Wallace Stevens: seeing to the core

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''Poetry,'' wrote Wallace Stevens, ''is the subject of the poem.'' In no other statement does he seem so much a man of his age. If the sixteenth century thought poetry should hold a mirror to nature, and the nineteenth century felt it should celebrate the liberated self, the twentieth century (into which Stevens plunged when he was not quite twenty-one) wrote poems about poetry: about the way language itself composes the world around us.

Nor were the poets alone. For if ever there were a zeitgeist, a spirit of the time moving all the arts in a similar direction, it manifested itself during the first few decades of our century in a drift away from artistic statements about the world around us and toward a deep probing of the very structure of art itself. Nothing new, perhaps: one can argue that the finest of Shakespeare's plays--A Midsummer Night's Dream, say, or The Tempest--are really studies in the way words work to create the very fantasy upon which poetic drama thrives. One can observe how, in the finest of Rembrandt's portraits or El Greco's landscapes , the features seem less important for their slavish copying of nature than for their compositions of line and mass and color into powerful design. But it took the experiments of Cubism, and its counterparts in the lean and exploded verse of the poets we now think of as ''modern,'' to wrench away the last vestiges of ''representational'' art. What remained was sheer design. The design had always been there, binding together the poems of Milton as surely as the paintings of Constable. But in the twentieth century it became paramount. It became, itself, the subject. The painting with heavy brush-strokes and bare spots of canvas, the play staged, without costumes and with the lights in full view, the poem in rough meter and off-rhyme, full of words describing language--the veil had been rent, showing for all the world to see an inner sanctum full of machinery. The audience, seeing how art ticked, was fascinated by the ticking.

Or part of the audience. The rest left quietly. For if the modern poets transformed (as Marshall McLuhan would say) the medium into the message, they also winnowed the audience down to a handful of esoteric devotees. No longer was art a matter of standard sentiments fitly placed together according to established rules. It became a thinker's trade: and where once the critic had been a pleasant adjunct to the artist's world, he now became an indispensable guide, a Virgil to the reader who, like Dante, wandered between infernal depths and paradisiacal heights, wondering what on earth was going on.

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Wallace Stevens, maker of mazes, was also a kind of a critic. His task, developed in poems rather than prose, was to articulate something of philosophy--to rethink the place of poetry in the world, to probe the margins of reality, to find life and art shaded into one another. In the first stanza of the long and songlike intricacies of ''The Man with the Blue Guitar'' (1937) he laid out the challenge: The man bent over his guitar, A shearsman of sorts. The day was green. They said, ''You have a 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.''

The blue guitar is the medium of art. The challenge: to reproduce reality, or ''things as they are,'' without changing them as they pass through the medium. The audience--we the readers, the ''they'' of the poem--demand the impossible: a ''tune,'' or artistic creation, of ''things exactly as they are.''

Maybe Stevens was uniquely fitted to explore this challenge. Dylan Thomas, E. E. Cummings, Hart Crane, William Butler Yeats--to a great extent the other major poets of his age--lived wholly for their art, absorbing themselves in it. Not so Stevens, who for most of his creative life was a vice-president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in Connecticut. Earning a pleasant salary, he lived modestly, scorning the penury and excesses of his more Bohemian confreres. But he kept his poetry and his business quite separate. Columbia University professor William York Tindall, traveling up to Hartford to talk with some of Stevens's closest colleagues at the office, recalled the astonished outburst of one: ''What!? Wally a poet?''

But in that very separation, perhaps, was the stuff of his art. He knew, intimately, two worlds--and, unlike many poets, refused to take for granted the primacy of art over dailiness. In ''The Snow Man,'' reprinted here, his anti-romantic sensibilities stand in strong contrast to the more conventional art-above-all attitudes of earlier poets. It is a simple point he makes: that only if one has a mind like that of a snowman can one be so united with winter as to hear no ''misery in the sound of the wind.'' Winter, after all, is simply winter; misery is a human emotion, quite apart from the season but fastened upon it by mere human convention. To listen--to hear what is there, to see it clearly without the intruding lens of poetic rearrangement--is to discover reality. Only those at one with their surroundings can see ''Nothing that is not there'' (in other words, only what really exists) and assess it correctly as ''the nothing that is''--as the elemental nothingness of what humankind calls reality. Only with ''a mind of winter'' is one equally insulated from romantic visions of reality and from a flat and depressing sense of blankness.

And who is the snowman? In one sense, he is both poet and reader. Yet he is ''nothing himself,'' a figment of water, having no shape without the coldness that gives him form. Separated from his environment, he would melt into an amorphous mass--like the words of poems, perhaps, broken up into their letters and put back into the printer's font. Shape, structure, form, these are the characteristics upon which our perception of reality depend. Without them, the beholder is no different from that which he beholds. Yet the beholder, to be successful, must be no different. Art, because it sets up that difference, always distorts the reality it would behold--even as this very poem is, ultimately, a distortion.

Deep stuff, this, for all its apparently simple language. Sobering? Yes; but also stirring, humbling, enigmatic. It stands porter against the incursions of romanticism. For Stevens seems to have known his own weakness, known that he could be astonishingly lush, dazzling the page with wild excesses of language. That was his blue guitar, jangling in flamenco outburst. The snowman was its remedy, the reminder that art, after all, is simply a way of seeing, and that what mattered was the reality beyond.

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