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

By Balbo, Ned | Art Journal, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

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


Balbo, Ned, Art Journal


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.