Wallace Stevens and Poetic Theory: Conceiving the Supreme Fiction

By B. J. Leggett | Go to book overview

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INTRODUCTION
Stevens and Poetic Theory

The assumption that the poems of Wallace Stevens conceal a viable theory of poetry or of the poetic imagination has guided Stevens criticism since Hi Simons first set out the aesthetic of "The Comedian as the Letter C" in 1940. This continuing project of converting the poetry to poetics or metapoetry is perhaps the inevitable consequence of attending to a poet who labored so earnestly to establish the premise that "poetry is the subject of the poem" (CP, 176). A number of years ago Northrop Frye stated the case most directly: "Wallace Stevens was a poet for whom the theory and the practice of poetry were inseparable. His poetic vision is informed by a metaphysic; his metaphysic is informed by a theory of knowledge; his theory of knowledge is informed by a poetic vision." 1 Given a poet who is of particular interest to the critical theorist because, in Frye's words, "he sees so clearly that the only ideas the poet can deal with are those directly involved with, and implied by, his own writing," 2 it is not surprising that commentary on the body of Stevens's poetry has been devoted so extensively to a description of Stevens's theory of the poetic imagination. One version of this project goes so far as to suggest that Stevens's verse constitutes one Grand Poem, the subject of which is poetry. 3

The issues raised by the theory (or, as the studies have multiplied, theories) seen as latent in the verse have now become the commonplaces of Stevens criticism: the subject-object duality, with its consequent emphasis on various conceptions of imagination and reality and their interrelations; the death of the gods, which leads on the one hand to the impoverishment of life and the estrangement of self and on the other to the possibility of a more sufficient myth; the supreme fiction and attendant concepts such as major man, the hero, the abstract, decreation, the first idea, resemblance, and metamorphosis; and, underlying all, a notion of the external world (and ultimately mind) as flux, change, fortuity, an

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