Wallace Stevens: seeing to the core
''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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.''