Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Helen Vendler, On Extended Wings

Helen Vendler, On Extended Wings, Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1969.

Through the long poems Stevens discovers his own strengths. [2] It was, for instance, not until 1942, in Notes, that he settled on his final metrical form. Even then, he deserted that form to write Esthetique du Mal in 1944, and returned to it only in 1948, with The Auroras of Autumn. Those triads, as everyone has recognized, somehow organize his mind in its long stretches better than any other alternative, and yet to reach them he had to experiment with blank verse, couplets, ballads, terza rima, sonnetlike forms, and so on. (Introduction, 2-3)

Though Wallace Stevens’ idiosyncratic vocabulary and imagery have been blamed and praised ever since his first poems appeared in print, his equally odd syntax has been les noticed. It shares nevertheless in his act of the mind, and differentiates him noticeably from other poets, whether the Romantic poets whose dependent heir he is, or his contemporaries in England and America. (The Pensive Man: The Pensive Style, 13)

Abstractly considered, Stevens’ “themes” are familiar, nor to say banal, ones, but his poetry reproduces them in a new form, chiefly in an elaborately mannered movement of thought, which changes very little in the course of the Collected Poems. It is, needless to say, expressive of several moods, but three large manners can be distinguished, all of them present in Stevens’ long poems. The first, in an ecstatic idiom, proclaims, sometimes defiantly, the pure good of being, the worth of vigorous life, the earthly marriages, the secular joys of ploughing on Sunday. The second, despairingly and in tones of apathy, anatomizes a stale and withered life. The third and most characteristic form is a tentative, diffident, and reluctant search for a middle route between ecstasy and apathy, … (13)

Stevens is notoriously “narrow” in subject, as he realized in having frequent recourse to a form that approximates the musical theme with variations. In these long poems, manner is, if not everything, at least of superlative importance. Words and images can best be seen in their place within the poems, … (14)

When Stevens is most himself, he is a severe and harassing master, allowing himself no delusory hopes, no forced feelings. And so he puts out faint feelers: maybe, say that, perhaps, suppose, tokens of fastidious truth: … With such suppositions Stevens is committed to nothing except a wish, … (14) The probability of the ending depends on the preceding hypothesis, and the whole construct is a nebulous one. Stevens never puts his hypotheses into the present tense (“When we propose a platonic person, a form matures”) : such a construction would imply that the action has been successfully performed in the past with certified results, and can successfully be performed again. (15)

Though “might” and “may” recur often in Stevens, they are common poetic property, and his most distinctive form of assertion seems his appropriation of “must” and its related forms “had to” and “cannot” or “could not,” usually found in conjunction with some other mood. Sometimes the joining can seem dogmatic, a willed wrenching of reality: / She must come now. The grass is in seed and high. / Come now. (119) [pg. 17] … We rarely use “must” or its variants except in cases of exterior obligation; Stevens here implies obligations or destinies of a more interior and evolutionary sort. (17-18)

Fluctuations of mood are one way of intimating a shifting sense of the subject; questions are another, and certain question in Stevens’ poetry serve as a qualified way to put a premise. (18)

The mood of uncertainty in Stevens, whether marked by [20] direct questions or by implicit qualification, sometimes yields to a mood of desperate assertion, where a passionate insistence is based on fear, a fear of a dreadful disintegration if the assertions prove false: /
To discover winter and know it well, to find
Not to impose, not to have reasoned at all,
Out of nothing to have come on major weather,
It is possible, possible, possible. It must
Be possible. It must be that in time
The real will from its crude compoundings come,
Seeming, at first, a beast disgorged, unlike,
Warmed by a desperate milk. (404)
This is anything but serene formulation; it is not even a passionate creed, since creeds and beliefs do not take on such hectic phrasings. (21)

In spite of his announced intent to remain the poet of reality, to ‘hasp on the surviving form / Of shall or ought to be in is,’ to assert that ‘For realist, what is is what should be,’ Stevens always knew that reality was composed of more than the present indicative. Against and again, he found himself seduced away to what ought to be, forsaking all description and reporting of present and past in favor of the normative and the optative, the willed and the desired. (21)

And just as he leads us in some poems from the conditional to the present tense to give the illusion that his speculation are facts, so he leads us from desire to timeless states by his use of the perpetually tenseless infinitive. As the poem just quoted goes on, first to a cluster of more infinititves and then to a present participle, it almost succeeds in obliterating that far-forgotten governing unaccomplished phrase, ‘he wanted’: / He wanted his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest… The peculiar, timeless, unqualified [22] nature of infinitives suits his purpose exactly, and explains why so many of his poems include infinite phrases. They imply a future, usually, but without reminding us that it is in fact a future and not yet accomplished: /

Bastard chateaux and smoky demoiselles,
No more. I can build towers of my own,
There to behold, there to proclaim, the grace
… In such a sequences of infinitives, potentiality is almost forgotten. When Stevens wishes to be even more independent of his own limitations, he uses the infinitive alone, syntactically independent: /

To change nature, not merely to change ideas,
To escape from the body, so to feel
Those feelings that the body balks. (234) (pgs 22-23)

When Stevens seems to be asserting unconditionally, not using the mitigating auxiliaries, nor infinitives, nor questions, he nevertheless can escape being final. … Where we might expect ‘is,’ especially at the end of a poem, we find the more delicate ‘seems’: /

…In that cry they hear
Themselves transposed, muted and comforted…
So that this cold, a children’s tale of ice,
Seems like a sheen of heat romanticized. (467-468). (25)

Stevens is also likely to end a poem with a verb which implies a future, though cast in the present tense; of these, ‘become’ is his favorite, though he uses, too, such verbs as ‘promise’ and ‘foretell’… (25)

Poets have often used the future to resolve a poem, and very satisfactorily, since the future is always a fiction. But Stevens, though he will use the simple future tense, prefers a more devious future, the sort expressed in English by ‘when’ or ‘until’, followed by the present tense—a future in disguise, so to speak. ‘Until’ can imply either finished action in the future or hopeless effort which may never bear fruit, and Stevens relies on that equivocal implication. … This passage, the conclusion to one of the cantos in Owl’s Clover, is clearly and consciously the enacting of a wish-fulfillment, not the statement of a fact; it is an apotheosis, but exists very far form a direct future of apotheosis like Milton’s celestial time when / Attired with stars, we shall forever sit/ Triumphing over Death and Chance and Thee, O Time. (26)

When Stevens is reluctant to assert even an equivocal present or future, he resorts to hypothesis and supposition, chiefly by using his indispensable hypothetical ‘if,’… (27)

Another manner of indeterminacy is permitted by the imperative, and Stevens takes full advantage of it, often to resolve poems. Since all poems of prayer, command, and exhortation choose this means, it is only remarkable in Stevens in conjunction choose this means, it is only remarkable in Stevens in conjunction with his other reticences of mood, and in view of its imitation of a religious tradition. Stevens’ divinity have a shadowy ad hoc existence, materializing momentarily as an interior paramour, a rabbi, a green queen, or even an unnamed presence:
Oh! Rabbi, rabbi, fend my soul for me
And true savant of this dark nature be. (134)
Unreal, give back to us what once you gave:
The imagination that we spurned and crave. (88)
Nothing is an imperative implies that it will be compiled with, and the poem retains the same unsettled sort of ending that Stevens arranges elsewhere with other means. As he addresses [30] the musician at the piano, “Be seated, thou” (132), or tells his imaginary rustics, “Clog, therefore, purple Jack and crimson Jill” (154), the action summoned, whether playing or dancing, remains still unperformed. (31)

When the statement he is theoretically pursuing escapes formulation altogether, he breaks off suddenly, as the mind retreats from something, whether blissful or disastrous, that it cannot compass… (31)

‘As if’ forms a bridge between perception and reflection; we stop the film to analyze it. This analysis often goes unremarked unless we sense a departure from the expected tense and mood, as we frequently do in Stevens, but even so, the use of the past tense after ‘as if’ is only intermittently surprising, since it occurs in ordinary speech. (33)

In the second lines we are told by the ‘as if’ of the metaphorical nature of this ‘book’ (which turns out to be the heavens filled with fallings stars) but after this momentary withdrawal from the fiction, we once again re-enter the metaphor and the somber pages remain pages. The effect is of something half-glimpsed, half-seen, and that is, finally, what Stevens achieves over and over: if he has a dogma, it is the dogma of the shadowy, the ephemeral, the perceived, the iridescent…. (35)

In the more reflective poems, he juggles with logic as he juggles with colors and shapes, often less successfully, (35)

The apparent structure of the poem is one of logical discrimination, but actually the complicated ‘even if… since… it may be…if …or…’ and so on simply serve to implicate the various alternatives ever more deeply with each other so that the sea, the girl, the water, the song, the wind, the air, the sky and cloud, the voices of the spectators, all become indistinguishable from each other, as Stevens wants them to be. [36] To separate out his inferences and insist on the demarcations of his logic would be to run counter to the intent of the poem. This is true in general of Stevens’ use of logical form: he uses it not as a logician, but as a sleight-of-hand man. He is attached to paradoxical logic, especially in the realm of existence—‘He is and may be but oh! he is, he is’ (388), he says in many ways, denying and affirming at the same time. The irresolution of hi lines sometimes defies all logic:
In the little of his voice, or the like,
Or less, he found a man, or more, against
Calamity, proclaimed himself, was proclaimed. (230)
Such passages can be parsed into sense, but not very rewardingly, since Stevens’ use of ‘or’ in this way is one more device for hovering over the statement rather than making it. The atmosphere of false precision sometimes conferred by this language of logical discrimination is deceptive: Stevens is not at pains to distinguish between the little, the like, and the less in the passage above, but to identify them with each other. (36-37)

As Stevens speaks in the voice of extreme old age, he and the interior paramour are finally stripped to the total lifelessness foretold by the total leaflessness: [309] … This is a version, conceived in wretchedness, of the plain sense of things, “a theorem proposed” about life in this brutally geometric end of reductive memory. … Though there are no more “long” poems, taken together, make up what we may call Stevens’ poem of infancy, as his west touches the east. … On the threshold of heaven, Stevens rediscovers earth, and writes a sublime poetry of inception. / The work which best shows the progress from the bitter geometry of age into an unbidden perception of the new is a poem which has gone, in the calendar of Stevens’ year, beyond the deaths of October, November, December, and January, into the tenuous midwinter spring of February, with its hint of budding magnolia and forsythia, its ‘wakefulness inside a sleep.’ Stevens begins in the toneless naked language of tedium: / Long and Sluggish Lines / … [310] Conjuring up this psychic struggle in nature fills Stevens with liveliness, and a euphoric fantasy of language dances into play: … A myth of pre-existence gives the metaphor for the moral to be drawn:
…Wanderer, this is the pre-history of February.
The life of the poem in the mind has not yet begun.
You were not born yet when the trees were crystal
Nor are you now, in this wakefulness inside a sleep. (522)
Old age, seemingly prehistoric in its survival, is in fact inhabiting [310] a pre-history, as the soul, not yet born, waits to be reincarnated. One morning in March it will wake to find not ideas about the thing, that intellectuality of old age, but the youthful thing itself. At that moment, in the first scrawny cry of the first returning bird, the poet’s tentative infancy of perception will sense a signal of the approach of the colossal sun. [Stevens wrote, shortly after writing the poem, that ‘robins and doves are both early risers and are connoisseurs of daylight before the actual presence of the sun coarsens it’ (L, 879.)] (Naked Alpha, 309-312).

In the great late poem “A Discovery of Thought” the perfect ideal is realized—the self is reincarnated as a child who, though newborn, remembers his previous existence and can speak his infant language, not in the rowdy summer syllables of ohoyo, but with ‘the true tone of the metal of winter in what it says.’ This extraordinary creature, Stevens’ last mythical invention, is the child one becomes in second childhood, in that sickness where the eyes dim, where the body is a chill weight, and the old winning fairy tales of bearded deities become irrelevant. The wintry habitat of the man in second childhood is superbly real [312] … Knowing everything, this infant creature is everything, and he represents Stevens’ final image of perfection, one step beyond the naked majesty of poverty in which he had left the old philosopher in Rome. If the high stoic [313] elegies of Stevens’ plain sense of things make a fitting close to his withering into the truth, these short late poems, equally truthful, are those liquid lingerings into which the angel of reality transforms, for a moment, the bleak continuo of life’s tragic drone. (312-314)


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home