Monday, October 12, 2009

Pure Poetry & Mr. Wallace Stevens

The second edition (1931) of Harmonium was reviewed, as follows, by Percy Hutchison in the New York Times. I don't think it is a good review but it does me a service here by explicating the idea of pure poetry and by expressing his hostility—which is so intense that he can't even begin to understand the poetry, not even the one poem he chooses as his test case.

That was all a long time ago, you say; why flog a dead horse? Because Hutchison's ideas and prejudices—like those of Wallace Stevens, say—never die. Pure poetry, like the pure art of Cezanne, is of the essence of modernism—a word that has never been well-defined; yet the work of modernist artists like Cezanne fetches huge prices at auctions and is the subject of learned monographs. Stevens too has attracted learned commentary, but the same people who flock to exhibitions of Matisse, Picasso or Cezanne, will look at a poem by Stevens and yawn.

Enough.  Here is Hutchison's review.

"More than one critic and not a few poets, have toyed with the idea of what has been termed: 'pure poetry', which is to say, a poetry which should depend for its effectiveness on its rhythms and the tonal values of the words employed with as complete a dissociation from ideational content as may be humanly possible. Those who have argued for such 'pure poetry' have frequently, if not always, been obsessed with some hazy notion of an analogy between music and poetry.  In the second decade of this century . . . numerous poetic schools drove theory hard. . . there were the Imagists, and there was Vorticism and Cubism, and many more 'isms' besides. For the most part, these schools have died the death which could have been prophesied for them. Poetry is founded in ideas; to be effective and lasting, poetry must be based on life, it must touch and vitalize emotion. For proof, one has but to turn to the poetry that has endured. In poetry, doctrinaire composition has no permanent place.

"Hence, unpleasant as it is to record such a conclusion, the very remarkable work of Wallace Stevens cannot endure. The verses which go to make up the volume Harmonium are as close to 'pure poetry' as one could expect to come. And so far as rhythms and vowels and consonants may be substituted for musical notes, the volume is an achievement. But the achievement is not poetry, it is a tour de force, a 'stunt' in the fantastic and the bizarre. From one end of the book to the other there is not an idea that can vitally affect the mind, there is not a word that can arouse emotion. The volume is a glittering edifice of icicles. Brilliant as the moon, the book is equally dead. Only when Stevens goes over to the Chinese does he score, and then not completely, for with all the virtuosity that his verse displays he fails quite to attain the lacquer finish of his Oriental masters. The following, "Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores," is the piece that comes nearest to the Chinese, and this is marred by the intrusion in the last line of the critical adjective 'stupid.'

I say now, Fernando, that on that day

The mind roamed as a moth roams,

Among the blooms beyond the open sand;

And that whatever noise the motion of the waves

Made on the sea-weeds and the covered stones

Disturbed not even the most idle ear.

Then it was that the monstered moth

Which had lain folded against the blue

And the colored purple of the lazy sea,

And which had drowsed along the bony shores,

Shut to the blather that the water made,

Rose up besprent and sought the flaming red

Dabbled with yellow pollen-red as red

As the flag above the old cafe—

And roamed there all the stupid afternoon.

"For the full tonal and rhythmic effect of this it must be read aloud, chanted, as Tennyson and Swinburne chanted their verses. Then, within its limits, its very narrow limits, "Hibiscus" will be found to be a musical attainment not before guessed at. But it is not poetry in the larger meaning of the term. And it is not actually music that one has here, but an imitation of music. And if there is a mood conveyed, the mood could have been equally as well conveyed by other lines equally languid of rhythm. No doubt the theorists in poetry have enriched their craft, but at a disservice to themselves. Wallace Stevens is a martyr to a lost cause."

Hutchison despises the idea of a poetry purified of moral ideas, a poetry or an art that is, or at least gives the appearance of being, about itself—art for art's sake—it's gaze firmly averted from life and its struggles; an art (perhaps) like that proposed by the aristocratic hero of Villiers de L'isle-Adam's play, Axel's Castle (1885): "As for living, we shall leave that to our servants." That's a line that could have been used in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest,  which may be the purest work of dramatic art you will ever see.

Now go back and read the poem that Hutchison quotes without comprehending, Hibiscus On The Sleeping Shores. Look at the unpoetic words Stevens uses, 'blather' and 'stupid' but also look and listen to the way they are used, the poem begins to sound. I hear the sound of exasperation, as if the poet were exasperated by the way his mind works.

So the word "stupid" actually tells us something about the subject of the poem: boredom; and, what the exasperated poet or speaker finds most exasperating of all, the tendency of his own mind as, turning away from the "purple of the lazy sea" and its sounds which to the "idle ear" are so pleasant; but pleasant is not good enough,  he has to have more . . . until the sounds of  the sea become just so much "blather" and his monstered moth of a mind rises up in a sort of rage, in search of . . . what? A "flaming red" (like the red of ancient Chinese lacquer, perhaps?) but what does he actually find? A red like the flag on the old cafe. And there the mind roams, fixated, mindlessly moth-like, "all the stupid afternoon." 

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