Stevens and the Interpersonal

Stevens and the Interpersonal

by Mark Halliday

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With Wallace Stevens emerging as a father figure for American poetry of the late twentieth century, Mark Halliday argues that it is time for this "poet of ideas" to undergo an ethical critique. In this bold, accessible reconsideration of Stevens' work, he insists on the importance of interpersonal relations in any account of human life in the modern world. Although

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With Wallace Stevens emerging as a father figure for American poetry of the late twentieth century, Mark Halliday argues that it is time for this "poet of ideas" to undergo an ethical critique. In this bold, accessible reconsideration of Stevens' work, he insists on the importance of interpersonal relations in any account of human life in the modern world. Although Stevens outwardly denies aspects of life that center on such relations as those between friends, lovers, family members, and political constituents, Halliday uncovers in his poetry an anxious awareness of the importance of these relations. Here we see the difficulties Stevens made for himself in wanting to offer a thoroughly satisfying version of secular spiritual health in the modern world without facing up to the moral and psychological implications of his own interpersonal needs, problems, and responsibilities. The final chapter reveals, however, an unusually encouraging "avuncular" attitude toward the reader of the poetry, which may be felt to redeem Stevens from the alienation observed earlier. Halliday develops his views by way of comparisons between Stevens and other poets, especially Thomas Hardy, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and John Ashbery.

Originally published in 1991.

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Stevens and the Interpersonal

By Mark Halliday


Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06548-9



Several kinds of unhappiness are audible in the poetry of Wallace Stevens. There is the only partly acknowledged unhappiness of the poet as an individual troubled by loss of love and loss of youth, and there is the extensively thematized unhappiness of humanity in the modern world, humanity adrift in a universe that lacks transcendent meaning and confers upon us no purpose. To focus on Stevens' evocations of these two kinds of unhappiness is to find a basis for calling him a great poet of human suffering. And yet, stepping back from those evocations and remembering other writers' poems about human suffering, one hesitates: something is unsatisfactory in making such a claim for Stevens. He writes beautifully, though often covertly, about his own life's pain ("Red Loves Kit," "Farewell to Florida," "Bouquet of Belle Scavoir," and "World Without Peculiarity" are four of the poems that deserve to be cited), and he writes with endless resourcefulness about the special pain afflicting all modern persons at once as we confront the blankness of reality, of bare earth and evening without angels. But there is a third realm of suffering, consisting in the particular forms of pain experienced by particular human others—pain factored by their partial differentness from the observing self. Does Stevens face this dimension of reality in his poetry? How does he do so—and how does he avoid doing so?

Before tackling this problem, let us ask what poems by other poets of this century we might turn to so as to sharpen our sense of what Stevens has attempted or refrained from attempting in response to the suffering of others. My own list would include Robinson's "Eros Turannos" and "The Poor Relation"; Yeats' "Easter 1916"; Frost's "A Servant to Servants," "Home Burial," and '"Out, Out—'"; Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady" and "Preludes"; Wilfred Owen's battlefront poems; some of the proletarian portraits by Williams; Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" (a famous metaphorical framing of the problem itself); Muriel Rukeyser's "Boy with His Hair Cut Short"; Jarrell's "The Truth" and "The Woman at the Washington Zoo"; Larkin's "Deceptions" and "Mr. Bleaney"; Lowell's "A Mad Negro Soldier Confined at Munich"; Anthony Hecht's '"More Light! More Light!"'; Philip Levine's "Obscure" and "Blasting from Heaven"; Ginsberg's "Howl"; Lloyd Schwartz's "The Recital" and "Love"; Anne Winters' "Two Derelicts" and "The Street"; Alan Shapiro's "Rain" and "Happy Hour" ... For me, though, Thomas Hardy is the poet who most comes to mind when I try to recall poems of this century that have registered convincing awareness of suffering in someone other than the speaker. Later in this essay I will draw examples from Hardy to show alternatives to Stevens' way of responding to the suffering of others.

First we need to consider where in Stevens' work human suffering can be seen as the experience of someone other than the poet. The instances will not be numerous, since Stevens' oeuvre is famously under-populated with distinct individuals (whether happy or unhappy); he feels most at home when he speaks for the entire species, using the pronouns we or one, or when the protagonist of a poem is a blatantly symbolic distillation of some aspect of The Self or The Mind (Hoon, Peter Quince, the floribund ascetic of "Landscape With Boat", the Well Dressed Man With a Beard, the Canon Aspirin, Professor Eucalyptus ...). To be sure, in these preferences Stevens is participating in venerable traditions of lyric (as opposed to dramatic) verse, but he carries to an extreme lyric's tendency to exclude individualized others for the sake of focusing on the poet's self or The Self. His Collected Poems is not the book a reader might expect from the author of these appealing lines about what modern poetry requires:

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time ...
It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman

Admittedly, to quote only these lines from "Of Modern Poetry" is to distort the poem by avoiding the lines where Stevens stresses the subjective and solitary quality of the poetic event as it occurs wholly within the mind, performed by and for the mind. Nevertheless, the lines quoted above have crucial force in the emotional effect of the poem. They seem to propose a tenderly accurate perception of the lives of individual human others as an obligation of the modern poem, an obligation whose respectful fulfillment will lead to satisfaction. Surely it is hard to hear those lines without feeling that the satisfaction to be derived from the kind of poetry thus recommended will involve, or will at least facilitate, some amelioration of the relations between people, between the poet and the men and women who are to be faced and met. Stevens undoubtedly knew, and intended, that such encouragement concerning interpersonal relationships (as a matter beyond the scope of the solitary mind's satisfaction with itself) would be a palpable component of the poem's emotional impact. He knew, moreover, that to give this lovely emphasis to poetry's capacity for the imaginative encountering of other persons was to invoke an available tradition in English and American poetry distinguishable from, though often co-present with, the tradition of the lyrical "I" who contemplates his own relation to life (Nature, time, memory, love, death) and distinguishable as well from the tradition of the representative speaker who can use the word "we" in uttering something true for all human beings. One kind of great precedent, in the work of achieving penetrating awareness of the lives of persons different from the poet, is of course provided by the dramatic monologues of Tennyson and Browning. But Wordsworth and Whitman are the poets whose efforts to recognize other persons give the cited lines of "Of Modern Poetry" their most resonant ancestry.

The repeated distinction between men and women in these lines may be heard as an allusion to, even an inheritance from, Walt Whitman, who again and again took pains to acknowledge gender difference as a sign of his willingness to see and respect all sorts of human differences.

All seems beautiful to me,
I can repeat over to men and women You have done such good to
me I would do the same to you,
I will recruit for myself and you as I go,
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.

* * *

Each of us inevitable,
Each of us limitless—each of us with his or her right upon the earth,
Each of us allow'd the eternal purports of the earth,
Each of us here as divinely as any is here.

As these examples indicate, Whitman's acknowledgments of different others are never far from his determined avowals of ultimate unity among all selves in their absolute equality of earthly sacredness. But I think Whitman's commitment to such phrases as "men and women" and "he or she" and "his or her right" serves to remind both him and us of his felt obligation to admire human life in its infinite variety (both sexes, all ages, all professions), because without such specificity in admiration the affirmations which Whitman urgently proposed would ring hollow, lacking the cogency supplied by texture and color and weight. A man skating, a woman dancing, a woman combing—these three glimpses in Stevens' poem constitute a distilled Whitmanian catalogue and stand for the possibility of respectful and even empathetic detailed observation of the lives of others, a possibility pursued and at least momentarily grasped many times in Leaves of Grass.

That possibility is pursued and partly attained also in Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth explains in the Preface of 1800 that he has abjured "personification of abstract ideas" in the poems: "I have wished to keep my Reader in the company of flesh and blood, persuaded that by so doing I shall interest him." While we might judge that the realism of Wordsworth's depiction of characters such as Simon Lee, Martha Ray, and old Matthew has significant limitations, we can still agree that an attempt at vital awareness of the distinct experience of human others animates most of Lyrical Ballads. Betty Foy and her son in "The Idiot Boy," for instance, both manifest particularities of character which make them more than mere types, while we do not at all receive them as aspects or versions of Wordsworth's own identity. For readers of Stevens this achievement by the young Wordsworth should be troubling in view of the profound philosophical and temperamental affinities between the two poets, both of whom became intensely concerned, indeed obsessed, with identifying a happy relation between Nature and the imagination. Our experience of Wordsworth's vast attention to his own mind in The Prelude is protected from a sense that he is in a small exclusive way self-absorbed not only by his claim to represent the poetic power residing in every mind, but also by our recollection that he could, in Lyrical Ballads, present the distinct qualities of other selves. And when at the end of Book 4 of The Prelude Wordsworth reports his encounter with a tall soldier, a man wasted by illness, who returned to England three weeks earlier from a mission to the Tropic Islands, we do not feel that this dignified sufferer is merely a trope or device for furthering one of the poet's ideas.

I have belabored familiar points about Whitman and Wordsworth to support the idea that an attractive element of the credo in Stevens' "Of Modern Poetry"—the poet's undertaking to "face" and "meet" various other persons—has great precedents, particularly in the work of two poets who, in their resistance to transcendental supernaturalist mythologies, were deeply congenial to Stevens. For him, though, the undertaking turns out to be even more problematic than for these predecessors.

Yet there is some effort to face and meet others in Stevens' poetry. The effort is most starkly and awkwardly apparent in poems of the decade from 1936 to 1947, when Stevens could not ignore two huge sources of human suffering in the world outside his house: the Depression in America and, in Europe, totalitarian oppression and the ensuing world war. It was suffering that made human others inescapably noticeable to the poet. The suffering Stevens read about in newspapers persuaded him—against the current of profound self-concern and individualist hedonism (sometimes zestful, sometimes grim) which had striped Harmonium with lavish colors—that the separate experience of selves different from his own ought to be somehow engaged by a serious poet. Ugly realities, with human others painfully involved, impinged upon Stevens' vision, and he fought his impulse to look away, finding indeed that to ignore them was too difficult:

Who can think of the sun costuming clouds
When all people are shaken
Or of night, endazzled, proud,
When people awaken
And cry and cry for help? (CP 139)

The poet's windows permitted sounds of pain to penetrate from the street, where unemployment afflicted millions of Americans. He did not respond by going out among the sufferers and encountering them as individuals, either actually or imaginatively—whereas Whitman, the wound-dresser in Civil War hospitals, did both. But a response, Stevens felt, was called for.

He pondered this task most directly in two poems in Ideas of Order (1936), "Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz" and "Mozart, 1935." These poems are burdened with the sense that suffering people need a new and appropriate performance by the poet; he ought to give them more than the cheap advice to "look / Within themselves" for joy, which is all that "A Fading of the Sun" (the poem quoted above) can come up with. In "Mozart, 1935," "The snow is falling/And the streets are full of cries." How shall the poet respond?

Poet, be seated at the piano.
Play the present, its hoo-hoo-hoo,
Its shoo-shoo-shoo, its ric-a-nic,
Its envious cachinnation. (CP 131)

The job to be done is not an attractive one, as Stevens indicates by nonsense syllables whose vulgarity testifies to the miserable gulf between 1935 and the delicate sounds of Mozart. The nonsense syllables, moreover, erect a blank wall of sound between the poet and the real human cries in the street. To summarize those cries as "hoo-hoo-hoo" and equate this noise with "shoo-shoo-shoo" is to postpone the human seriousness of those cries. Notice that the noise of the present is characterized as "envious". If the "cachinnation" (loud harsh laughter) emanates from people who can't find work and can't feed their children, people whose "cries" fill the streets, the adjective selected seems tellingly unsympathetic. (Notice also the inclination to meld cries with laughter, as if from the poet's distance all human noises sound the same. More on this point later.) The poet-pianist is estranged from the street people, at least so long as he devotes himself to Mozart's "lucid souvenir of the past":

If they throw stones upon the roof
While you practice arpeggios,
It is because they carry down the stairs
A body in rags.
Be seated at the piano.

The poem, especially in the above stanza, provides a startling intimation of a need for political relevance in art—starding, that is, from Stevens, who vigorously opposed demands for such relevance in many letters and in "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words." The pianist is summoned to "Strike the piercing chord" of a new music which will express the suffering of all those people whose losses have been symbolically aggregated into "A body in rags."

There is an urgency in the summoning of the poet-pianist to his new work, urgency caused by the importunate quality of suffering when we cannot look away from it. We can dodge the apprehension of severe pain in others—and most of this chapter will examine methods for such dodging—but when it is immediately before our eyes, it produces not only fascination but also an instinctive (at any rate, deep and prerational) sense of imperiously required response. (In this respect the apprehension of suffering in others is like sexual desire for another person—a second kind of importuning of the self which generated great anxiety in Stevens. This will be the focus of chapter 2.) Admittedly our range of responses to vivid suffering in others includes noncompassionate responses, such as flight from the scene, passionate denial of the reality of what we have witnessed, and even sadistic desire to prolong or intensify the suffering. But none of these is a calm, relaxed response; my point is that severe pain undergone directly in front of a viewer normally jolts the viewer into a sense that something must quickly be done. In "Mozart, 1935" the stress of this sense of obligation is manifested both by the baldness of the terms of confrontation with suffering and by the effortful didacticism with which Stevens tries to control and cool the inflamed problem of injured others:

Be thou the voice,
Not you. Be thou, be thou
The voice of angry fear,
The voice of this besieging pain.

Be thou that wintry sound
As of the great wind howling,
By which sorrow is released,
Dismissed, absolved
In a starry placating.

A different poet—one more like Thomas Hardy, or more like William Carlos Williams, or more like Kenneth Fearing (a significant poet of social protest in the thirties)—having turned to face the "angry fear" of people, would feel that his poem's project must be to explore "this besieging pain" and to show forth its lineaments. Stevens, however, is interested not in writing about the street, but in writing about the problem of writing about the street. "Mozart, 1935" is a poem about poems that will do the work it does not itself undertake. Stevens' earnest wish to maintain a distance from the turmoil of others' experience is reflected by his stern insistence on the word "thou," which is repeated four times in the two stanzas just quoted and returns as the final word of the poem. Stevens does not want the poet to be one person among others, a "you" among "yous." Indeed, he judges that for the poet-pianist to perform the new work, to strike the piercing chord, it will be necessary for him to adopt a status and a role larger and more central than mere individual selfhood: "Be thou the voice, / Not you." Stevens requires an artist abstracted from—and thus, we may suggest, protected from—the mess of injured egos and competing claims out there where "the streets are full of cries." When such a distance is preserved, a satisfactory outcome of the poet's effort to respond to those cries can be much more readily imagined by Stevens; the poem can arrive at "a starry placating" just five lines after "this besieging pain." The arrival can come so soon because the poet, functioning austerely as a "thou" (not a mere "you"), has stayed in generality, abstracting countless instances of suffering into simple terms—a body in rags, fear, pain, cries—whose generality renders them swiftly manageable.


Excerpted from Stevens and the Interpersonal by Mark Halliday. Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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