Christina Pugh’s thesis cannot be properly understood, much less evaluated, without first clarifying two basic types of human experience. Human beings are biological organisms with certain inherited reflexive responses to stimulithis is experience . But “experience” also refers to and includes the range of our responses to our own reflexescall it, experience . If by “experience,” we mean the former, then perhaps Pugh is correct in saying that it cannot be the “litmus test for poetry.” But surely we more often mean “experience” to include both the senses I have given here. And in that expanded meaning, experience not only underlies meaning in literature, it is its font, its fundamental source.
Pugh invokes Wallace Stevens as an example of a poet of limited “experience.” Yet his experiences, as I have defined the notion, are not at all limited. Indeed, his life was optimally designed to provide him with experiences in the full sense as I have outlined it: he guarded the space and time necessary to respond to his inherited reflexes, yet he remained engaged in a complex set of social interactions through his work as an insurance executive.
This combination of detachment and involvement remains through time a remarkably potent cocktail for artists. Both Dante and Shakespeare were fully engaged in the social milieus of their own times, and both had periods of seclusion or isolation from society that are seen as crucial to their development as artists.