Friday, May 24, 2013

Stevens Beyond Key West: Critical/Practical Inquiry

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely the place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.
--Wallace Stevens, "The Idea of Order at Key West"

I take the lines of Stevens as a point of departure and form to fill. Whatever I have come to believe or to do in the 30 years since first reading them, they have become a part of my literary genetics, first as words in themselves, then as words about a place with which I've become slightly acquainted, one including but not limited to Key West. These are words that express a peculiarly American romantic breadth in the midst of mundane subject matter. They also address perennial questions of consciousness and form. They are great lines of poetry. My intention here is to ask whether they define and fix reality of the life of imagination or whether they indicate what is instead an open frontier.

She Was the Maker

The narrator of this poem pretends not to be the source of its power. As in Wordsworth's "Solitary Reaper", the subject and power of the poem come from the song of an overheard singer, and, as in Wordsworth, the song itself has no direct presentation. Stevens is a beneficiary of the song which he interprets, as is his companion Ramon Fernandez.¹ This at once seems an unfortunate situation, but the poem enacts the romantic trope of the unsingable song, and a certain amount of clumsiness in representing such a lyric is inevitable.
     "Maker" recalls the Greek root of the word poet and the lyric poet as one who makes songs. The singer in this poem is no one but. She is not a personification of nature, but one who gives order to it. Stevens allows little ambiguity in this identification. Her singing presence is the presence of mind apart from but reacting to the surrounding world. She is a representation of creative power itself.

Tragic-gestured Sea

The sea of this poem is a world of inhuman, unconscious form. The immediate, naive, question might be how the inhuman can make tragic gestures, and yet we understand the image and its connotation of the world that at best does not conform to our wishes. The sea, then, stands in for all the world as we know it with its striving and suffering.
     "Tragic-gestured" also comes to us referring to drama and the performance of actors, and so Stevens adds a great deal of ironic distancing from this reality and also shows the inextricable relationship between imagination and reality. I often refer to the phrase inspired by Allen Grossman about how poetry is, to one degree or another, reality mediated by imagination, or what he calls its "cybernetic" (regulating) function. Here the image of the sea, the image of the overwhelming, keeps the experience of actual tragedy at bay, as it were, so that the meaning of the poem can happen. More crudely, we don't experience a poem while drowning.²

Merely the Place
In encountering life there is a perceived choice between engaging with "things as they are" (as Stevens baldly put it in "The Man with the Blue Guitar"), whatever, whenever and wherever they may arise, and the option of withdrawing from that responsibility. Either choice leads to an annihilation. To opt out of engagement is to destroy one's identity as an autonomous entity and threatens the functioning of a wider community. To engage with reality in all its forms, to problem solve whatever the problem, also destroys, essentially making all situations the occasion for the same action, assigning no peculiar value to one problem over another. Personal identity of a sort remains, but the identity is like that of Sisyphus constantly rolling a boulder over hills in hell. Human value survives, but barely.
    The singer in "Idea of Order" also engages with reality, and she also performs an annihilation of a kind any competent problem solver does, so the reality of the place where she sings becomes "merely the place by which she walked to sing." It is a reality without value, a place interchangeable with any other place, a problem or a reality interchangeable with any other.
     If the singer walks through the world of suffering and orders it, if she has performed her mediation of reality, the for the moment of her song, for the time Stevens and Fernandez hear it, a community of the artist and audience has dome into being (Stevens also acts as that community's high priest). But "The Idea of Order at Key West" is a poem very much aware of its impermanence of feeling. And, in any case, the singing takes place in a world desolated by its own success. In making meaning it reveales a world barren of human meaning. Frank Kermode has referred to Stevens as "the poet of metaphysical poverty," in that Stevens always ran up against the inadequacy of imagination, the inability to form what he would call a "Supreme Fiction" that would resolve the problem.³
    At this point in the analysis, which takes place, after all, outside the poem, what further function can imaginative making perform? The very real sea of problems still exists, and it is desolate as ever. And we might prefer practical solutions to poetry, and yet our solutions also desolate.  Representation itself, which misrepresents as it describes (what sea wears a hood?), seems more and more dangerous in a world where stereotypes harm and generalizations breed ignorance. And if the singer's song is a limited moment for an insular audience (at Key West!) do we see a limit, finally, for any at all for imaginative representation?

We Should Ask This Often
"Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew/It was the spirit that we sought and we knew/That we should ask this often as she sang," says Stevens. It is a question within a poem; in fact it is a question limited by a song sung within a poem. Yet this limited question offers the most hopeful course of action, a program that can be taken outside of the poem and applied in a world where imagination and reality interact.
     It is in fact a strategy Stevens must have employed himself, to ask "Whose spirit is this?" or, more simply, "Who am I in this world of suffering?" For Stevens this question was too great to answer with a supreme fiction. On the other hand, the question fueled his poetic career all the way to the poem "Of Mere Being," which begins, "The palm at the end of the mind,/beyond the last thought, rises...." it attests to a life spent paying attention and asking a question.
     The question must be asked often; the details keenly perceived. Beyond the thought of the sea is the sea itself, its uses and dangers, whatever our desires craft it into being beyond water molecules or quantum foam or whatever coldest form is we can imagine. And then there is the human life that contains and creates the poetry. It has already created all the problems poetry will create. The trick is to deal with them as they arise and ask what they are. If our images create problems, perhaps we can take solace in the fact that they don't last forever. Critics such as Grossman have expressed dire urgency about the problems of representation and how the world goes on. But what other action can be taken by artists than to go on?
     At this point I sense that I have evaded my own question, that I have posed big problems about the utility of representation, refused to so solve them and then reached outside of literature to make another point. My original question, however. was about life and imagination and where there is room for them to continue. I have looked where Stevens's lines have pointed. The option for the poet is to continue or stop, whatever anyone says.
     Perhaps I can pick up some of the other issues at another time.

Postscript, 5/28/13. I've been mulling over whether this article is worth leaving up. It's pretty muddy. Also, since I reference Allen Grossman and talk about "annihilation," I need to clarify how I'm using the term differently than he would. Again, this may all be revisited at another time.

¹I abandon the controversy of whether Fernandez as figure in the poem or as apostrophized fascist literary critic. To someone coming cold upon this poem, Fernandez can only be a figure within it.

²For Grossman's critical account of what happens when this regulatory function fails in this literal way, see his astounding article on Hart Crane collected in The Long Schoolroom: Lessons in the Bitter Logic of the Poetic Principle (University of Michigan Press, 1997).

³"Solitary Confinement," Pieces of My Mind: Essays and Criticism 1958-2002 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)

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