist ideals than is the aging wisdom figure. [1] Discussing this relationship brings to the fore some basic contrasts in ways that lyrics render subjective states. And exploring those differences provides what I hope are significant ways of attributing a distinctive philosophical heft to the opening poems of Harmonium, a sequence that I think brilliantly flaunts traditional expectations about lyric agency.

Let us work our way back to early Stevens from the highly self-conscious efforts at philosophical poetry we find in later works like “Ordinary Evening in New Haven” or “Prologues to What is Possible.” Late Stevens offers a good deal of discursive meditation, but the poems do not comprise arguments. Nor are they in any sense impersonal constructions inviting distance from a socially contextualized speaker. Rather philosophy depends on making the lyric agent transparent and representative in its capacities to make value coincide with fact:

Only recently I spoke of certain poetic acts as subtilizing experience and

varying appearance … . A force capable of bringing about fluctuations in

reality in words free from mysticism is a force independent of one's desire

to elevate it. It needs no elevation. It needs only to be presented, as best

one is able to present it (The Necessary Angel p. viii).

Being a philosophical poet does not entail doing the work philosophers do. Poets do not propose and develop specific theses. Rather their emphasis is on pursuing the implications of their investments in “bringing about fluctuations in reality” with words. Poetry simultaneously manifests an ability to make visible the life of mind in its most intimate exchanges with the world and to construct a way of speaking making it possible to identify with the energies of those acts of mind without imposing on the world anything mystical or mystified. The poet wants an intensified sense of what the name indicates, and his or her audience wants an intensified sense of our powers as users of such names.

Harmonium is a very different enterprise. It is a strange philosophical poet indeed who does not introduce a reference to an "I" until the volume's seventh poem and who treated everything putatively human as if it were merely a figure in some flattened and opaque quasi-allegory. Imagine William James or Josiah Royce or George Santayana, the major philosophers of Stevens' Harvard education, sanctioning a philosophical position in which there are no dramatic speaking situations or efforts at self-understanding until the volume arrives at the speaking presence who offers "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle." And here, when we do get drama, we find even more irony and distance than we did in the flattened allegories, perhaps because what had been experiments in impersonal distance now become renderings of how distant even personality can become from its own immediate needs and desires.

These contrasts with later Stevens require our asking why the younger poet was so insistently unyielding toward traditional modes of attaching persons to their reflective lives? The most ready answers take negative form since we can easily speculate on why these poems might refuse to provide certain kinds of satisfactions. It seems as if Stevens' desire to address modernity required his overtly rejecting even the desire to identify with the self-reflexive attitudes fostered by romanticism as ideals of poetic thinking. As Andre Salmon put it, the new emerging modernism in art "set apart the men who were beginning to look at themselves 'on every side at once' and thus learning to scorn themselves" (In Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art, p. 204). For the young Stevens the conventional meditative roles he would later assume would have seemed absurdly humanistic. The young poet would doubtless have admired the lush inventiveness of his later avatar. But all the subtlety of the later poems would not have compensated for the embarrassing coda to Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, the awkward abstraction of Owl’s Clover, and the somewhat mawkish idealizing of “Examination of the Hero in a Time of War.” It would have seemed that the appeals of being able to assume the mantle of wisdom could not compensate for running the risk of preserving deeply ingrained cultural structures allowing humans to think well of themselves even as they blinded themselves to everything alien and alienating that confronts consciousness.

Irony offered one way of evading those structures since it could deflate the identifications promised by philosophical meditation. But irony could not build on this scorn. An ambitious poetry would have to use these negatives as means of establishing new modes of lyric reflection better attuned to those points at which self-disgust modulates into fictions worth exploring for the positive energies they make available. If the negative could make ideals flutter, lyric intensity might give new vitality to the shades and shadows created by that fluttering. This seems to me one plausible framework for interpreting the sensualism usually attributed to Harmonium. Steven’s resistance to idealization required his poetry to focus more intently than it was accustomed on the very processes of taking in the sensuous information usually ignored by our conceptual habits. That orientation allowed one to pay attention to what makes the psyche flutter. Then one might encounter "gusty emotions on wet roads on autumn nights" (CP 67) that were too elemental for idealization; and one might be able to dwell without irritable reaching for ideals by which to interpret the compelling forces created by lyric rhythm and aural density. Such commitments might make poetry matter not because of how it pursues or celebrates belief but because of how it manages to hold off the temptation to impose belief on sensation and all that binding the imagination to sensation might elicit. And Stevens might matter as a poet because he could exemplify what happens when poetry accepts the imperative that whatever art might claim for spirit has to be based on a radical commitment to the primacy of the senses. The very critique of mysticism that would shape his subsequent philosophical ambitions could in Harmonium be experienced as a demand to let the imagination pursue the pleasures of refusing to let philosophy control how sensation released imaginative energies. The opening section of Harmonium then has as its fundamental ambition the desire to map modes of investing in imaginative energies whose basic claim upon us is their resistance to inherited modes of idealization.


It is crucial that for Stevens this new orientation did not make him content with the rendering of heightened sensation--for many modernists the basic error of impressionism was its so confining artistic ambitions. He was not a straightforward materialist envisioning consciousness fulfilled if it could get free to represent only what the senses register about the world. Fascination with the senses helped him realize how difficult it is, and how exhilarating it is, to link these senses to the forces language brings to bear, especially when one's ambitions for poetry demand finding some way of continuing to honor the imaginative energies that typically go into self-idealization. So Stevensian sensualism takes as its primary role forcing consciousness to recognize its own tenuous hold on states and processes for which it cannot successfully impose interpretations but also upon which it cannot stop imposing projections. As Stevens suggests by having his criticism of Williams' anthropomorphism occur so early in this volume, the best way to appreciate the senses is to attempt identifications with their resistance to the poets’ metaphors.

Once we allow ourselves to participate in these apparently negative energies, we also enter a space where it makes sense to yield ourselves to forms of constructive energy that ride these sensual possibilities. As our heavenly labials are undone, we at least come to see what it might like to be a giant. Perhaps there can be structures that fully engage the mind precisely because they yield to modes of linkage for which the mind has no categories and no pre-set expectations. This is where poetry’s lushness comes in. It provides a locus for those aspirations the psyche can pursue when it turns away from the need to provide imaginary representations of its desires. And as those aspirations find possible satisfactions, the energies that go into identification can be rerouted, as can the desperate need to make sense of experience. Perhaps making as an extension of sense can replace making sense as a cognitive enterprise. And as the psyche finds satisfactions that do not lead back to identifications as a meditative or lyric poet, it can become fascinated by something close to an

inhumanity at the core of its investments in the flesh. So when the opening poems in Harmonium turn to the romantic vision of the imagination approaching theophany, the most they allow themselves is an identification with the figure of an aesthete god observing the sacrificial labors undertaken by Ursula and her virgins:

And he felt a subtle quiver,

That was not heavenly love,

Or pity. (CP 22)

Poetry's job is to build on this "not" so that we glimpse what scepticism can propose as not entirely ironic transcendental belief. Then poem after poem confronts the corollary of this “not,” the constant reminder that to be flesh is to be doomed to mortality. But a sharp awareness of this mortality also brings with it the challenge that we make that sensation itself the impetus for lyrical expansiveness.


It is tempting at this point to go directly to a reading of this opening sequence. But were we to do that, I fear we would have only a series of commentaries without a sufficient organizing thread. So to establish that thread I want first to propose a general model for characterizing Stevens’ early experiments, then to test the model in relation to the volume’s opening sequence. We have seen that we cannot treat the poems as representative acts of a responsible reflective subject trying to express in language what gives significance to specific qualities of personal experience. These poems present an emphatic challenge to those cultural assumptions which tempt us to seek an organizing narrative or the corollary figure of an expressive agent exploring how its psyche adapts to a range of dramatic situations. Yet while the poems share much with the ironic side of Eliot’s enterprise, it cannot suffice to treat Harmonium as seeking Eliotic impersonality or as rendering ironically modulated dramatic speakers. I think we have to treat the poems as intensely immediate in their psychology, but immediate in strange ways for which we lack the appropriate vocabulary. Clearly we cannot pursue the expectation that finding relations among these poems will lead us to a richer understanding of the authorial agent whose efforts at self-understanding shape both the poems and their relations to each other. While these poems are decidedly “about” the needs and powers we can attribute to consciousness, they are just as decidedly not “about” a specific person struggling to make sense of his particular life history and present social situation.

So can we use a languge of “aboutness” at all? Must we treat these poems as singular constructs or can we see them as closely linked elements within a cogent and provocative experimental enterprise with its own way of giving a philosophical dimension to lyric agency? One possible response is to ask whether we can envision a version of agency that need not be connected directly to the presence of an expressive subject seeking to transform personal immediacy into representative forms of self-reflection. Perhaps we can do that if we make a somewhat artificial but useful sharp distinction between the kind of reading that locates expressivity in a speaker’s intentions and one that is content to deal with the expressive force as an aspect of the mode of intentionality it constructs, without implying any needy and ultimately self-congratulatory presence underlying how the experience is formulated. Harmonium’s opening lyrics become experiments in foregrounding versions of intentionality that can stand in themselves as states of agency while refusing to allow the modes of recuperation we employ when we pursue intentions. An emphasis on intentionality may be able to how how poetry can subsume the person within the disposition of consciousness that it renders. We can then speak of the structure of the opening segment of the volume in terms of how each of these modelings of consciousness need supplements and adjustments if the sequence as a whole is to respond to the sense of challenge Stevens saw in the need to make lyric poetry adequate to twentieth century realities.

Now, however, I have to define intentionality in a way that enables us to preserve this sense of purposiveness without projecting on that purposiveness overt authorial intentions and expressive projects. So I will seek the help of Richard Wollheim, a philosopher I find unfailingly clear and helpful in distinguishing various aspects of mental life. He defines intentionality as that aspect of a mental phenomenon which captures and preserves “not just what the thought is of, or its object, but how the thought presents its object” (Thread of Life, p. 35). When we attend to intentionality we cannot “be indifferent between saying … ‘Tom would like the author of the pamphlet brought to trial’ and ‘Tom would like his brother brought to trial” (35). Intentions have to be represented in the form of intensional rather than extensional statements. Their reference is opaque: we cannot take the statement to refer to all the objects that fit the asserted proposition, but only to the specific features within the proposition that are the agent’s actual thought content. (If Tom’s brother were the author, then extensionally the statements would be identical but intensionally they are different because Tom was intending only the author and not thinking about his brother.)

When we turn to Stevens’ early poetry as our topic, I think we need preserve only the spirit of Wollheim’s distinction. We can locate the source of the opaqueness of reference not in what some person intends but in how a particular utterance evokes a particular relation to the world because of how it disposes the intending mind. “Intentionality” need refer only to that orientation of consciousness by which a situation becomes this situation for a particular point of view. [2] Then we can see that while concerns for intention lead us to focus on what an agent might be trying to express, concerns for intentionality focus our attention on how consciousness is structured and affect explored in bringing about the sense of “this situation.” Correlatively, the emphasis on how situations are composed brings with it a complex set of questions about the projected satisfactions that elicit the particular orientation and the actual satisfactions that explain why it persists. With works of art we have to ask why we might care as we engage a sensibility taking up a certain disposition toward the world? What kinds and qualities of affective investments become possible by virtue of occupying particular intentional positions? Then the volume as a whole can deal on a second-order level with how the range of intentional positions can be seen as weaving consciousness into the world and so enabling a particular range of possible identifications. The volume must provide the sense of context that we conventionally derive from projections about expressive intentions.

These links between intentional states and possible identifications are important in all aspects of life, but they seem to me especially pressing concerns for poets of Stevens’ generation. For these poets seemed always forced to engage both the particular structure of lyric investments and the constant general pressure of justifying to themselves identifications staging themselves as genuinely modernist. Yet lyric has very little to recommend it as a means of responding to such cultural demands because it usually cannot rely on argument or analysis or even the elaboration of fantasy for its effectiveness. That is why those seeking its power may have had to do so in ways that evade the person and seek a direct manifestation of what lyric can produce. Were poets to rely on narratives about how individual intentions were shaped, they would find it very difficult to avoid the dominant cultural order, an order that obviously reinforced the very conventions on every level that modernism wanted to unsettle and transform. Narrative accounts of selves were fundamental to that order: narrative sustained roles and identifications continuous with the dominant practices. But putting all one’s reflective energies into the articulation of intentional states enabled one to treat lyrics as pure moments for engaging aspects of the world and of seeing how consciousness might be altered by its efforts to draw out what it could from such moments. On such a basis poets might be able to pursue identifications that could satisfy the psyche at its most intense without subjecting it to conventional forms of life ill-suited to such intensities. Dominant culture has substantial interests in poets making the kinds of simple identifications that find satisfaction simply in the fact one is functioning as a poet and so demonstrating a certain kind of approved sensitivity. There might be a certain frisson possible within this marginal mode of production, but the frisson was part of the licensing by which society maintained its authority. Fully embracing modernity required pursuing quite different modes of identification, modes based not on the role “poet” but on the sense of embracing a task whose practical consequences had yet to be defined.


I have spent considerable time blithely making assertions as if I could be sure that everyone reads Stevens as I do, so that there is no need to provide evidence for my claims. And indeed I am not sure that evidence will persuade anyone not already leaning toward this kind of interpretation. But just for the aesthetics of it, it is worth now trying to indicate concretely how Stevens' opening poems are structured to establish the challenges to which I have persuaded myself these remarks are responding.

Is there a stranger opening poem to a volume of poetry than "Earthy Anecdote"? It seems that to enter this volume we have to be willing to place ourselves in this spare allegorical space, with all dramatic and personal details suppressed as irrelevant. We are offered neither a clear speaker nor a dramatic context. There is only a troublingly distanced perspective before which there unfolds an apparently timeless and very flat scenario. The poem seems both a revelation and test--a revelation of a logic fundamental to imagination and a test of what one might go on to see if one were willing to persist in the inhuman mode of seeing required by the poem. Whatever the bucks represent--probably the working of the imagination--seems both dependent on and inevitably blocked by the unyielding resourcefulness of the firecat. The scene seems to allow for no hope of change or fulfillment. But its spareness allows consciousness to persist without lament or self-pity. In fact the poem seems to present a challenge to try on its disciplined mode of seeing so that one might shift from whining about powerlessness to being able to share a fascination with the cat's ultimate self-absorption. Allegory itself then serves less to interpret the world than to facilitate a relation to it not available if we insist on decoding meanings. Allegory makes it possible to identify with the cat’s narcissistic repose because even if we do not know quite what it represents we know that it stems from successful resistance to everything the buck’s come to symbolize. In this case the quasi-allegory even justifies the distant, inhuman writerly presence that carries the intentional focus of the poem. How else might we position ourselves to heed those aspects of human life that are subjected to forces beyond our control?

The rest of the volume's opening sequence explores what becomes possible if consciousness pursues this fascination with strange perspectives.

There is no drama of self-expression and no reach toward "profound" thematic resolutions. Yet these refusals are not without a sense of new permissions. The poems invite us to try out a form of participation that has no clear ethical correlates and no obvious way of reaching beyond what the senses activate.

Once "Earthy Anecdote" has defined the imagination's dilemma in relation to reality, it seems perfectly plausible to attempt directly addressing the soul, if only in terms of its relation to whatever in us aligns us with the bland motions of ganders all too well adjusted to their realities. Then as soon as the soul makes its entrance, it seems that the volume has to find a way of addressing the body within the same reductive abstract perspective. But for Stevens, introducing the body also requires introducing gender differences. Thus the volume turns to four poems on different aspects of the feminine as a framing of the sensual world. The last of these, "Infanta Marina" so thoroughly links body with the motions of mind and the uttering of subsiding sound that it enables the volume to introduce a speaking lyric “I,” now accessible in "Domination of Black" as an elemental force, teased out by the play of sound, color, and motion. [3] Stevens’ lyric poetry will eventually need the "I," but thanks to this sequence its "I" can be much more fully a matter of relations among the senses than romantic ambitions had allowed.

With "Domination of Black," two further expansions become possible. First, this "I" seems to bring together the abstract soul and the “feminine” body given substance by its ways of inhabiting flux. There seems to be no deep motive beyond the evocative power of the specific situation, and so no sense that the expressive agent must dig deeply within to call up a responding self.

Harmonium's first "I" is as elemental as its "soul" or its "bucks" seeking to escape the firecat. And it is as intensely sensual as the sense of a pine tree sweetening the body. But here that sensuality occupies a threshold between what the colors and sounds make present and what they articulate as a cause of fear and memory. The present takes on intensity less because of sensual vividness than because of the sharpening of the second-order engagement produced by attention to what the scene withholds at its horizons. The fullness of sensual apprehension seems inseparable from some fundamental lack that the peacocks register because they are so deeply responsive to the contrast between the turning leaves and the immobile hemlocks.

Second, this reconciliation of abstract soul and “feminine" body is by no means a conventional one. Body and soul are living out a kind of bad marriage in which each haunts the other. No wonder then that it will take three more poems engaging these elements before a recognizable speaker emerges. "The Snow Man" tries an entirely different direction. Instead of dwelling on sensibility immersed in oppressive physical detail, this poem explores what power can be mustered by pursuing as abstract a version of intentionality as possible. We are asked to test the possibility of a quite different kind of sensuality located in the shaping force of the poem’s single intricate sentence. Can syntax provide sensuality for something like pure negation? Playful allegorical space and flattened detail become the instruments for a new synthetic power that is philosophical precisely because it refuses all imperatives for argument and for self-congratulation. Here poetry manages to shift from its newly found "I" to the composing of a "one" able to reflect directly on its constructive powers. In effect what had been the work of rhythm now takes on semantic force. And we find in this capacious sentence a minimalist giant able to resist those "heavenly labials in a world of gutturals," and therefore perhaps also able to confront directly the horror of death that accompanies fascination with the unknowable.

But poetry will not be confined to marmoreal structures, however elegant and capacious. The feminine returns, first through women rising from poverty to "puissant speech" giving resonance to the endless "insinuations of desire." Then, with "The Load of Sugar Cane," the feminine becomes as abstract and as elemental as the mind of winter. Where silent immobility had been, now there is a marvelous sense of the clausal and phrasal connectives in language bringing all of nature into conjunction with the sudden emergence of the boatman's red turban. All of nature seeks this possibility of the pure event of emergence.

In this context we are in a position to appreciate why when “Le Monocle de mon Oncle” presents the volume’s first contextualized human speaker, it has to be so wary and so intricate about how expression is possible. This speaker must offer itself as an expressive and purposive agent. But how can it do so with the volume’s awareness of how mobile and insubstantial (or differently substantial) subjective agency is? Selves seem to arise unbidden. But the speaker persists in an effort to take responsibility for his situation, emboldened in large part by the pleasures of language that each version of the self affords the speaking. The “I” seems always on the verge of seeming a mere construct necessitated by his fear that without that projection he would have even less touch with his immediate situation, especially with the insistent “you” who must be addressed. Here then the volume finds its way back to the miseries of traditional lyric cries, but now with a better sense of both the defensive and the self-reflexive resources that emerge when one can speak of one’s tears as the expression of "some saltier well/ Within me" (CP 13). The “I” has to recognize its bondage to elemental forces that require our turning ironically against our own lyrical impulses. But that turn itself opens significant lyric possibilities that hover around our awareness of the limits of the expressive ego. In producing a lyric “I” for the volume, “Monocle de Mon Oncle” also establishes a mode of intentionality capable of dealing with the distances that emerge when we recognize how the “I” is not a site in which we can reside very comfortably: “I never knew/ That fluttering things have so distinct a shade” (CP 18). It is not expressive meanings that are distinct but shades and shadows, the senses inseparable from the imaginative projections they implicate at their margins.


Why then would Stevens abandon this radical poetics? One possible reason is that he thought the emphasis on sensation and the related world of fluttering things simply could not sustain his ambitions to make a difference in how people viewed their lives. The final poems of Harmonium deliberately remind us of how limited a world this perspective allows, even as they brilliantly celebrate a form of speaking that is intimately linked with experience on the level of the sheerly visual metaphor and the syllable. Or it might be the case that Stevens needed a different set of possibilities for self-projection. Leading a life in which poetry had to be hidden may have required from within his isolation projections of something more grandiose than the ambitions to bring language and sensation into marvelously close contact. Whatever the case, it would be silly to lament the philosophical poet Stevens became. But it would be even sillier not to honor the quite different mode of philosophizing that makes Harmonium still perhaps the most innovative challenge in American poetry to conventional ways of thinking about lyric speech.

Bibliography: Works Cited

Perloff, Marjorie. 21st Century Modernism. Oxford: Blackwells, 2002.

Salmon, Andre. In Herschel Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art, p. 204).

Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poems. New York: Knopf, 1954.

-------, --------------. The Necessary Angel,

Wollheim, Richard. The Thread of Life. New Haven: Yale, 1999.

[1] Although I had completed much of this argument before I read her book, I want to note a strange affinity between my praise of early Stevens and the praise of pre-war avant-garde Eliot in Marjorie Perloff’s intriguing 21st Centruy Modernism.

[2] All poems can be interpreted as modes of intentionality for which the work itself models the intention and dictates the opaqueness conditions. But most poems link that orientation making a this of a that to a specific expressive agent-speaker, literal or ironic. Early Stevens emphatically denies that particular way of grounding consciousness and its investments.

[3] The particular speakers in “The Plot Against the Giant” use the first person, but that speaking is not linked to the role of the maker or underlying intentional presence in the same way that it is in “Domination of Black.”