Tag Archives: A Defence of Poetry

Wallace Stevens: Of Modern Poetry

Wallace StevensThe question of the appeal of modern poetry is a very big concern among modernists and a common question among readers new to the genre. Many prefer the aesthetics of the Elizabethan’s, enjoying the sing-song simplicity and rhyme. Often, when I tell people that I am passionate about modern poetry they ask, ‘Why?’ Some objectors of the place of poetry even use (in so many words) W.H. Auden’s line in his elegy to W.B. Yeats, seemingly unaware of the contradiction: ‘poetry makes nothing happen.’

When I consider what people call the difficulty of modern poetry I think of two things, T.S. Eliot’s essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ and Wallace Stevens’s poem ‘Of Modern Poetry.’ Eliot writes, ‘Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.’ Here modernists might discuss modernism’s tearing into pieces of the interiority of humanity as a result of some great event, and I do not deny that modernism consists of the ‘refined sensibility’ reacting to that (or those) events. However, the events and the emotions tied to the events are seldom new (though the events may be more monumental, the emotions more intense); the difficulty is in the projection of a subjective interiority that has always existed and has always been complex.

Modern art in PragueWallace Stevens’s ‘Of Modern Poetry’ begins with what I believe is a sense of Durkheim’s social Anomie. Modern poetry is the attempt to grasp and delineate something that cannot yet be understood by society at large. In this sense it is prophesying: modern poetry ‘has / To construct a new stage’ on which the norms of society will be played out after it is ruptured by anything: war, economic collapse, drought, etc. Stevens’s act of poetry, which is the act of the mind, is simultaneously solipsistic and intersubjective: it is for the self and the ‘invisible audience’ or collective consciousness of humanity. Stevens repeats what Keats wrote in ‘A Defence of Poetry’ [sic] : ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ (Anomie is from the Greek and translates to ‘without law’). In times of great variety and complexity, the mind will mirror that state. ‘The poem of the act of the mind’ is ‘difficult’ because it is the mapping of the intricacy of your (his, hers, theirs, our) mind. Poetry is there to recreate, to compose law, it is there to remind us of what it is that makes us human, and, more importantly, to remind us of what makes us a society.

Here’s the poem.

Of Modern Poetry

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one. The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.