As Part of a class in my MFA program titled Literature for Writers, Professor Janet Peery asked for a final project interrogating our semester-long study of our choice of writer. At the beginning of the seminar, I chose Wallace Stevens as a poet I should probably know more about, as my encounters with him have been few and far between.
After attempting several different projects, including a couple of essays, I decided to go a little more playful: bring Stevens into contemporary America and see what happens. The posts included under this category are the results.
I intend for this to be an ongoing project, one which perhaps opens new avenues for my own poetry and understanding.
For now, the first few entries are based around the following excerpts from The Necessary Angel, Stevens’ collection of essays:
For more than ten years now, there has been an extraordinary pressure of news—let us say, news incomparably more pretentious than any description of it, news, at first, of the collapse of our system, or, call it, of life; then of news of a new world, but of a new world so uncertain that one did not know anything whatever of its nature, and does not know now, and could not tell whether it was to be all-English, all-German, all-Russian, all-Japanese, or all-American, and cannot tell now; and finally news of a war, which was a renewal of what, if it was not the greatest war, became such by this continuation. And for more than ten years, the consciousness of the world has concentrated on events which have made the ordinary movement of life seem to be the movement of people in the intervals of a storm. The disclosures of the impermanence of the past suggested, and suggest, an impermanence of the future. Little of what we have believed has been true. Only the prophecies are true. The present is an opportunity to repent. This is familiar enough. The war is only a part of a war-like whole. It is not possible to look backward and to see that the same thing was true in the past. It is a question of pressure, and pressure is incalculable and eludes the historian… We are confronting, therefore, a set of events, not only beyond our power to tranquillize them in the mind…but events that stir the emotions to violence, that engage us in what is direct and immediate and real…and these events are occurring persistently with increasing omen, in what may be called our presence. These are the things I had in mind when I spoke of the pressure of reality, a pressure great enough and prolonged enough to bring about the end of one era in the history of the imagination, and, if so, then great enough to bring about the beginning of another.
Wallace Stevens. “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” 20-22.
I am interested in the nature of poetry… It is an interdependence of the imagination and reality as equals… Then I am interested in the role of the poet and this is paramount… I might be expected to speak of the social, that is to say sociological or political, obligation of the poet. He has none… that he is contemporaneous is almost inevitable… I do not think that a poet owes any more as a social obligation than he owes as a moral obligation.
“The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” 27.
As I worked on some of the other ill-begotten project ideas, I was also multi-tasking on twitter, facebook, and listening to music. The idea that history is a sort of pressure, and that “history” as a concept has become narrower in terms of scope, suddenly provided a sense of inspiration—an in to the complex task before me. For, if Stevens had encountered contemporary society, and aspects of it like the 24-hour news cycle or the complex webs of connections we weave around us which operate close to instantly, how would these concepts of history, pressure, and contemporaneity mutate or change?
How can an “era in the history of imagination” be imagined when the very concept of era has become so compressed as to be constantly evolving, when our understanding of the world and each other—our imagination in Stevens’ terms—mutates at such a speed that we accept our existence as postmodern beings?
How does his notion of poetry as “an interdependence of the imagination and reality as equals” survive in a world of fragmentation, accepted personal narrative, validly multi-perspectived literature?
How does the idea of the poet as contemporaneous and his social/moral obligationlessness stack up against what can only be described as political or protest poetry?
These are some of the questions this series hopes to answer, through both lyrical and prosaic exploration.