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god money's not looking for the cure.

god money's not concerned with the sick among the pure.

god money let's go dancing on the backs of the bruised.

god money's not one to choose.

--Nine Inch Nails, “Head Like a Hole”



Ahh, the Power of Negation:
Wallace Stevens’ use of what is not to help us see what is


“No, I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be…”

--T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”


“…repression, however, is not the most obvious characteristic of the sea…”

--Marianne Moore, “The Grave”


The modernist movement in poetry arose, in part, as a reaction to the horrors of World War I. The war wiped out an entire generation of young European men and ended Europe’s cultural and military domination. Farther east, Russia was headed for a revolution that brought little that was more revolutionary than mass oppression. And on the other side of the world, the war brought the United States to the forefront of international affairs as an emerging world power.


At about the same time that the western world was driving toward the largest conflict in modern history, western culture was also suffering its way through an upheaval. The inventions of the airplane and automobile, along with the advancement of science through Einstein’s revolutionary theory of relativity, began to redefine the world by speeding up its pace. The result of this cultural, scientific, and social turmoil led to a crisis among American and European writers working to describe their world with any degree of accuracy. The traditionally romantic poetic voice, which depicted a world in which every object and idea was filled with symbolic and spiritual meaning, no longer spoke to the conditions of the western writer living in a world in which tradition was dead, religion was dying, and disillusionment was very much alive. When Ezra Pound rallied the troops with his battle cry—“Make it new!”—the arts and letters were prepared to follow.


The first step was to remove the symbols from language, as the symbols themselves were no longer relevant in a new culture which called for its own symbols. The rose, William Carlos Williams argued, “is obsolete.” Gertrude Stein asserted in “A Long Dress” that “a dark place is not a dark place.”


Wallace Stevens railed in his own way against the emotionally loaded romantic ideas held in language throughout his career as a poet. He struggled in his work to acknowledge the western world’s romantic history while working to redefine his culture in an anti-romantic or aromantic way. In “Sailing After Lunch,” Stevens addresses the question of how prevalent “the romantic” should be in literature:


The romantic should be here.

The romantic should be there.

It ought to be everywhere.

But the romantic must never remain. (99)


This acceptance of the existence of the romantic, partnered with a refusal to admit it outright into his writing shows Stevens’ determination to make the world new by describing it in new terms. In this way, “[t]he past is affirmed without being rendered present, just as the presence of the present moment is elided” (Shaviro, 221).


In “Man and Bottle,” Stevens again explains the importance of getting rid of symbolism in an effort at making the world new:


The mind is the great poem of winter, the man,

Who, to find what will suffice,

Destroys romantic tenements

Of rose and ice


In the land of war. More than the man, it is

A man with the fury of a race of men,

A light at the centre of many lights,

A man at the centre of men. (218)


This is a place and a time, Stevens asserts, in which the thoughtful human must think about difficult issues like war and fury and what it means to be a representative of a culture. The “romantic tenements,” can be seen as the trappings of romantic poetry that have dogged western writers through the centuries. The fact that they are made of “rose and ice” supports this reading, as both rose and ice are loaded concepts and contain symbolism that is nearly impossible to erase. These tenements are useless to the thoughtful westerner, as they are first of all, as tenements, poor modes of shelter against the barren winter, meant only for the economically—or, in this case, philosophically—poor. The tenements as buildings are also distractions, pulling the viewer’s attention from the real issues that need to be addressed; that is, what is beneath or behind the tenements.


Negation as redefinition

One of Stevens’ primary methods of redefining language was by talking about what was not part of the reality of a scene. By using negation, by telling the reader what is not there or what will not happen, he works to avoid the romantic traps of description.


Stevens lays out the importance of negation in language in “The Well Dressed Man With a Beard.” In this poem, he tells the reader straight out that there must be the negative in order for the observer to find the positive:


After the final no there comes a yes

And on that yes the future world depends.
No was the night. Yes is this present sun.
If the rejected things, the things denied,
Slid over the western cataract, yet one,
One only, one thing that was firm, even
No greater than a cricket’s horn, no more
Than a thought to be rehearsed all day, a speech
Of the self that must sustain itself on speech,
One thing remaining, infallible, would be
Enough. (224)


By arguing that the affirmative can only come after the negative, or that which is not, has been established, Stevens speaks to the value of the real in relation to understanding the not-real. One cannot, for example, know the value of “the sun” if the sun is not paired with its opposite, the night. It’s that gap between an object’s meaning and what that object is not that gives the reader a full concept of the value of what it is.


The Imagination as Participant

For Stevens, another important aspect of negation is its effect on the imagination. At the end of “The Well Dressed Man With a Beard,” Stevens tells the reader “It can never be satisfied, the mind, never.” In other words, the imagination is paramount for the reader in her ability to picture the world. If what does exist will not suffice, the mind must always reach for what is not but may be. We cannot, Stevens tells the reader, understand the real until we can imagine what is not real but may be--and through that imagining of the world comes a more thorough understanding of the world. In this way, the mind may make an insufficient world sufficient: If what is known can never be enough, then what is not known or not yet known may help the reader form a kind of adequacy.


Stevens began many of his poems with a negation: “The night knows nothing of the chants of night” (“Re-statement of Romance”), “The Jew did not go to his synagogue…” (“Winter Bells”). The immediate negation of an existence or a specific circumstance is startling for the reader and sets the reader up for a world in which nothing can be taken for granted. And sometimes, the reader does not realize for several lines that Stevens has tricked her by giving her what is not or what does not exist first. Stevens begins “How To Live. What To Do” with an immediate negation, which the reader only understands after she is already several lines into the poem:


Last evening the moon rose above this rock

Impure upon a world unpurged.

The man and his companion stopped

To rest before the heroic height. (102)


The lack of the observers is striking because the poet uses the observers’ eyes throughout the rest of the poem to describe the scene. Without the fresh eyes of the observers, the scene is simple for the poet to describe--there is a moon and a rock, nothing else. The poet can only further describe the scene in negatives, depicting the moon “Impure upon a world unpurged.” These negatives are so vague when unpaired with any sort of further description that they are immediately meaningless to the reader.


The poet works immediately to correct that lack by swooping suddenly down to the very point at which the man and his companion enter the scene. They have stopped to rest and for the rest of the poem remain still, as if they are frozen but for their senses: The wind falls coldly upon them; through it, they hear “many majesties of sound.” Then the poet follows the observers’ eyes to what he had previously described only as “the rock”; in the presence of the observers, the poet can now see the rock in greater depth, as “tufted.” Through the observers’ eyes, the scene becomes what Christopher Collins calls “the moving image:” What had been stationary for the poet moves suddenly and dramatically for the observers. Suddenly, instead of simply existing while the rest of the world moves around it, the rock moves itself “massively rising high and bare / beyond all trees”—and the poet is able to see and depict that movement, as well.


Negative Simile

Stevens also uses not as a form of comparison—what David Lehman calls a “negative simile” (86). Telling the reader what something is like is problematic for Stevens, who objected to metaphors that “invent[] without discovering” (Rae 150). Stevens would find it problematic, for example, to say that one’s love is “like a red, red rose.“ Because the symbolism of the rose is obsolete as a result of its overuse through the centuries, the simile has become worthless to the modern reader. Instead of wasting the reader’s time, then, Stevens chose to avoid reapplying these overused symbols by instead comparing a scene to what does not exist.


In “How to Live. What To Do,” Stevens uses the negative simile to compare the scene to a church without allowing the church to actually enter the scene:


There was neither voice nor crested image,

No chorister, nor priest. There was

Only the great height of the rock

And the two of them standing still to rest. (103)


Stevens has taken us from a stark scene previously described only as “impure” and “unpurged” to one that is still stark but is now open for comparison—even though the object being offered up for comparison does not actually exist in this poem. The reader can now imagine the choir, the priest, the church, but Stevens refuses to allow those symbols to actually exist within the scene. They only loom large in the background as specters (or spectators) through which the starkness of the scene flickers—like the elephant standing in the corner of the room.


When Stevens finally describes how the scene actually appears, that description is given more power because it is lined up paratactically with the previous description of what the scene is not:


There was the cold wind and the sound

It made, away from the muck of the land

That they had left, heroic sound

Joyous and jubilant and sure.”


By giving the reader what is not part of the scene first, then offering a “true” description of the scene, Stevens forces the reader to search for some sort of resemblance and difference between the two sets of “realities.” The sound of the wind is not a voice, either speaking or singing; is not delivering religion as the choir and priest would. Yet still the sound is heroic and joyous, as one might imagine the choral voices to be.


The Suggestion of an Under-Story

Stevens uses negation in yet another way: to create two separate stories, one obvious and the other more subtle, nearly a phantom of a story. In “The Lack of Repose,” Stevens begins by describing a simple scene: “a young man seated at his table.” The main story, as it turns out, is that the well-off young man is sitting and reading a book in the afternoon, thinking of his grandfather.


But Stevens refuses to stop there: There is a secondary story, which exists in complete negation. First of all, the book is one that “you have never written.” It may very well be “mid-day,” Stevens concedes, but he goes on to tell the reader that it’s also “not midnight.” The grandfather, a ghost in this poem, is first of all “not lean, catarrhal / And pallid” (269). This double story works to undermine any possibility of romantic symbolism of the young man reading in his home. The elements of the second story combine with the first to create a spooky under-story, one of malevolent ghosts haunting the expensive and expansive house at midnight—despite the fact that within the poem, none of this actually happens.


At the end of the poem, after Stevens tells the reader what a thing it is for the young man to think he understands, he continues:


And not yet to have written a book in which

One is already a grandfather and to have put there

A few sounds of meaning, a momentary end

To the complication, is good, is a good.


This second story ultimately undermines the first by telling what it is not and showing that no understanding is complete without the knowledge of what is not contained in reality. Although the young man may believe he has reached an awareness of his world, he clearly does not, as he has not realized what his view of the world does not contain.



Wallace Stevens can in many ways be seen as a contradictory poet. His writing, especially the earliest poetry, clings to remnants of the Romantic tradition in his rhythm, its meter and its style. Yet the structure of his poetry was only the frame on which hung an effort to redefine and reclaim an overly symbolic world. For Stevens, a poet who was forced to deal with the new world forged by the effects of the first World War and the economic and cultural turmoil of the early decades of the 20th century, one of the best ways to redefine and reclaim western culture was through describing what it was not. This use of negation helped him to recover what had been lost in poetry through the (over)use of symbolism and metaphor.



Works Cited


Collins, Christopher. “The Moving Eye in Williams’ Earlier Poetry.” in William Carlos Williams: Man and Poet, Carroll F. Terrell, ed. National Poetry Foundation: Orono, ME, 1983.


Lehman, David. “Three Meditations on Wallace Stevens.” Shenendoah,32.2. 1981.


Rae, Patricia. “Bloody Battle-Flags and Cloudy Days: The Experience of Metaphor in Pound and Stevens.” Wallace Stevens Journal, 26.2 (Fall 2002).


Shaviro, Steven, “’That Which Is Always Beginning’: Stevens’s Poetry of Affirmation.” PMLA, 100.2 (March 1985).


Stevens, William. Collected Poetry & Prose. The Library of America: New York, 1997.

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