Academic journal article Text Matters

Change and the Poetics of Plenitude in Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery

Academic journal article Text Matters

Change and the Poetics of Plenitude in Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery

Article excerpt

The pragmatist Emersonian poetics is vitally related to and intertwined with the concept of change. Change is an idea, a trope, and an objective that lies at the heart of Emerson's mysterious notion of self-reliance, and the influence which his formulation of this key concept has radiated on thinkers and poets to come after him has much to do with change as a certain epistemological conundrum. When Emerson speaks of self-reliance, he is in fact meditating on the vexed relation between change and stasis, and in this meditation change is considered as a transformative state within the subject.

Emerson recognizes that the proper meaning of the concept of "change" reaches beyond a mere statement of the factual shift occurring within the bare material reality. Change in Emerson is something more than the purely mechanical, clockwork relocation occurring in the Newtonian universe; the proper sense of change as a conceptual process is related to the question of the human registering and participating in it. This registering is a peculiar kind of the loss of the self, a paradoxical process of self-obliteration in the service of self-reintegration. In the key moments of the Emersonian text-the key fragments of such essays as "Nature," "Self-Reliance," and "Experience"-the self is theorized as a dynamic entity which does not so much participate in change by adjusting to it, but is in fact a source of change.1

But such positioning of the self toward the concept of change brings with it a number of complexities and tensions. These tensions are characteristic of a specific kind of poetics, common to some poets of the Emersonian aesthetic and conceptual heritage. It is a tension-ridden, dynamic poetics which I am calling the poetics of plenitude. In this essay, I am going to discuss the problems and paradoxes attendant on the concept of change in the work of two poets who belong to the paradoxical Emersonian tradition I have outlined above: Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery. By tracing the conceptual difficulties discovered by both of these poets, as they make the concept of change their main topic, I will illustrate how these difficulties are in fact a defining feature of the very poetics these poems propose-the poetics of plenitude.

Stevens and Ashbery's belonging to the Emersonian poetic tradition is a well-established critical fact.2 They have also been discussed before as a pair of poets related by a strong poetic kinship founded on the concept of poetic influence. This critical narrative has been formulated, both famously and notoriously, by Harold Bloom, who has seen Ashbery's poetry as an almost exemplary case of the "anxiety of influence" in relation to the poems of his poetic father, Stevens (143-46). While this way of approaching Ashbery and Stevens has provided a definite model for bringing the two poets together, I am not going to use Bloom's concept of "influence" in my discussion of the similarities and differences between them. Instead, in my narrower approach, I am going to focus on a certain regularity in both poets' treatment of the concept of change, a concept that, as I am going to argue, is found right at the center of their poetics. Stevens and Ashbery's Emersonian heritage makes these poets attend instinctively to the paradoxical dynamics of change, and their effort consists in containing the tensions of change within the very principle of the poetic tissue of their text. In what follows I will discuss the similarities and differences between both poets' treatment of the topic of change. This comparative outline will later enable me to propose a definition of the poetics of plenitude which I identify as the primary poetic aesthetics of both poets.

1 Problems with Change

Stevens and Ashbery attend to change in a large number of their poems. Their treatment of change ranges from the basic meaning of the term to its deepest philosophical and psychological complications. There is a traditional lyrical layer in both poets, in which they attend to the change generating passage of time observable in the simplest natural phenomena. …

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