Wallace Stevens and Robert Lowell are two modern American poets who share quite a few similarities in their views on the poet and what the poet should be doing when making poetry. Both were writing in the mid-20th century, with Stevens dying in 1955 and Lowell in 1977. They also share the commonality of producing some of their most well-known works later in life. Rather than having a mid-life crisis, these poets had an explosion of creativity and genius that resonates to this day. I’ve been on huge poetry kick lately, so I wanted to take a look at “Of Modern Poetry” by Stevens and “Fishnet” by Lowell as exemplars of their views on what it means to make poetry. I chose these two poems because both use the metaphor of the theatre and the act of performance to ruminate on poetry.
I’ve split this comparison into two posts, the first focusing on Stevens, the second on Lowell. The link to the Lowell post is here
Of Modern Poetry
The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.
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 has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one. The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.
Stevens is a Romantic masquerading as a Modernist, as he has many sensibilities that are similar to Wordsworth and Coleridge. This intensely cerebral poem definitely drives home that poems are not sloppy, sentimental messes composed while crying and subsequently posted to Tumblr, but should be carefully constructed, intellectual exercises; the poem is “of the act of the mind” (28). That is not to say emotions do not belong in poetry, merely that there needs to be a fusion of emotions and craft. The poet/actor/metaphysician “twanging/An instrument” (20-21) in the dark asks fundamental questions of life, like “what is ultimately there?” and “what is it (life) like?”
Stevens is aware that he is part of a larger poetic tradition, thus the metaphor in the first stanza. Poems have not always had to work hard: “the scene was set; it repeated what/Was in the script” (3-4), meaning that poets had a plethora of work to go off of from the past. Why create new content when you have greats like Homer, Milton, or Pope to riff off of? But Stevens is not content with relying heavily on tradition. The second stanza shifts, indicating quite plainly that poetry needs to be “living, to learn the speech of the place” (7). Just as Wordsworth says that poetry needs to be in ordinary language, Stevens uses accessible language to explain his thinking. Often he uses words in odd ways (not so much in this poem but in others), but more or less he speaks in a way that anyone could pick him up and at least superficially know what he’s thinking about. How is it possible to create a poetry that is conscious of tradition while still speaking to a modern audience? He notably contemplates this quandary in “The Man on the Dump” as well.
The audience of the poem listens “not to the play, but to itself, expressed/In an emotion as of two people, as of two/Emotions becoming one” (17-19). What this means is when you’re reading a good poem, parts of it should resonate with you, should be “sounds passing through sudden rightnesses” (21), should reflect parts of yourself back at you, forcing you to look at yourself and life with greater scrutiny. How the poet does this is finding “what will suffice” (2); that is, balancing craft (e.g. proper poetic form, using interesting language and images), ordinary language and events, and larger philosophical questions.
I find it a little amusing that Stevens seems to be suggesting that poetry be topical, and speak to the men and women “of the time” (8), for example, speaking about war, because Stevens himself is ahistorical in his own writing. Many of his poems carry themes teasing out the meaning of poetry itself, as well as the imagination, reality, and broader philosophical questions than say, musing on the events and effects of WWII. I don’t necessarily expect all thinkers to meet their own lofty ideals though; just reading some literary criticism of Coleridge or Poe reveals that neither of them fully attained their own views of the creative method. I think perhaps what Stevens might be doing though in saying poetry needs to be contemporary is that there needs to be accessible images in the poem, refigured in interesting ways, such as when he speaks of “a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman/Combing” (27-28). Yes, the poem can and should speak to an everyday occurrence or something that isn’t so abstract that the reader loses interest. But it shouldn’t be just an overflow of emotions or speak only of a current event.
This poem is one example of many of Stevens musings on what it means to be a poet. We’ll see how his views compares to Lowell’s in the next entry!