Yvor Winters on Wallace Stevens

Reading Yvor Winters on Wallace Stevens (In Defense of Reason. Athens: Swallow/Ohio U. Press, 1987). Finding him wrong-headed, but usefully so, since it’s helping me think out what I think of Stevens.

I’ll start with his take on “Anecdote of the Jar.” He dismisses two other critics who see in this poem an affirmation of humanism—to use Winters’ shorthand. (I’m a little skeptical, since so much of his reduction of poems and criticism strikes me as off-base, but I’ll accept it for now.) Both see the jar as an emblem of human consciousness which subdues or orders the wilderness, hitherto “slovenly.” Winters dismisses this notion through an analysis of the syntax that I find suspect; characteristically, he asserts, does not demonstrate: “If we examine the next two lines, however [first two lines of the second stanza], we see that the phrase, “the slovenly wilderness,” is in fact a slovenly ellipsis. The wilderness is slovenly after it has been dominated and not before: ‘it sprawled around, no longer wild’” (437).

To be sure, “sprawled” hints at the same attitude as “slovenly,” suggesting that the jar indeed has not brought “order” to the “slovenly” wilderness, but Winters offers no justification for the crucial phrase in his argument: and not before. It is this which permits him to condemn the phrase as an “ellipsis”: it elides, on this reading, the process whereby the wilderness became “slovenly.” Yet this reading is unsupportable. He offers no justification for it because there is none, that I can see at any rate, yet this is the foundation for his entire critique of the poem as a species of jaded romanticism. (“He gives only his conclusions, almost never with any evidence approaching adequacy, and in a form in which it is not possible to argue with him or even understand what he is trying to say.” Stanley Edgar Hyman in The Armed Vision, quoted by David Yezzi.)

Winters argues that for Stevens the jar “is a product of the human mind, as the critics remark, and it dominates the wilderness; but it does not give order to the wilderness—it is vulgar and sterile, and it transforms the wilderness into the semblance of a deserted picnic ground. Its sterility is indicated in the last three lines…”(436-7). The theme of the “absolute severance of the intellectual and emotional” (434), which Winters has identified in Stevens’ poem “Stars at Tallapoosa,” is “expressed this time with disillusionment and a measure of disgust. The poem would appear to be primarily an expression of the corrupting effect of the intellect upon natural beauty, and hence a purely romantic performance” (437). I agree with Winters that the critics he opposes are wrong to see in this poem an expression, as one puts it, of “the superiority … of the simplest bit of handicraft over any extent of unregulated ‘nature’” (436, quoting Stanley P. Chase, “Dionysus in Dismay,” in Humanism in America, ed. Norman Foerster. Farrar & Rinehart, 1930, p. 211). But I disagree with Winters’ reading of it as a kind of disillusioned or embittered romanticism.

It seems to me that this poem is consistent with so much that I see in Stevens, an intense and consistent grappling with the problem of the relation between mind and its material. I’m deliberately avoiding words like “nature” or even “matter,” because part of what I take to be Stevens’ idea is the way that mind always imposes its “order” or meaning (choose your term: narrative, myth…) on the world it discovers outside itself, so that the effort to grasp it directly is both a perpetual dream and always impossible. Nature is always present, the inexhaustible supply of experience, but always mediated by consciousness. I’m a little uncomfortable with this bare exposition in that it seems to owe too much to certain theorists of language who come long after Stevens, and I haven’t yet quite captured some of the nuance, but I think that’s best attempted through a careful reading of some of the poems, so I’ll wait on that part. But first I want to discuss, briefly, the implications of this much for “Anecdote of the Jar.”

It’s romantic to the extent that it finds in nature the only viable source of meaning. But it’s not romantic, nor is it humanist in the sense of Chase et al., in what it has to say about the relation between human consciousness and nature. The jar is not, pace Winters, “vulgar” or “sterile” (437), at least not in the derogatory sense that he uses the latter term. Here are the closing lines of the poem:

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

“Gray and bare” may seem to connote “vulgar and sterile,” but this reading overlooks, for one thing, the immediately preceding description of the jar: “The jar was round upon the ground / And tall and of a port in air.” This is a much more admiring tone.

More generally, though, what Winters’ reading overlooks is the tension, present in so many of Stevens’ poems (“Emperor of Ice Cream,” “The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man,” “The Idea of Order at Key West,” just to name a few familiar ones, and “Sunday Morning,” which Winters starts with), between the intellectual effort to make sense of things and the relentless “chaos of the sun” (quoting the last stanza of “Sunday Morning”) that is our material existence. The jar is “sterile” in the sense that it cannot, of itself, produce anything; it is rather an emblem of pure abstraction, a principle of order empty of all content. The creative energy of nature or material existence, on the other hand, lies entirely outside any such intellectual principle. So far this may seem like romanticism, but Stevens is not content with “mindless” celebration of that creative energy. He lives in the tension and ambiguity of the abstraction in conjunction with the endless creative chaos of existence. And he meditates the impossibility of saying anything about this outside of that abstraction. His poems present direct statement—abstraction—in creative tension with metaphor, the appropriation of sensory experience to an imaginative or intellectual end. This is what I take to be the import of lines like this, from “The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man”: “The fire eye in the clouds survives the gods.” I suspect that Winters would see this as an example of what he calls, in his reading of “Sunday Morning,” “hedonism”—a rejection of any mythos, indeed any attempt to make rational sense of the world. But I think Stevens is doing something more subtle and ambiguous. The very phrase “fire eye” is so mythic, it calls attention to itself in this context as a direct contradiction of the statement of which it is a part. I take it to be an implicit assertion that we cannot speak of the sun—of any experience, of the world itself—without mythologizing, even while we recognize that the myths we make inevitably fail, in two senses: they do not succeed in capturing the experience, and they are transient, they fade and die because their usefulness is limited.

The wilderness is, contra Winters, clearly “slovenly” before the placement of the jar. It may, as he suggests, remain so in that it does not succumb completely to the mind’s demand for order, though the jar does make it “surround that hill.” After the placement of the jar—the arbitrary positioning of some principle of abstraction, or indeed, more fundamentally, some act of attention rendered in concrete form—the wilderness “sprawls,” which is not quite the same as “slovenly.” It is, perhaps, like a recalcitrant teenager, forced to attend but still managing through its posture to assert its resistance and autonomy. (Another thing Winters overlooks is Stevens’ humor, registering the tension and ambiguity on another level, through tone.) The poem, after giving each half of this necessary binary its due—the wilderness suddenly organized, “no longer wild” but still resistant to the mind’s demands; the jar “tall and of a port in air,” dignified, empty, the essence of organization as such—does not privilege either, as both Winters and the other critics suppose, but rather describes their perpetual tension. The jar has the power to organize, but it cannot create the materials to be organized; only “nature” (again, I resist the term as yet another of the myths it is Stevens’ project to critique) can do that. This is neither romanticism nor humanism, but something which, it seems to me now, the 1930s were not prepared to recognize the way that decades of language philosophy, post-structuralism, and the rest have prepared us to, making it easier for us to see what he was up to.

I have an analogous disagreement with Winters over his reading of “Sunday Morning,” which I will just touch on quickly here as I’m running out of time. Three things: 1) the reduction of the vision of earthly “paradise,” which the poem opposes to the religious view of paradise, to “emotion.” In this Winters rests too heavily on a few lines at the end of the second stanza, ignoring the poem’s continuous and over-arching attention to physical experience itself, of which the emotions are simply a register or a means of apperception. 2) The interpretation of the woman’s speech and the remainder of the stanzas (in IV and V) as a complaint and the poet’s rejoinder, respectively; I’m more inclined to see them as call-and-response, or problem and exposition. 3) A simplistic reading of the poem as a manifesto of “hedonism” (odd that he should say so little, then, about the poem’s celebration of sensory pleasure), rather than a meditation on the problem. It is true that the poem, for the most part, rejects the traditional, institutional idea of heaven, but rather than simply insisting on the earthly alternative, the poem, as I see it, stages a kind of debate or problematic between the desire for “some imperishable bliss” and the impossibility of such a thing. The second-to-last stanza, about the men dancing “their boisterous devotion to the sun, / Not as a god, but as a god might be,” does much the same thing that “the fire eye” in “The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man” does: it shows us that in the very dawn of existence, before any thought of rational exposition—or after all attempts at such have been purged—the myth-making begins (again). True, the main thrust of the stanza is to celebrate the stripping away of attempts to discover, prove, or create some heaven or paradise beyond death, but Stevens is too smart, too aware of the relentlessness of the mind—fully nature’s equal in that quality—to let us forget that the “god” is still present.

I’d like to say something about the equation, which I’ve accepted here, between the desire for “order” as in “Anecdote of the Jar,” which is more easily reconciled with terms such as “rational exposition,” and the “myth-making” that is more prominent in some of the poems (“Sunday Morning,” “Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man”). But I’m out of time.

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