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Poetry that Acts What It Asserts:  From Ideology to Experience in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens


In the essay “Why Stevens Must Be Abstract,” Charles Altieri says “Stevens realized that the abstraction he desired on the level of content might be possible without the traps of ideology, if he could adapt to poetry the testimonial, self-referential dimension of art explored in painting.  An art that enacts what it asserts can be said to finesse ideology, because its assertions do not depend on relating to the world through propositional, or even dramatic, chains of inference that have obvious dependencies on beliefs within a particular social order.” (Italics mine) (322).


Stevens’ movement toward adapting the testimonial, self-referential dimension of art in his poetry is apparent in comparison of his earliest and later work.  His earliest poetry (pre-twentieth century) used a lyric style and content reflective of a Romantic/Humanist longing for organic unity seeking universal truth, described by Altieri as the ‘traps of ideology.  His later poetry succeeds in finessing ideology, using abstraction and stylistic invention to depart from the universal and engage the reader in a modernist experience.


In this paper I will demonstrate an evolution in Stevens work toward a successful use of abstraction to ‘finesse ideology’ and create an art that enacts what it asserts.  While this evolution can be seen throughout his work and applies to a multitude of themes, for the purposes of this paper I will focus on his use of seasonal and life cycle metaphor to engage the reader in the experience of the poem; the concept of negation as the point of emergence; and the use of structural techniques to enact the experience of negation and emergence in both form and content.


Stevens’ Assertion

It is important to identify the assertion which Stevens’ enacts in his later poetry.  Using the seasonal metaphor, Stevens regularly invokes the concept of negation and emergence. In doing so, his dominant assertion is that negation is necessary for the emergence of new possibilities.  Judith Butler describes this assertion more broadly as part of what she calls ‘Stevens’ Project’.  She says Stevens’ poetry is “partially a project to mourn the loss of an illusion of metaphysical harmonies and to affirm sometimes meditatively and sometimes playfully the multiple and fluid significations that emerge in the wake of this disillusionment to shift continually the terrain of ontology itself” (287).

 In support of this statement, Butler builds a strong connection to “Hegel’s own

insight into the generative possibilities of negation, its capacity to circumscribe some domain of relationality not yet articulated.  This is the assertion that Stevens enacts in his poetry through the life cycle metaphor.  Two poems, “Vita Mea” (1898) and “A Discovery of Thought” (1954), show how Stevens’ use of this metaphor evolves from an easily accessed ideology of negation and emergence to an abstract testimonial which invites the reader to experience negation and emergence.


Stevens’ Early Work:  Vita Mea

One of Stevens’ earliest works, Vita Mea (1898) shows his entry into poetry with respect for canon and tradition, carefully following the structure, style and content of the late Romantics.  Written in iambic pentameter, the poem’s language and metaphor depend, as Altieri suggests, on the beliefs of a particular social order; that of the humanist, universal ideal founded in Platonic essentialism. The poem can be read as an attempt at organic unity to identify a universal truth.


As a result, the images evoked in the poem are easily anticipated by the reader and satisfied in the poem.  The “House of Life” by virtue of its capitalization represents a universal of the experience of life in which Stevens describes a rather desperate character seeking an escape from impenetrable doom.  “…raving like the winter’s wife” provides a simile rather easily interpreted.


The diction and syntax used in this poem so echo romantic style there is little to suggest a new possibility.  “New sun’s bloom,” and “place of doom” provide both images and a rhyming scheme frequently seen in the Romantic tradition.  “All dark! All dark!” represents death and negation with the emphasis on emotion characteristic of Romantic work.  “In vain, in vain,” with bitter lips I cried;” and “I wept. Lo!” again infuses languages and emotions characteristic of Romance Poetry. 


And yet, within the constricts of tradition, Stevens experiments with techniques which move the poem, subtle though it may be, toward something different.  The poem ends as follows


I wept.  Lo!  Through those tears the window-bars

Shone bright, where Faith and Hope like long-sought stars

First gleamed upon that prison of unrest (481).


Here he presents the window bars of the prison/house of life in which he feels trapped as shining bright and the location of Faith and Hope.  This metaphor hints at paratactical juxtaposition between darkness of the room and the shining of the metal bars as seen through tears.  Negation and emergence are also at work here, on an ideological level, with the death within the House of Life penetrated by the gleam of Faith and Hope.  Working within the universalizing framework (Faith and Hope being capitalized suggests the universal concepts rather than the experiential particulars) he set an emergent concept against the oppression and impenetrable gloom of the prison.

In this early poem another stylistic trait of Stevens emerges, that of the use of key words.  Bart Eeckhout claims that wind, sun, and winter are among Stevens’ nuclear words (99).  For example, in “Vita Mea” the words are used as the reader would contextually anticipate; sea, star, sun form literal representation as they are enfolded in the wind. They become a concrete metaphor for an atmosphere that Stevens creates in the lines: “And what sweet wind was rife With earth, or sea, or star, or new sun’s bloom, Lay sick and dead within that place of doom,”.  In later work Stevens uses the same words in abstractions that draw the reader into the poem.  In “A Discovery of Thought” the words wind and sun are abstractions which elude expected ideological representation.  This difference provides another example of Stevens’ movement toward a poetry of experience.


 Finally, the object/subject relation in “Vita Mea” follows the style of the Romantics in that there is no distance between object and subject.  The object and subject of the poem are one.  Stevens is both the voice of the poet and the subject of the poem.  The reader is invited into his world, rather than into a world of imaginative exploration.


 “Vita Mea” as an early work represents Stevens’ “project” of mourning the loss of illusion and affirming the significations that emerge in its wake. While hints of a developing style are present, there is little in the structure, diction, syntax or composition that enacts the idea that the poem asserts.  In his later work, however, “A Discovery of Thought” displays the use of a variety of inventive techniques to do for poetry what modernist painting does for art.


“A Discovery of Thought”

A Poem That Enacts What It Asserts

This evolution in Stevens’ work results, in part, from his willingness to embrace abstraction.  “Modernist abstraction appealed primarily for the promise it offered of a new poetic content, a site where it becomes possible to rethink poetry’s relation to both heroism and to history” (Altieri,321).  Stevens’ evolution toward the abstract, Altieri goes on to point out, still depended on the metaphors of seasonal flux and recurrence, but provided Stevens a style for approaching his project of negation and emergence from a less subjective position.  Therefore, it is valuable to see Stevens’ thematic appropriations as a critical tool to engage the reader at a familiar place yet invite experimentation with a style of abstraction to create new experiences. 


The styles of abstraction with which Steven experimented are identified by Kay Harel and Christopher Collins.  Harel’s identification of techniques such as gaps, delay/deferral, leading to opposites, dualistic conundrums and pending transformations provide valuable language for the specific techniques Stevens uses in “A Discovery of Thought”.  While Collins’ essay focuses Williams, his concept of saccadic movement on the pictorial plane provides insight into Stevens’ use of abstraction to engage the senses.


New Life for Old Metaphor:  Thematic Appropriations

In identifying the use of painterly abstraction by Stevens, it is important to first identify three thematic appropriations present in the poem: the seasonal metaphor, negation/emergence and “first word spoken”.   The seasonal metaphor, common to Stevens’ work, is used here but presented in unique ways.  To provide just a few examples, the theme appears in “Depression Before Spring” (1923), “Ghosts as Cocoons” (1931), “The Well Dressed Man With a Beard” (1940s), and “Long and Sluggish Lines” (1954).


 It has been suggested by Altieri that Stevens uses this time-honored metaphor to form a bridge between reader and poet by assigning to a familiar metaphor rather inventive meanings.  “It is only by grasping what we share through historical and seasonal change that we can hope to purge our idealizations of all the ideological baggage that otherwise would betray them to history’s junk heap of metaphors” (322).


 “A Discovery of Thought” presents the cycles of the season still representing death and emergence.  The poem begins in the first stanza with “dark winter”, makes reference in the third stanza to “The Cricket of Summer” and later in the seventh stanza introduces autumn in the phrase “autumn’s prodigal returned…”  Yet the seasons are presented in inventive ways.  The words of the life cycle appear randomly, their order not following the order of Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall.  In fact, the word spring is omitted.  One of Stevens’ unique uses of this metaphor is omitting the word that represents a time of emergence, spring, and instead creating in the second half of the poem the experience of emergence through pending transformation, delay/deferral and diction.


A second thematic appropriation is the metaphor of negation/death as a life cycle stage.  The idea of negation is introduced in the first stanza of the poem as dark winter.  The experience of negation is felt as a result of word choice and syntax.  The syntax represents the definitions of the chosen words.


Ideas of negation in the first two stanzas are represented in the words despoil, evaporate, dissolve and the implication of a groan or whimper in the line “a sound like one hears in sickness.”  The experience of negation is offered in the first two stanzas by sentence fragments that trail off after the preposition and antecedent in the prepositional phrases.  This sentence contains a series of subjects without predicates.  For example:  “An infancy of blue snow,” or “an arbor against the wind”, “a pit in the mist,” “a trinkling in the parentage of the north.”  Where the reader looks for something to be asserted about these subjects, the assertions seem to have dissolved or evaporated.  These dangling phrases set in the firsts two stanzas enact what the words themselves assert – a sort of dissolving and evaporation which despoils their meaning.  They do not emerge into meaning, they merely trail off.


Yet in the longer sentences in the second half of the poem each phrase is eventually completed as the emergent ideas are allowed the space and time to form on the page as well as in the reader’s mind.  The result is a poem in two parts with the first part asserting and then enacting negation and the second part asserting and then enacting emergence.  Stevens successfully accomplishes that which Eeckhout says he favors, “weaving a web of complications, leading the mind into a textual labrynth” (61)


A third and important transitional thematic appropriation is the use of the terms “first word spoken”.  Placed as they are in the transitional stanza, it can be shown that the “first idea” which Stevens introduced in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” in 1942 is at work here, clearing space after the negation to allow room for the emergence of something new.  Eeckhout claims that Stevens is using “C.S. Peirce’s Idea of Firstness.  Pierce defined his term as follows  -- ‘the idea of the present instant, which, whether it exists or not, is naturally thought as a point of time in which no thought can take place or any detail be separated, is an idea of Firstness.’  Stevens’ ‘first idea’ was likewise strongly involved with a sense of full presence – in particular the presence of the senses per se, unencumbered by thought and language” (93).  By using this theme, Stevens asks the reader to participate in this sense of full presence of the senses, a moment unencumbered by thought a language which allows space for something new.


Engaging the Mind: Pending Transformation, Omission, Deferral/delay Syntax, and Diction

From that position, Stevens continues with the use of varied sentence structures and transitions to engage the reader in the experience of emergence.  First, the reader is forced to wait on emergent spring by the poet’s refusal to name the season.  Then, the sentences in the poem get exceedingly longer as Stevens allows the ideas to emerge over continuously extended periods of readerly time, suggesting a potential transformation that has yet to be realized.  The first sentence is three lines long, the second is two lines and the third is three lines long.  This material is then interrupted by a transitional phrase dissected by a line break: 


“And always at this antipodes, of leaden loaves

Held in the hands of blue men that are lead within,”


The sentence which includes the transition is ten lines long.  The final sentence of the poem is 8 lines long.  As the poem moves from the death of winter to the open space created by the “First Word” to the emergence of spring, the techniques of deferral and delayed transformation force the reader to experience emergence; to wait for the idea to come to fullness as the words build an abstract representation of birth.


Another technique used by Stevens is opposites.  In this poem in particular the idea of opposites is stated both explicitly and implicitly in the poem to engage the reader in the experience.  The word “antipodes” used in the first line and repeated twice, means opposite.  But more than opposite it means “any two places directly opposite each other on the earth; two opposite or contrary things” (Webster’s, 62).


This critical word choice challenges the reader’s concept of opposite and invites the reader to engage with the meaning of opposites of poetry.  Does the line “At the antipodes of poetry, dark winter,” suggest that dark winter is the opposite of poetry?  Or does it suggest that there are two contrary opposites in poetry and at those directly opposite points we find dark winter and daylight, the negation of death and the light of new birth?  Thus the reader’s expectations about the word opposite are not fulfilled in the poem.  An engagement of the imagination and further curiosity is required to place the word within the meaning of the experience.

Implicitly the poem is filled with opposites which, as Harel says about another of Stevens’ poems “linguistically (and thus mentally) models for us the sensory world in which we live, in which we receive stimuli, in which we think” (#s? ).  The potential for things to lead to their opposites is shown when “trees glitter with that which despoils them.”  Thus the thing that gives them beauty also destroys. 


The concept of a thing leading to its opposite also exists in the repetition of the leaden loaves held in the hands of blue men that are lead within.”  The very heavy weight of this sentence is contrasted by the opening created by the first word spoken.  Perhaps the first word spoken, is “the desire for speech and meaning gallantly fulfilled.”  In the leaden death of men which are stuck in a world of entrenched meanings one thinks the opposite could emerge….a desire for speech and meaning could be fulfilled.  Here is the potential for death of meaning to lead to its opposite, speech and meaning gallantly fulfilled.


Engaging the Senses:  Tonal Appropriation and Saccadic Movement

Another technique Stevens uses to engage the reader is described by Eeckhout as tonal appropriation.  He describes it as “… Stevens’ ability to level his tone until the reader is left with a wide range of overtones, free to invest those emotions which happen to square best with his or her mood or temperament”(67).  This can be seen throughout “A Discovery of Thought” in the minimalist use of punctuation as well as the simplicity of word choice.  For example in the final sentence of the poem, the moment when emergence is realized, Stevens uses very simple, nondescript words to describe the event.  Ideas come in brief rhythmic 5 and 6 syllable phrases with but one adjective in the entire three line stanza.  The reader must inject his or her own emotion into that “event of life.”


Finally, while Christopher Collins’ concept of saccadic movement on the pictorial plane[i] was applied to William Carlos Williams poetry, the same techniques can be seen in Stevens’ work.  In analyzing  a Williams poem, Collins observes that “Several points emerge from this optical analysis:  1) saccadic shifts may fixate details within portrayed objects (nouns); 2) they may spatially relate separate objects (nouns) 3) the principal indicators of saccades are prepositions; and 4) nouns of indeterminate number induce an indeterminate, i.e. optional number of saccades and fixations” ( 67).  Especially toward the end of the poem where Stevens’ asks the reader to engage in the experience of emergence we see this use of nouns of indeterminate number (life, prodigal, winter, thing event) and especially the frequency of prepositions, the indicators of saccades (an antipodal, of birth, of  metal, of winter, in what it says, of deviation, in the living thing, to be born, of life). 


As Collins says “ …spoken language with its rapid shifts of attention from lexeme to lexeme bears a striking resemblance to saccadic shifts and fixations.  Not surprisingly, the verbal cues to image formation which we find in literary texts imitate quite closely these rapid series of eye movements” (266).  This performance in the mind’s eye of fixations linked by saccades, though complex beyond the scope of this paper, suggests readerly participation in the experience of abstraction similar to that of a person viewing a painting.  The reader, by developing in the mind’s eye, a series of images built by the words in the poem participates in the experience which the words enact; in this case emergence.


The two poems cited here demonstrate a significant shift from the formalist romantic desire for organic unity to a use of abstractions that are characteristically modern.  More important, however, is the transformation over the course of Stevens’ work, from presenting ideas critical to his project of mourning disillusionment and finding new meaning to offering experiences of the same.  The universal ideologies of Faith and Hope which Stevens seemed to be yearning for in his early work, are never realized, but replaced with a new opportunity for experience.  By using his poetry to enact the movement toward new meaning which Stevens asserts is possible he is in fact injecting faith and hope in the possibility of what can be brought forth.  That is faith and hope enacted.


Works Cited


Altieri, Charles.  “Why Stevens Must Be Abstract,” in Painterly Abstraction in Modernist Poetry.


Butler, Judith.  “The Nothing That Is,” in Theorizing American Literature: Hegel, the Sign, and History, Cowan, Bainard (Ed.) and Kronick, Joseph G. (Ed.).  (Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State University Press) 1991.


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


Eeckhout, Bart.  Wallace Stevens and the Limits of Reading and Writing. (Columbia:  University of Missouri Press) 2002.


Harel, Kay.  “Again Is An Oxymoron,” in The Wallace Stevens Journal, 26, (Spring 2002).


Stevens, Wallace.  Collected Poetry and Prose.  Kermode, Frank (Ed.) and Richardson, Joan (Ed.).  (New York, NY:  Penguin Putnam, Inc.) 1997.


Walsh, Thomas F.  Concordance of the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. (University Park:  Pennsylvania State University Press) 1963.  Referenced in Eeckhout, Wallace Stevens and the Limits of Reading and Writing.


Webster’s New World College Dictionary.   Agnes, Michael (Ed.) and Gurlanik, David B. (Ed.) (Foster City, CA: IDG Books Worldwide) 2001.

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