Wallace Stevens and the Limits of Reading and Writing

By Bart Eeckhout | Go to book overview

Chapter 10

Between Mimesis and Music

ACCORDING TO J. HILLIS MILLER, “Stevens' poetry is not merely poetry about poetry. It is a poetry that is the battleground among conflicting theories of poetry.” These theories, as well as the conflicts between them, are “as old as our Western tradition, ” and are not simply “alternatives among which one may choose. Their contradictory inherence in one another generates the meditative search for 'what will suffice' in Stevens' poetry.” 1. The theories are not strictly poetic either, though they may be most outspokenly embodied by poetry. They have to do with the representational nature of language as it interacts with our outer and inner worlds. Miller identifies three basic theories. Two of these have in common that they take the act of joining or linking representation and that which is being represented (the representamen, in technical jargon) to be somehow possible and valid. This sets them off from the third theory, according to which language helplessly and frustratingly—or, at times, grandly and jubilantly—folds back on itself. We are familiar with the first two theories above all from M. H. Abrams's classic study of romantic perspectives on poetry, The Mirror and the Lamp, whose title pits the two most common metaphors for these conflicting theories against each other.

The first theory, according to Miller, is governed by “the idea that poetry is imitation, mimesis, analogy, copy. Truth is measured by the equivalence between the structure of words and the structure of nonlinguistic reality.” 2. This is the “mirror” of Abrams's book, where the corresponding view of language

____________________
1.
J. Hillis Miller, The Linguistic Moment: From Wordsworth to Stevens, 5.
2.
Ibid., 5—6. Miller omits mention of the immediate sources of his inspiration, which undoubtedly include Derrida's meditations on truth and mimesis as either alētheia or homoiōsis in “The Double Session.”

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