“I have the greatest dislike for explanations,” an emphatic Stevens once wrote to Ronald Lane Latimer, the pseudonymous editor of Alcestis Press, a small and short-lived leftist publishing outfit in New York City back in the 1930s. “As soon as people are perfectly sure of a poem they are just as likely as not to have no further interest in it; it loses whatever potency it had.” Stevens might be overstating the case. It’s true that there’s not much humor left in a joke if you already know the punchline, and when you let the audience in on the magic trick, their amazement vanishes. But maybe a poem has more in common with something like a slab of homemade gingerbread. List off all the ingredients and tell me exactly what you did to them, and it still won’t put a dent in my regard. On the other hand, few people poke around for meaning in their gingerbread, while they’re almost always after it in their poems. Famously the Victorians made use of a language of flowers in which, for example, pink carnations stood for “always on my mind,” whereas hydrangeas communicated “heartfelt thanks for being understood,” but there appears to have been no comparable system for baked goods, in which gingerbread would mean, in all likelihood, “fortitude through hardship.”
Stevens wrote many different kinds of poems and some of them, he would have us think, were meant to be partaken of merely sensuously, unconcerned with meaning—which is to say, more like gingerbread than an essay, or some bundle of significant flowers. But he always disliked explaining them. He disliked reducing them to single authoritative readings that pretended to render them completely intelligible. He didn’t think a poem should be completely intelligible, as we have seen, but rather, as if in a bid to retain its particularity, its non-fungible whatness, the poem should be endowed with that which surpasses paraphrase, and should defy full absorption into our intellects. And yet, when called upon to provide explanations, he did so, albeit a bit begrudgingly, and never without leaving substantial wriggle room for the reader’s own experience of the work. In fact, his correspondence is nothing short of generous with letters to half-boggled inquirers, including Latimer and perhaps most notably Hi Simons, a poet and critic who dreamed of writing a book-length study of Stevens’s work but never quite managed to in reality, although he did write an essay on “The Comedian as the Letter C” that caught Stevens’s eye. And there were other correspondents, too, who were graced with Stevens’s “explanations,” despite his professed distaste for them. Here’s part of his response to an inquiry from L. W. Payne, Jr., an editor at Rand McNally, on the topic of Stevens’s poem “Domination of Black”:
I am sorry that a poem of this sort has to contain any ideas at all, because its sole purpose is to fill the mind with the images & sounds that it contains. A mind that examines such a poem for its prose contents gets absolutely nothing from it. You are supposed to get heavens full of the colors and full of sounds, and you are supposed to feel as you would feel if you actually got all this.
I’ll take Stevens at his word here. The poem exists to stimulate the sensory imagination, producing “quasi-perceptual experience” in the absence of “appropriate external stimuli,” to quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. But I think it achieves more than just that—it serves, too, to illustrate the way that chance elements in one’s surroundings can conspire to produce, in an imaginative mind, feelings of wonder and of dread. With its many visual correspondences (leaves, flames, tails), sonic echoes (leaves, -selves; peacocks, hemlocks, etc.), and frequent references to turning and repetition, the poem suggests a kind of entrancement, a magic spell that destabilizes the speaking subject’s sphere of reference, telescoping it from the domestic to the terrestrial and finally to the cosmic:
Out of the window,
I saw how the planets gathered
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
I saw how the night came,
Came striding like the color of the heavens.
I felt afraid.
And I remember the cry of the peacocks.
Not your ordinary night at home by the fire. A sensitivity to chance correspondences has pulled back the “cotton wool” of routine, as in one of Virginia Woolf’s “moments of being,” unexpectedly revealing the pattern that interconnects and presides behind all things, and the vertiginous zoom from the near-at-hand to the galactic and back again that it induces awakens in the subject a sense (sometimes alleviating, but often terrifying, as it is here) of the individual’s insignificance and powerlessness within that pattern.
In the next paragraph of the same letter, Stevens comments on another poem, “To the One of Fictive Music”:
This poem was rather more thought out than the last one. It is not only children who live in a world of the imagination. All of us do that. But after living there to the degree that a poet does, the desire to get back to the everyday world becomes so keen that one turns away from the imaginative world in a most definite and determined way. Another way of putting it is that, after writing a poem, it is a good thing to walk around the block; after too much midnight, it is pleasant to hear the milkman, and yet, and this is the point of the poem, the imaginative world is the only real world, after all. It is shocking to have to say this sort of thing. Please destroy these notes. I don’t mind your saying what I have said here. But I don’t want you to quote me. No more explanations.
What impresses me most about Stevens’s description of “To the One of Fictive Music” is the way he seems to position the poem as an act of recovery from the “too much midnight” of “Domination of Black”—although, for the record, the two poems, both of which appear in Harmonium, were written six years apart, so this relationship reflects not how the later poem came to be, but how the two coexist. Stevens says “To the One” was “more thought out,” than “Domination,” and the modal differences between the poems certainly bears this out. While “To the One of Fictive Music” is an argument-driven address that progresses through its logic musically, “Domination” presents subjective experience that progresses mostly musically, but not without underpinning logic. Even though its phrasing frequently verges on the quasi-unintelligible, “To the One of Fictive Music” marks a return to statement and “prose content” in contrast to the more purely lyrical “Domination,” whose quasi-unintelligibility isn’t a function of its phraseology but of its lack of explicit appeal to the intellect. It’s not that the poem doesn’t reward a stretch of thoughtful contemplation. Because it does. It’s just that there are no expressly stated big ideas here, no salient assertions or claims for the first person beyond the transfixed reportage of “I remembered,” “I heard,” “I saw” and “I felt.” It’s just a rush of sense-data and psychic response that manufactures a radical shift in perspective culminating in an affect-laden existential insight. What more could you ask for?
I should probably start wrapping this up. There’s a lot I had hoped to get into, and get back to, before my time here was finished, but it’s over, and I can’t. But before I give up, I want to put a little more thought into the fact that Stevens repeatedly states throughout his correspondence that he dislikes explaining his poems even as he agrees to do so. Admittedly, as stated before, his explanations are necessarily incomplete. He abjures illuminating every given point and refuses to wring out all the mystery from the work. He won’t exhaust his poems—not that I think he could. But he does this not as a way of playing his cards close to his chest and not as a ploy to maintain the public’s curiosity in his product. He does this because he knows that what makes a poem what it is, what makes it live, is only partly its paraphrasable thought-content. This is like the skeleton of the work, whereas the mode, the form, the music, every big or little physical choice, conscious or otherwise, that the poet makes as he or she embodies not just the poem’s thought-content but its thought-feeling complex, provides the poem with its musculature, its nerves, its cardiopulmonary and all the other systems of the body. Stevens provides partial explanations to his poems because they are, in the end, only partly explicable. Which is to say that “quasi-unintelligible” might not be the word for them after all. “Semi-intelligible” might be closer to the truth. Or “semi-unintelligible.” Because much of what makes them what they are isn’t a product of, or addressed to, the intellect at all.
But it seems that when we talk about poems in our seminars, in our essays, in our reviews, and even in our workshops, we so often prioritize their thought-content, grappling with what we think they mean and not with finding words for how they make us feel, or not with expressing our disinterested appreciation for the way they were constructed. This isn’t to suggest that many or maybe even most poems we encounter in the classroom don’t ask to be engaged with in those terms, on the level of their mere aboutness—of course they do, and meaning plays no small role in the overall value of the poems we love best, let’s be honest, it is their skeleton. But since meaning is the component of a poem’s value most easily discussed, or perhaps the one that seems most appropriate to discuss in an academic environment, much of what makes a poem a living thing goes unnoticed, unarticulated, left soft and unrewarded. I think this is a problem. Oh, but before it’s too late, let me clarify. When I say we don’t talk enough about how poems “make us feel,” I don’t mean sad or happy in accordance with the events they relate, not “This is sad because death is unfair” or “This is happy because they’ve found each other.” What I mean is something more like “The rhythm in this passage makes my blood rush, and it made me feel strong” or “This stanza break made my stomach sink, and my heart leap into my throat.” If people aren’t feeling like this when they’re reading, then they are poor readers of poetry, or they are reading impoverished poems. I think it’s probably both. And I think the causes of this are many. But they undoubtedly include the fact that our prioritization of what’s intelligible in our discussions of poetry, in combination with our persistent need to read a poem as the expression of a unified human subject (not a bad thing per se, but a limitation), has begat a seemingly endless litter of relatively artless and utterly comprehensible poems about personal experiences, and in counter-response to this, an endless litter of incomprehensible poems about nothing in particular. I hesitate to call the latter artful as a rule, although some of them are, just as some poems about personal experiences surpass mere meaning and end up art. And it’s the capacity to appreciate their artfulness that needs to be brought out of the shadows, cultivated and celebrated. I know that people still have it, they still feel it—they have whispered to me about it at wine-and-cheese receptions. But they don’t really know what to do with it because it doesn’t seem “smart,” because the heathens among us still consider artfulness an obstacle to “sincerity,” and worst of all, because an aesthetic sense isn’t taken all that seriously by our culture. There’s just no money it. It only gets in the way.
But before I go, here’s one last pertinent quote from Stevens’s fine correspondence. This one comes from that long series of patient letters to the would-be critical biographer Hi Simons whom I mentioned earlier. B. J. Leggett cites this passage in the book I’ve been referring to in my last couple of posts, Wallace Stevens and Poetic Theory. In his discussion of the passage, whose central figure recalls, to some degree, the “brune figure” in “Man Carrying Thing,” Leggett writes: “Characteristically, Stevens has here converted the abstruse issue [that of providing “explanations” for poems] into a metaphor that manages simultaneously to heighten and to obscure.” Indeed, he does. And what more could you ask for?
Obviously, it is not possible to tell one what one’s own poems mean, or were intended to mean. On the other hand, it is not the simplest thing in the world to explain a poem. I thought of it this way this morning: a poem is like a man walking on the bank of a river, whose shadow is reflected in the water. If you explain a poem, you are quite likely to do it either in term of the man or in terms of the shadow, but you have to explain it in terms of the whole. When I said recently that a poem was what was on a page, it seems to me now that I was wrong because that is explaining in terms of the man. But the thing and its double always go together.
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 poetryfoundation.org, called The...