Friday, May 22, 2009

Stevens reaches the dead end

Here at a large conference hotel on Copley Square in Boston for a session convened by George Lensing. George asked five of us to come with our favorite three poems by Wallace Stevens. Or, to be a little more specific: the three poems that have shaped or are shaping us. My three: "Mozart, 1935," the XXth canto of The Man with the Blue Guitar, and "The Plain Sense of Things." These are Stevens reaching a dead end, in need of a restart, trying to turn a corner. Learning what it is poetically to reach the end of a line and grope around, in the poem itself, for the new line. In "Mozart" a man is told by the speaker (all imperatives) to play Mozart while rioters are throwing stones at the house and while several have entered the house and are bringing a body down the stairs. How can one going on playing such pure music at a time like this? The second--the "BG" canto--is as close to pure music as Stevens gets. It's linguistically his most experimental poem. He repeats most of the words of the poem, so that few are used, far fewer than the total number of words. It's an over-and-over-again lyric. The back-and-forth argument of the first 19 cantos has here reached its endpoint: nowhere to go ideationally or ideologically. Retreat into pure sound becomes a great liberation. Strumming is improvisation. Constraint can be improvisation. This is the way out. "Plain Sense," a late poem, can't think of the next adjective. This is poetic senility, exhaustion. The whole project is a botch (like Pound assessing the Cantos near the end), and yet, and yet, the poet realizes that this too--this blankness, this end-state--can constitute a poetics, and then end of the imagination is itself one of those things that the imagination has the power to imagine. Another dead-end averted in the poem.

There, that's my talk. Now can I go back to Philly?