75 at 75: Helen Vendler on Wallace Stevens
A special project for the Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Helen Vendler writes about a recording of Wallace Stevens reading from his work. It was recorded at 92Y on November 6, 1954.
Posted on Nov 14, 2013
When I first heard Wallace Stevens’ voice it was by chance: a friend wanted to listen to the recording he had made for the Harvard Vocarium Series. In a listening room in the Harvard Library, the quiet authority of his voice entered my mind like a life-saving transfusion: “Sister and mother and diviner love. . . .” In my younger days, I had been insusceptible to the idea that there were thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird; Stevens’ sophistications were beyond me then. Hearing him read many poems aloud naturalized me in his world.
“Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” was the first of Stevens’ sequences that I struggled with. I was, as a graduate student, enrolled in a seminar on Pope’s poetry, but my whole mind was on Stevens. I asked my teacher, Reuben Brower, whether I could write my final paper on didactic poetry, taking as my examples “An Essay on Criticism” and “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction.” He indulgently allowed this bizarre intrusion of Stevens into the eighteenth century, and I am still grateful to him; the paper became the core of my eventual book on Stevens’ longer poems.
Part III of “Notes”—“It Must Give Pleasure”—was recorded by the Y during Stevens’ reading there on November 6, 1954. Now, listening to him enter upon this strange and difficult poem, I am surprised that he expected it to be understood by his audience—or perhaps he didn’t. When one of his colleagues (according to the oral biography) complained to Stevens that he didn’t understand his poetry, Stevens answered (as I recall): “That doesn’t matter; what matters is whether I understand it.” And he was of course right: over time, poems clarify themselves, and sophomores read “The Waste Land.”
“It Must Give Pleasure” has been preceded on the page by two other cantos: “It Must Be Abstract” (art must be a symbolic representation, not a mimetic one) and “It Must Change” (all art is transient, no matter how powerful in its time). When Stevens has established the intrinsically symbolic and metamorphic nature of any imaginative fiction, he asks the final question: why are we drawn to such human systems, whether religion or music or poetry? And he marks the third necessary element in the Supreme Fiction: “It Must Give Pleasure.” We create and absorb such fictions in the first instance because they give pleasure. Not knowledge, not virtue, but pleasure. It is a post-Classical, post-Christian assertion; Stevens stands with Pater.
To make his case, Stevens introduces, one after the other, a procession of allegorical persons and things acting out aspects of the Supreme Fiction: the blue woman (refusing the pathetic fallacy); the Toltec head (superseded by a gentler Christianity); the Great Captain and the Maiden Bawda with their topographical marriage; Canon Aspirin rising and plunging from thought to fact, fact to thought; an Angel provoking a fictive sublimity; and Terra, Planet Earth, ever revolving and generating one Supreme Fiction after another, each “the fiction that results from feeling.” A formal construction can fulfill the first two injunctions, being abstract and changing, but if it does not spring from feeling it withers and disappears.
Hearing Stevens invoke these three necessary qualities, we see that “It Must Be Abstract” satisfies the intelligence that undertakes the work of abstraction; “It Must Change” satisfies imaginative desire; but only “It Must Give Pleasure” satisfies the heart. Stevens has a particular form of expression animating these necessities: and it recurs as he reads—a rapid run-up to an important word (as though the headiness of invention causes an initial momentum); then a marked caesura, to mark pensiveness and suspense; then the final word or two solving the enigma of import. Listen to the end of part VI and hear the prolonged wait for the final word:
He chose to include the things
That in each other are included, the whole,
The complicate, the amassing…
A long caesura and then the completion of the line with the mot juste: “harmony.”
By means of such spoken variations, heard everywhere in this recording, Stevens invites his audience into the joy of invention, the mobility of thought and the satisfaction of the right word found at last.
Helen Vendler is author of numerous works of literary criticism, including Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill.