Quasi-unintelligibility (Part 5)
To repeat: Stevens’s “Man Carrying Thing” kicks off with a clear-cut statement about what a poem “must” do, i.e., “resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.” But the statement itself, which is part of a poem, presents no resistance to the intelligence at all—its meaning is “obvious,” to recycle a word from the poem’s own lexicon. In this regard the sentence seems, at first, to contradict what it declares. But “Man Carrying Thing” is concerned, in part, with the distinction between our experience of parts and of the wholes they add up to. As discussed in an earlier post, the meaning of the poem’s first line (“The poem must resist the intelligence”) turns out to be at odds with the meaning of the sentence it is a part of—what follows the linebreak (“Almost successfully”) not only modifies our understanding of the first line, it actually overturns it. The poem has to put up a fight against the intelligence, the sentence says, but then ultimately defer to it. Only when we experience the sentence in its entirety do we fully understand this, however—if we grasp only the first part of it, the poem’s first line, and treat it as the whole, we not only don’t understand, we are mistaken. What’s true of the whole might not necessarily be evident in the parts, just as the meanings of each of the parts don’t necessarily determine the value of the whole.
The poem then announces that it will provide an illustration of what its first sentence asserts, which is to say that what it provides will “resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.” We are then presented with a figure, presumably the one referred to in the poem’s title, but we can’t quite make it out—it is obscured by twilight. In this way the figure can be said to “resist / Identity,” but it’s important not to dismiss other possible meanings, associations, and feelings that the phrase might provoke just because we can take it to mean, simply, that the figure is “hard to make out.” To say that the figure “resists / Identity” offers more than just that. It might suggest a furtiveness—a secret mission or mysterious purpose. Or it might merely suggest that the figure’s face is protected against the cold. Or perhaps we might think of the figure as seeking to shed his particular identity, or to “escape from personality,” as Eliot phrases it in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”
Moving forward like the figure whose identity can’t be pinned down, we find that he is carrying a “thing,” as the title predicts. Even more than the figure, this thing, too, defies our apprehension, or whatever else we might make of this “most necessitous sense,” which we might paraphrase as our “neediest faculty.” Is it sight? Understanding? Either way, no matter how much we feel we need to know what he carries, we can’t know what it is. We can provide a vague outline for the man, but all we can infer about the object for sure is that it’s small enough for him to carry.
What we have here, then, is an obscured, impersonal figure carrying an object that has proven resistant to our need to know it. Not exactly vivid stuff. Nonetheless, we experience these, sketchily, as parts of a whole. The poem instructs us to “Accept them,” which at first seems to imply that we should just passively go along with what we can’t know or what’s “not quite perceived,” but in fact, the poem instructs us not merely to “Accept them” but to “Accept them… / As secondary.” Again, what follows the linebreak significantly modifies our sense of the sentence as a whole. To “Accept them” is to toss out our need to understand, whereas to “Accept them / as secondary” is to come to recognize them, or our understanding of them, as being of less than primary importance. We don’t need to grasp them completely and for their own sake, but only with reference to the role they play in our overall experience of the poem. Let go and let poem. In other words, we shouldn’t read a work of poetry in such a way that we believe our surefootedness within it depends upon a detailed grasp of all its elements—which is to say, the intelligibility of each of its parts. There will be elements we can only ever know partly, like the man we can visualize in a generic way but no more pronouncedly than that. And there will be those, like the thing he carries, about which we are given almost no material data, and that therefore remain almost entirely unknowable.
But again, our lack of detailed, particular understanding of these “secondary” elements, these “uncertain particles,” shouldn’t impede our experience of the whole to which they contribute, the “certain solid” they participate in. Up to this point the poem has been handling things that we can’t visualize clearly in a way that is itself quite graspable and clear. If I admitted in an earlier post to “vaguing out” when rereading the poem’s third and fourth couplets for the first time in years, that shouldn’t suggest that I distrust them or hold them to be meaningless. What happens is that the clarity of the poem’s first sentence creates a feeling of surefootedness that endures even as what follows becomes less clear, harder to make out—a feeling prolonged, in part, by the poem’s reliable formal regularity. There is a sense of certainty that lasts even as I grow uncertain.
It’s what happens next that I most appreciate about “Man Carrying Thing.” Heretofore the poem has functioned as an ingenious statement of what it’s like to encounter a poem, but now it will convert into a work, in my opinion, of great feeling. We are told that the poem must “resist the intelligence / Almost successfully,” and we know that it does so by presenting parts of itself as wholly intelligible, others as quasi-intelligible, and others as ultimately unknowable and therefore unintelligible. This emphasis throughout the poem on intelligibility and what resists it acknowledges that the will to understand is a primary human drive—one that isn’t so simply switched off when we turn to take in a work of art, even if what we call art would seem designed to appeal to the understanding not primarily or at least not strictly through the intellect, but through the senses, feeling, intuition, association, etc. But the mind, as Stevens wrote in “The Well Dressed Man with a Beard,” “can never be satisfied.” Our intellect always strives to understand, even where it can’t possibly. The parts of the whole the mind has been instructed to accept as secondary still demand to be placed in some order, these “uncertain particles” still flicker about and circulate, a flurry of particulates like flakes of snow—and not just any snow, but the “first one hundred flakes of snow,” a precise figure that’s impossible to visualize precisely, and whose exactitude reflects the intellect’s scramble to exert control over that which eludes it.
In the space of a sentence we move from an injunction to accept what can’t be known to “a horror of thoughts that are suddenly real.” That’s quite a change—but even if it happens fast, it happens incrementally. The poem’s “uncertain particles” transform into the century of snowflakes that in turn amplify into “a storm”—a blizzard of snow, and of secondary things, and of thoughts, each of which corresponds brilliantly to the next. Not infrequently I find it hard, which is to say I resist it, not to imagine the mind at work as a cliché snowglobe in which what is thought, what is sensed, and what is felt are all frantically intermixing in a contained chaos up until the last of its hundred smidgeons of white plastic settles dozily on the branch of a conifer, or on a fencepost, or on the roof of the two-inch cabin where we have tossed and turned all night through the storm, all night sleeplessly thinking.
The poem begins with a statement of poetics and in one sense, that’s what it remains—a poem about what it’s like to read poetry. But what interests me most about the poem is how it manages in such a small space to represent what it’s like, in a more general sense, to undergo a phase of heightened consciousness—one whose confusion of thought, sense, and feeling must be with-stood in order to be under-stood. “We must endure our thoughts all night,” the poem ends, “until / The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.” What defies order or a sense of meaning eventually collects into what we can experience as a meaningful whole. In this regard, despite its dip into “horror,” “Man Carrying Thing” remains hopeful. And although it never states so explicitly, for me it’s hard not to imagine in the end that we have moved from the “evening” at the poem’s start through “night” and into morning, where we wake to find our thoughts composed, our feelings somehow settled, and our previous confusion calmed into knowing—the pieces that resisted our intelligence now accumulated into a “bright obvious” field of white, lit by a cold winter sun.
One more thing. As I mentioned in my previous post, in Wallace Stevens and Poetic Theory the critic B. J. Leggett traces the influence of Charles Mauron’s Aesthetics and Psychology on Stevens’s poetry from the 1940s, an influence that might be best understood as a clarifying one, meaning that much of what Stevens seems to have derived from Mauron is a refinement of what his poetry had often been affirming all along. I’ll end this post with a passage from Mauron’s book, quoted in the Leggett (p.115), with particular relevance to the poem at hand:
. . .two elements in a work of art may very well be connected by a relation deliberately introduced by the artist, but unperceived by the spectator, especially at first sight. Aesthetic order is meant to be felt rather than analyzed; the existence of a combination produces a vague and delightful impression of continuity and order; we feel ourselves in a harmonious atmosphere. But the more intimate analysis of this delight of the shades and causes requires technical knowledge which the spectator does not necessarily possess. Moreover. . .aesthetic order, if it is to become a source of pleasure, must remain hidden in a sort of twilight where we may have the joy of discovering it. So if the reader does not perceive at a glance the system of combinations in a work which yet he feels has “form,” I advise him to be patient; to-morrow, or perhaps ten years hence, he will see it revealed to his astonished eyes.
Timothy Donnelly is the author of two books of poetry, Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit, and The Cloud Corporation. He earned a BA from the Johns Hopkins University, an MFA from Columbia University, and a PhD from Princeton University. Spencer Bailey, in an article for...