World images in the poetry of Wallace Stevens
Malik, Barbara Anne
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Although by now academic circles are in fairly general agreement that the work of Wallace Stevens is a major achievement, his poetry is still widely misread by the critics, and even the poet's name is unfamiliar to many of the educated community. His poetry is unique in the unfortunate sense that even in his own period his work is the property of literary specialists and a very small public with an unusual interest in poetry. There can be little doubt that his work will find a wider audience in time; it is too good not to. But he seeks solutions in his poetry for problems confronting the spirit of man in his own time. His work is needed now, and is immediate and powerful for his contemporaries in a way that perhaps it cannot be for later generations. The difficulty in penetrating his poetry is not due to his ideas. These are interesting and significant in human terms, but not philosophically complex in themselves. His prosody is not alarmingly experimental but rather conservative, and his rhetorical control of line is highly skillful and clear. The problem lies in his substitution of a special language of images for the words that commonly denote the ideas referred to. The reader is presented with a vocabulary that appears in context to have significance beyond the beauty of the poetics, and to have a passionate depth beyond the pleasurable connotations of sensual imagery. But until the images reverberate for him with idea and emotion as they did for Stevens, he cannot himself directly participate in the experience of the poem. Because they cannot "read" his images, readers and often critics, too, find his poems alien to them, strange and beautiful if that is to their taste, or strange and chilly, tedious, dandified, and trivial if surface attractiveness without apparent substance is not to their taste. It is not surprising that readers feel emotionally detached from his poems. Indeed, some critics feel that Stevens also was emotionally chilly, or exquisitely trivial, as if he were another Petronius Arbiter Elegantiae replying to the chaos of his century with gorgeousness, style, connoisseurship, and condescension. Relying mainly on the aesthetic pleasures of the surface of his work, they have quite understandably assumed that this kind of beauty is the emotional substance of the poems. After being out of fashion since the twenties, the elegant mode has become attractive again, and enthusiasts are ready to claim the Stevens of "Sea Surface Full of Clouds” as their own. In this context, they are content to admire, to imitate, and to leave him. Others who are not satisfied with such pleasures but ask more of poetry, may dismiss Stevens' work, but more often of late may emphasize the intellectual enjoyment of his poems. They, too, miss contact with the deeply moving expression of feeling which is so inextricably fused with his ideas. His purpose was not only to describe or analyze ideas but to render the emotional experience of them and of the activity of thinking them. An approach to Stevens through the analysis of his ideas is interesting in itself, but since it involves replacing Stevens' images with emotionally inert denotational expressions, the person who would fully read the poems is not much assisted in his purpose by consulting such sources. He still cannot read and feel Stevens' images. It is my conviction that only a study of Stevens' images which attempts by the analysis of comparative uses and the presentation of generous excerpts to show what they mean denotationally and connotationally to him, can clear the way for a full communication of his works to the non-specialist public. The method followed in this study will place images in those general contexts in which they reverberate with significant, if varying, connotations. I call these image clusters "worlds,” which is convenient and, considering Stevens' use of world images, suitable. The study will begin with less complex contexts and more general comment, and move gradually into more complex world contexts where numerous images integrate in clusters that distinguish them and emotionally intensify reactions to them. Since the range of images actually illustrated must be far less in number than those Stevens employed, it may be useful for the reader to notice other images that recur in the quoted passages. Many of the passages have been selected so that related images are repeated.