Wallace Stevens and the Abstract -- Wallace Stevens and Modern Art: From the Armory Show to Abstract Expressionism by Glen MacLeod

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Glen MacLeod. Wallace Stevens and Modern Art: From the Armory Show to Abstract Expressionism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. 253 pp.; 20 b/w ills. $30.00

In his essay "Reflections on Wallace Stevens," the influential critic and poet Randall Jarrell lauded Stevens as "one of the true poets of our century"; today, Stevens's reputation as a poet on a par with T. S. Eliot or William Carlos Williams is taken for granted. Nevertheless, writing in Partisan Review in response to the publication of The Auroras of Autumn in 1950, Jarrell faulted Stevens for the "weakness--a terrible one for a poet, a steadily increasing one in Stevens--of thinking of particulars as primarily illustrations of general truths, or else as aesthetic, abstracted objects, simply there to be contemplated." Jarrell later moderated this view but never changed it.(1)

This evolution toward a more extensive and systematic use of abstract language is, for others, one of Stevens's great achievements. The distinguished critic Helen Vendler writes that "the theory of poetry that evolved from Stevens's search is a difficult and finally mysterious one, but it resulted in the very great poems of Stevens's last years."(2) Stevens used his poems as a medium for the exploration of ideas but also as repositories for images and language that held strong theoretical, and often personal, associations. His poems are gorgeous in the literal sense of the word: filled with sumptuous images, exotic references, and vivid, fully imagined settings, they provide a banquet of language that can be humorous, ironic, earnest, or all of these. Readers such as Jarrell, however, have to some extent exaggerated the differences between Stevens's early and late poetry. Two stanzas from "The Bird with the Coppery, Keen Claws" (from Harmonium [1923], Stevens's first book) are typical of his early work:

Above the forest of the parakeet

A parakeet of parakeets prevails,

A pip of life amid a mort of tails

(The rudiments of tropics are around,

Aloe of ivory, pear of rusty rind.)

His lids are white because his eyes are blind.(3)

These lines demonstrate Stevens's ear for language and his fascination with exotic images; equally evident is his interest in how the mind and imagination operate. This parakeet literally above all others is an ideal creature--an idea of "parakeet" and, also, of poetry and art--and Stevens playfully explores the implications of this depiction over the course of the poem, including a stanza in which the "turbulent tinges" of the bird's plumage "undulate/As his pure intellect applies its laws." For Stevens, the action of the mind--intellect or imagination--can be observed (or at least inferred) in the visible world. Feathers twitch as interior "laws" are applied: the mind's responses are as legitimate a subject for poetry as the particulars of the "real" world Jarrell's work celebrates.

In Stevens's late work, this attention to the mind's processes comes to the foreground. "A Primitive Like an Orb," for example, includes a stanza that describes how poetry produces its effect. Stevens hints at an idea of poetry that lies beyond any single poem but which is nevertheless perceived in "lesser," actual ones.

We do not prove the existence of a poem.

It is something seen and known in lesser poems.

It is the huge high harmony that sounds

A little and a little, suddenly,

By means of a separate sense. It is and it

Is not and, therefore, is ...(4)

Stevens never abandoned his use of striking language or exotic imagery. But his stylistic evolution toward ever greater use of abstract language has been, since Jarrell's review, a central issue. One critical approach has been to examine the relationship of Stevens's ideas to his art. Stevens's prose, and his more didactic poems, can be seen as mutually reinforcing statements of aesthetic principles; and Stevens's reading in a variety of areas provides additional material for study. …