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a world of words to the end of it

By Stephen Burt

We don’t want our toddler to watch much TV, but we do let him watch some things, and we watch them with him: Meerkat Manor, for example, and WNBA basketball (congratulations to the Mercury!), and, now, a new show called Word World, an animated series designed to teach reading, in which all the characters and most of the sets (a DOG, a SHEEP, a BARN, etc.) are physically made of the letters in their names (so that the dog, for example, has a D for a head, and a tail growing out of his G).
It’s one of many ways in which interactions with a young child starting to learn to read can put you in touch with what poetry critics these day are pleased to call “the materiality of language”– in this case parodically, in the case of Fox in Socks more truly: is there a book of poetry for adults that does more to privilege the signifier– as we say now– or to focus on the sounds of words? (How would you stage, or recite, the Fox in Socks Hamlet?)
And yet, of course, there are ways in which we as readers of poetry feel that we might be made out of words, ways that seem not quite appropriate to toddlers, or not quite susceptible of depiction in art aimed at them– ways in which lyric poems written for adults reveal their authors, if not their readers, as shot through with concepts, animated by abstractions.


These ways are the special province of Wallace Stevens, whose late poetry so often complains that we cannot live concretely enough, and so often asks whether we can live by our abstractions. The dog made of DOG, the shark made of the letters SHARK (with teeth in the lower bowl of the S) got me thinking of Stevens’ poem “Men Made Out of Words,” which at its outset suggests that we are animated by, constituted by, “words” only inasmuch as they coalesce into a story, a “myth”: “What should we be without the sexual myth,/ The human revery or poem of death?// Castratos of moon-mash.”
Thus far he sounds like D. H. Lawrence, with his sexual monomyth (or monomania?)… but Stevens seems to change his mind, and says something about as un-Lawrentian as you can get: “Life consists/ Of propositions about life.” The myths that animate us, it turns out, animate us not chthonically, instinctively, the way cats and stoats are moved to mate and fight, but insofar as we learn those myths at least half-consciously: we are verbal and cultural beings even in our deepest drives, drives we create, moreover, in “solitude,” in “revery” (Stevens’ terms). And one of those drives, it turns out, is the drive to prove that we are real, that our drives and goals have consequences in the world we share with other people (themselves also “made of words”), that our reveries and solitudes have consequences outside ourselves.
We are moved to speak and act, Stevens adds, “by the fear that defeats and dreams are one.” He must have in mind the wartime fear of defeat (the poem comes from Transport to Summer, published in 1947) but he also has in mind his own frequent fear of solipsism, of living entirely in “revery” and “solitude,” as unsympathetic readers have accused him of doing.
“Men Made Out of Words” is one of those poems in which we can see the poet changing his mind, revising his thinking, as he goes along, and recording not a deductive proof but a set of related ideas, each answering the one before. In this case the final idea is the least satisfactory: “The whole race is a poet that writes down/ The eccentric propositions of its fate,” Stevens concludes, as if “the whole race” could agree on anything, as if the Rousseauian General Will could be transcribed.
Before he gets there, though, Stevens suggests something neat: he implies that it is through competition with others— debate, argument, or other interaction that can lead to victory or defeat– that we find out which propositions can animate us, which can succeed as myth, for each of us: we are moved to intellectual exploration, to use and test the words that come to us, not least by our fear that– if not tested by experience and argument– our reveries are only “dreams,” hence end in “defeat.”
Which brings me back to the Mercury: congratulations to Phoenix and their fans.
It also brings me forward into Stevens: where else in his work, by what other roads, does he imagine testing his ideas (about how to write, about how to live) against experience in the social or physical worlds? what does experience, in the sense of interaction with the social and physical world, have to do with the materiality of language, with the feel and sound of words and syllables? can we say that it is part of the job of lyric to make the first (experience) have something to do with the second (materiality of language)? or is that only– to take another title from Stevens– “Thinking of a Relation Between the Images of Metaphors,” too far from any single poem to be of much use?


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, September 17th, 2007 by Stephen Burt.