Wallace Stevens: the Impossible Possible
by Aine Kelly
Of the major modernist poets, T.S. Eliot received the most extended academic training in philosophy, yet it is Wallace Stevens whose work has been most worried from a philosophical perspective. Stevens's poetry, in its recurrent engagement with the epistemological nexus of subject, object and language, is a testament to the deep affinities between theoretical positions usually described as philosophical and concerns or themes that inform poetry at its most ambitious and powerful. It is hardly surprising that Stevens's work has demonstrated a remarkable productivity when presented in the philosophical contexts of phenomenology (during the sixties), deconstruction (roughly from the mid-seventies through the eighties), and American pragmatism (most notably in the nineties).
However, the genre of poetry cannot simply be subsumed within philosophical discourse and conceptual critique. In the case of Stevens, specifically, it is crucial to remember that he is a poet, first and foremost and only secondarily a philosopher. Stevens did engage with philosophical issues but only for the purposes of writing poetry. In its constellating around philosophical issues, however, we may still suggest that Stevens's work weaves a rich and elusive epistemological texture, a texture that simultaneously sidesteps and exceeds the traditionally philosophical. His poetic philosophizing thus offers fertile ground for an examination of the central debates in academic philosophy and literature. Foremost among these debates is the very question of philosophical writing. What exactly does it mean to 'write philosophy'? What, if anything, is the difference between a philosopher who writes poetically and a poet who writes philosophically? Most importantly of all, if the writing of philosophy is central to its achievement, where does the literary end and the philosophical begin? The work of Stevens, both in its poetic example and its theoretical prose, allows us to recast these questions in a fresh and illuminating manner.
In his 1942 essay, 'The Figure of the Youth as a Virile Poet', Stevens argues that philosophers and poets pursue different forms of truth; logical truth and empirical truth, respectively. Whereas people read philosophy for logical possibility, they read poetry, he said, for fact: not 'bare fact' but 'fact beyond their perception in the first instance and outside the normal range of their sensibility'. With this pronouncement, Stevens echoes Eliot, whose discussion of Dante led him to similar conclusions. Similarly, in 'A Collect of Philosophy', Stevens argues that poets and philosophers are united in their devotion to 'probing for an integration' of experience, but they differ in their ends: 'The philosopher intends his integration to be fateful; the poet intends his to be effective'.
In Stevens's view, then, the poet's theorizing is to be judged not on the basis of its final and comprehensive truth, but rather by the pragmatic test. In seeking to distinguish between the ends of the poet and the ends of the philosopher, Stevens has here strayed into distinctions that are made within the discipline of philosophy itself -- distinctions between representational and pragmatic theories of truth.
On the pragmatist theory of truth, a theory inaugurated by Charles Sanders Peirce and developed by William James, we entertain ideas as fictions or hypotheses, or provisionally adapt them as beliefs, because they help us get through the world in certain ways, other than by accurately depicting it (as on the representational model). If we accept the pragmatic test of thought or, at the very least, recognize its philosophical viability, then the distinction between merely poetically playing with ideas and philosophically affirming them is considerably blurred.
On a purely thematic level, the connection between Stevens's poetry and pragmatist philosophy has been well made. Comparisons between Stevens's thought and that of William James are explored by Margaret Peterson and Frank Lentricchia, while David La Guardia's study, Advance on Chaos focuses on the similarities between Stevens, James and Emerson. Joan Richardson's recent publication A Natural History of Pragmatism places Stevens in an American pragmatist heritage, beginning with Jonathan Edwards and continuing with Gertrude Stein. The pragmatist connection has also been made on a more stylistic/ linguistic level. Richard Poirier's analysis is foremost among this critical practice. His Poetry and Pragmatism discovers a line of linguistic scepticism that runs from Emerson through James and into the twentieth century, there to infuse the poetry of Stevens and Frost, the work of Gertrude Stein, the criticism of Kenneth Burke and Poirier's own critical development.
The pragmatist strain in Stevens's work certainly demands a re-thinking of whether or not his poetry succeeds as philosophy. However, when making connections between Stevens and Emerson or between Stevens and James, there is a danger of over-stating the case. Proving that Stevens is a pragmatist, in other words, is not tantamount to establishing him as a philosopher. Even though William James's philosophy certainly strays outside the stylistic parameters and Emerson's writing may, as Richard Poirier suggests, betray a linguistic scepticism, these revelations perhaps tell us more about Emerson and James as 'literary' philosophers than establish a case for Stevens as a philosopher. The philosophy of pragmatism, while complicating the question of poetry versus philosophy, doesn't completely collapse it. And in the case of Stevens, the question remains: Is his poetic philosophizing capable of carrying genuine philosophical weight?
At this point, it may be helpful to put aside the question of difference and focus instead on the very idea of philosophical writing. In Consequences of Pragmatism, Richard Rorty argues that there is no way in which one can isolate philosophy as occupying a distinctive place in culture or concerned with a distinctive subject or even proceeding by some distinctive method. There is no 'essence' to academic philosophy. Rather, philosophy is 'a kind of writing'. It is delimited, as is any literary genre not by form or matter, but by tradition. Rorty continues:
All that 'philosophy' as a name for a sector of culture means is 'talk about Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Frege, Russell... and that lot.' [...] It is a family romance involving Father Parmenides, honest old Uncle Kant, and bad brother Derrida.
Rorty's essay draws a further contrast between philosophy in the Kantian vein, what Rorty terms 'a self-eliminating kind of writing', and a more Hegelian writing, a form of philosophy that is 'self-extending'. The distinction here is between a form of writing that seeks closure, a resolution to theoretical difficulty, and a form of writing that is dialectic, that doesn't seek to 'get it right'. This latter kind of writing doesn't seek to put an end to writing (as Rorty charges the former does) but revels in its practice; Rorty's primary example is the literary philosophy of Derrida.
Is it possible to extend the Rortian model of philosophy as a 'kind of writing' to philosophical poetry? Certainly, the idea of writing as 'self-extension' accords with the meandering and interrogative style of the later Stevens. If one accepts philosophy as a self-extending aesthetic practice, one no longer sees the need for a 'first philosophy', a coherentist picture, a view of all possible views. One no longer sees the need, in other words, for conclusion or closure. And on this model, is Stevens's poetry of the 'as if', his unity of poetic fragments, his linguistic ability to keep contradictory possibilities in suspension, a valid form of philosophical expression?
One of the markers of Rorty's holistic desire to conceive of philosophy as a form of literary criticism is his tendency to refer to the major philosophers as 'strong poets'. Rorty appropriates the term from Harold Bloom and establishes the case for Heidegger, Nietzsche and Dewey; writers who open up the paths of knowledge and seek to rejuvenate the paradigmatic philosophical vocabulary. In exploring the template of strong poet and its relevance for Stevens, it is perhaps more insightful to turn to Heidegger, one of Rorty's philosophical heroes. For Rorty, the strong poet is epitomized by the figure of Heidegger, a writer continually aware of the contingency of his own vocabulary and the subsequent need for self re-description.
In his attempt to transcend the scientism of Western metaphysics, Heidegger believed that a renewed 'poetico-philosophical' discourse was possible and, indeed, necessary. His later work is curiously language-specific, increasingly expressed in poetic and figurative terms. In the collection of essays entitled Holzwege, Heidegger's commitment to intellectual 'wandering' was inextricably linked to his conviction that language does not necessarily have to function rationally or logically.
In his late essay, 'What are Poets For?', Heidegger's programmatic use of a question, borrowed from the German poet, Holderlin, questions the need for questions (while also imposing interrogation as an essential mode of relating to metaphysical concerns) and so urgently interrogates the way in which we read and live through language. At this point, the incessant questioning of the later Stevens comes to mind. Indeed, Heidegger's essay resonates strongly with several of Stevens's own musings in The Necessary Angel. Heidegger's prose is meandering and figurative, moving from logical persuasion to an almost biblical rhetoric:
Poets are the mortals who, singing earnestly of the wine-god, sense the trace of the fugitive gods, stay on the gods' tracks and so trace for their kindred mortals the way toward the turning. The ether, however, in which alone the gods are gods, is their godhead. [...] To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods.
For Heidegger, thinking is not the positing or the putting together of something but the receiving of truth, the 'letting be'. Truth is not revealed through representation but in the disclosure of worlds through an existential 'openness'. Philosophy (or, rather 'thinking') is creative rather than representational, a work of art and an ontogenesis. For Heidegger, the ultimate poet-thinker is the philosopher, a thinker who breaks the paths and 'opens the perspectives of knowledge'. Far from leaving language as it is, the thinker adds to it new possibilities of thought and feeling. He thereby opens up new experiences to those who speak it and are sensitive to its nuances. Indeed, Heidegger's conception of the poet-thinker resonates strongly with Rorty's ideal of the strong poet; the thinker who continually re-creates himself through re-description. For Rorty, as for Heidegger, it is the poets and thinkers, not the priests or scientists, and certainly not the academic 'philosophers', who are receptive to new language. It is the poets and thinkers, finally, that promote and stabilize new ways of being.
However, while a case can be made for Stevens as a pragmatist thinker, while Rorty can privilege the 'self-extending' discourse of Heidegger and Derrida, and while Heidegger himself can privilege meditative over calculative thinking, these models do not, by themselves, establish the philosophical weight of Stevens's verse. There is still a gap, in other words, between the rousing rhetoric of Emerson's essays and the linguistic gaming of Stevens's poems. In Heidegger's terminology, there is still a gap 'between metaphor and metaphysics'.
At this point, it is helpful to turn to the work of Paul Ricoeur. In his 1975 study, The Rule of Metaphor, Ricoeur continues Heidegger's explorations of the relation between poetry and thinking. Indeed, Ricoeur's analysis of metaphor, and his subsequent debate with Derrida, questions not only the philosophical enterprise as it is traditionally conceived but the very foundations of philosophy in language. Ricoeur's provocative thesis is that with the appearance of a 'live metaphor', a new experience comes to language. The final referent of a metaphoric expression is not so much its novel meaning, but the impact of this expression on a person's worldview. It is in this capacity that Ricoeur will say that a living metaphor has the capacity to change the world. The crucial point here is that Ricoeur's theory moves metaphor beyond being a merely rhetorical or tropical device. In Ricoeur's formulation, metaphor can generate meaning. Can we locate Ricoeur's tensional domain, the 'poetic truth' of the living metaphor, in the poetry of Wallace Stevens? I turn now to Stevens's late poem 'Esthetique du Mal'.
In the third section of this poem, the characteristic interaction of Stevens's 'as if' comes into play. Stevens concludes this section with the following ambiguous lines:
As if the health of the world might be enough.
It seems as if the honey of common summer
Might be enough, as if the golden combs
Were part of a sustenance itself enough,
As if hell, so modified, had disappeared,
As if pain, no longer satanic mimicry,
Could be borne, as if we were sure to find our way.
In a poem admittedly difficult and complex, these lines are particularly so. On the one hand, the 'health of the world', the 'honey of common summer', and the 'golden combs' all combine to form a metaphorical unity. In a godless world, these metaphors suggest a compensatory order, an order of the human, a physical sustenance that might suffice. In this humanised order, hell is subsumed and pain is transformed; it is possible that we might find our way. The movement of Stevens's language here, a kind of incantation formed by repetition and variation, is soothing and restful. A possible redemption is tentatively evoked.
On the other hand, however, the subjunctive verbs and reiterated 'as if' appear to undercut, quietly but devastatingly, the very assertions that they posit. The effect is to make us doubt that Steven's assertions have any power or meaning. We begin to doubt that the 'health of the summer' actually exists, that 'a sustenance itself enough' has not and cannot be evoked. Stevens's language, it seems, bears no relation to actual circumstances. However, as the fourth section of the poem helps to clarify, the conflicting possibilities of language articulated by the 'as if's in the passage above are major concerns of the entire poem:
When B. sat down at the piano and made
A transparence in which we heard music, made music,
In which we heard transparent sounds, did he play
All sorts of notes? Or did he play only one
In an ecstasy of associates,
Variations in the tones of a single sound,
The last, or sounds so single they seemed one?
Stevens's questions are deliberately confusing and deliberately lacking in resolution; once again, an 'interaction' and 'interplay' of opposites is invoked. Who is 'B'? How can sounds be transparent? How can sounds at once be single and varied? Most confusingly of all, how can sounds be more or less 'single', i.e. what exactly can the phrase 'so single' mean? For Stevens's reader, this poem is not an 'ecstasy of associates' but a perceptual layering; a confusing jumble of sight and sound. While postponing any closure, the various questions and perceptual confusions in this poem create again the interplay of opposing possibilities.
In attending to the mixing of sight and sound that characterizes so many of Stevens's metaphors, the work of Ricoeur is again insightful. In his analysis, Ricoeur refers to 'the iconic capacity of metaphor'. This capacity is defined as follows:
It is a non-verbal kernel of imagination, that is, imagery understood in the quasi-visual, quasi-auditory, quasi-tactile, quasi-olfactory sense.
In Ricoeur's framework, this intuitive or iconic mode cannot be equated with a verbal representation of sense experience. It belongs, rather, to the realm of imagination, where sight, sound, touch and smell cannot be distinguished. Is Ricoeur's 'iconic capacity' an apt framework within which to read Stevens? Certainly, Stevens's 'transparent sounds', his 'deepened speech' his 'reading the sound', accord with the perceptual layering suggested by Ricoeur's definition; 'the quasi-visual, quasi-auditory, quasi-tactile, quasi-olfactory sense'. Once again, the virtue of this metaphoric capacity, for Ricoeur at least, is that it allows conflicting spheres of 'sameness yet difference' to co-exist. Metaphor, for Ricoeur and, we may suggest, for Stevens, is thus a complex interaction of logical, semantic and imagistic moments. Even in the darkest section of 'Esthetique du Mal', Stevens asserts:
To lose sensibility, to see what one sees,
As if sight had not its own miraculous thrift,
To hear only what one hears, one meaning alone,
As if the paradise of meaning ceased
To be paradise, it is this to be destitute.
Here, the 'as if' asserts the possibility of meaninglessness and destitution while simultaneously implying that 'sight' is a 'miraculous thrift', a 'paradise of meaning'. The assertion that language is meaningful and valuable, even a paradise of sorts, is reiterated throughout this poem, though most clearly in its final section. Even after calling speech a 'dark italics' we can 'not propound', Stevens concludes the poem with a subtle and reverberating question:
And out of what one sees and hears and out
Of what one feels, who could have thought to make
So many selves, so many sensuous worlds,
As if the air, the mid-day air, was swarming
With the metaphysical changes that occur,
Merely in living as and where we live.
These lines are at least as encouraging as they are discouraging, as resonating with affirmative possibilities as they are disturbing with negative ones. The poem ends not with the futility of human effort, nor with the futility of human speech, but with an affirmation of what we can create through language, even as the very language denies this affirmation. In a poem seeking, ironically, to affirm a fundamental imperfection, such assertions, modulated with their own contradictions, are perhaps the supreme statements of what Stevens calls the 'primitive ecstasy', and Ricoeur bravely terms 'poetic truth'.
If we can connect the interaction of Stevens's 'as if' to the 'split reference' of Ricoeur's theory, it is possible to establish a case for the 'poetic truth' of Stevens's philosophy. Stevens's continual recourse to the modal 'as if' clearly reminds us that words are not identical to the world, i.e., that there is always a gap between language and reality. However, Stevens's phrase still asserts the possibility of such identification. In creating this conflict, Stevens establishes the tenuous 'relation' he continually strives to express; in Ricoeur's terms, 'Being-as means being and not being'.
Perhaps we might suggest, finally, that Stevens's verse approaches epistemological certainty. It appears, or sounds like, or seems to become, a humanly informed yet trustworthy knowledge of the real. It is a form of 'poetic truth'. The metaphoric movement of Stevens's 'as if' allows him to approach a meaning that is not simply troped or complicated but actually generated. Indeed, and to paraphrase Emerson, perhaps it is only through Stevens's 'complex forms of indirection' that this 'knowledge of life' can finally appear. Stevens's tentative, suggestive, metaphorical movement, his 'intricate evasions of as', allow him finally to explore and rejuvenate this epistemological terrain, the ground upon which philosophy and poetry meet and part.
1. Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose, p.670.
2. ibid, p. 852.
4. Wallace Stevens and the Idealist Tradition.
5. Ariel and the Police: Michel Foucault, William James, Wallace Stevens.
6. Advance on Chaos: The Sanctifying Imagination of Wallace Stevens.
7. Richard Rorty,'Philosophy as a Kind of Writing' in Consequences of Pragmatism -- Essays:1972-1980, p. 92.
8. ibid, p. 101.
9. Heidegger,'What are Poets for?' in Jon Cook, ed. Poetry in Theory: 1900-2000, pp. 251-253.
10. For Heidegger's phenomenological method, truth is identified with disclosure, on the basis of his translation of the Greek word'aletheia' as'unhiddenness'. He contrasted this interpretation with the traditional definition of truth as 'correctness'. (See Being and Time, Introduction, Section II (7B) pp. 55-58).
13. Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, pp. 257-315.
14. ibid, p. 187.
15. See also the concluding section of Stevens's long poem,'An Ordinary Evening in New Haven', where he refers to'little reds','lighter words','legible meanings of sounds'.
16. The title of Stevens's poem, literally translated, is'The Aesthetics of Evil'.
16. Ibid, p. 306.
17. 'As the musician avails himself of the concert, so the philosopher avails himself of the drama, the epic, the novel and becomes a poet; for these complex forms allow for the utterance of his knowledge of life by indirection as well as by the didactic way.' -- Joel Porte, Emerson in his Journals, p. 217.
19.'The theory / Of poetry is the theory of life, / As it is, in the intricate evasions of as' --'An Ordinary Evening in New Haven'.
Cook, Jon, ed. Poetry in Theory: An Anthology 1900-2000. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2004.
La Guardia, David. Advance on Chaos: The Sanctifying Imagination of Wallace Stevens. London: Brown University Press, 1983.
Lentricchia, Frank. Ariel and the Police: Michel Foucault, William James, Wallace Stevens. University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.
Peterson, Margaret. Wallace Stevens and the Idealist Tradition. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988.
Porte, Joel. Emerson in his Journals. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Poirier, Richard. Poetry and Pragmatism. London: Faber and Faber, 1992.
Richardson, Joan. A Natural History of Pragmatism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Ricoeur, Paul. The Rule of Metaphor. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.
Rorty, Richard. Consequences of Pragmatism -- Essays: 1972-1980. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.
Stevens, Wallace. Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson. New York: The Library of America, 1997.
____ Letters of Wallace Stevens. Ed. Holly Stevens. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
© Aine Kelly 2007