Wallace Stevens was idealistic, head higher in the glowing empyrean than any poet but Shelley, adamant about poetry’s nobility and its force. A poem’s subject, he reminded his readers, is not its fixed objects, but “the life lived in the scene they compose.” Complementarily, our souls consist of our externals, animated by the imaginative principle: “There are men of a province / Who are that province.” In his prose work The Necessary Angel—and in the more explainy poem-essays—Stevens characterizes poetry’s internal violence as a pressure of that imaginative principle back against the pressure of the bare fixed facts of the world in on us.
But Stevens’s poetry also reflected the political, artistic, and cultural limitations of this definition. It really is often gaudy: brightly colored and small-seeming, scrubbed of other real people and their complementary nobilities, forces, and powers. The poems can feel dioramic, to quote one of my old teachers, the poet Michael Palmer. They’re full of bright miniatures: “Toward the cool night and its fantastic star, / Prime paramour and belted paragon,” or “The silver-shapeless, gold-encrusted size / Of daylight,” or “He sat there reading, from out of the purple tabulae, / The outlines of being and its expressings.”
Stevens’s ideas, then, appear more often in emblems than in things. More particularly, sometimes, in emblems of a certain sort of nasty exoticism. Tropic isles, bejeweled native palaces, country “darkies” (or “negresses” or “blackamoors” or, unbelievably, the decorations of a “nigger cemetery”), Indian chieftains, sunlit Asias, all are selected by Stevens for their distance from the fixity of Hartford. They stand for the far gleaming plunder of the mind, the sort of noble visions the imagination can conjure; not people, not places. Brazil with “her serpents” and “avoirdupois” might as well be a palace on the Moon, for neither feels real.
His poetry’s thesis—that the poem can ignite and animate reality and invite us into the grand, impossible, and timeless—is often instantiated in the same materials as fed generations of Orientalist, racist fancy in Europe and America. Stevens’s foil, complement, and friend, the poet William Carlos Williams, had his own imaginative and political blind spots. But at least he had real people in his poems. The “we” Stevens intended, when he wrote that poetry’s music “helps us to live our lives,” wasn’t that big.
—But here I go, knocking the dreamy dead! When the question underneath for me is: How can one accountably bear witness to poetry? I spent years thinking that, since my favorite poets filled me with a sense of wild child-like freedom, poetry must occupy a space in us free of all of reality’s oppression, mundanity, uneven privilege, rage, and heartache. I don’t believe that any more. I still believe that the poems I love invite me to an experience as if it were mine—“a remembrance of my own”—but I don’t believe anymore that poetry can step over ugly preconceptions, unexamined privilege, and plain power.
I don’t believe as poets that we can have it all, either—that late-capital’s teeming has dropped every form and image from history in our lap for the selecting, mirroring, editing, or ironizing. We’re not that big, not that smart, not that right. I don’t know what comes after this, but I’m going to try to listen.