Some emerging thoughts on a philosophy of style

The truistic nature of some of the things that I have said shows how the free-will of the poet is limited. They demonstrate that the poetry of the future can never be anything purely eccentric and dissociated. The poetry of the present cannot be purely eccentric and dissociated. Eccentric and dissociated poetry is poetry that tries to exist or is intended to exist separately from the poem, that is to say in a style that is not identical with the poem. It never achieves anything more than a shallow mannerism, like something seen in a glass. Now, a time of disbelief is precisely a time in which the frequency of detached styles is greatest. I am not quite happy about the word detached. By detached, I mean the unsuccessful, the ineffective, the arbitrary, the literary, the non-umbilical, that which in its highest degree would still be words. For the style of the poem and the poem itself to be one there must be a mating and a marriage, not an arid love-song.

– Wallace Stevens

I was thinking about this quote recently, and I was struck by how appropriate are Stevens’ metaphors “a mating and a marriage.” If I were the one to write the final line, however, I’m pretty sure I would’ve gone with “a fucking and a fighting.”  In any event, I like where he’s going here: namely, that to deal with, and thus to write poetry, in an age of disbelief, the trick is not merely somehow to find belief. Rather, it is to invent new ways to disbelieve better. Read the rest of this entry »

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“It was their annihilation, not ours, and yet it left us feeling that in a measure we, too, had been annihilated.”

I’ve been reading a lot of Wallace Stevens the past few weeks, as I tinker with some extended thoughts on the transition that occurs between his “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” and “Esthétique du Mal,” and in the course of doing so I’ve been reading his prose, which I had previously all but ignored (or, in the case of the Necessary Angel essays, forgotten). One essay that caught my attention was “Two or Three Ideas.” I encourage you to read it — the thoughts on style by a master stylist, for whom though the substance of content may crumble like leaves or fade likes fads, style, if it doesn’t remain the same, remains ever still. I’m quite taken by the idea he explores here, in this most exquisite of prose poems, which I would love one day to perform, as it was also a lecture, and believe his development of style is an iteration of a profoundly creative (what other kind of creativity is there?) immanence (what other kind of immanence is there?).

But perhaps you need a quote to tease the appetite. Few modern poets do our dead gods the kind of justice they deserve quite like Stevens. (E.g., “The death of one god is the death of all.”) As he thinks through the question of style in “Two or Three Ideas,” he meditates long on the relationship of god and humanity, particularly their respective styles, or whether they are in fact so distinctive after all (hence the title of the essay). What prompted this age of disbelief, he wonders? — this “humanistic” age that is not purely secular, for the secular subject is as settled into his chosen fiction as the religious subject, defensive to the hilt of its substance and content, but is rather purely creative? I’ll have more to say of this “purely creative,” but for now . . .

To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences. It is not as if they had gone over the horizon to disappear for a time; nor as if they had been overcome by other gods of greater power and profounder knowledge. It is simply that they came to nothing. Since we have always shared all things with them and have always had a part of their strength and, certainly, all of their knowledge, we shared likewise this experience of annihilation. It was their annihilation, not ours, and yet it left us feeling that in a measure we, too, had been annihilated. It left us feeling dispossessed and alone in a solitude, like children without parents, in a home that seemed deserted, in which the amical rooms and halls had taken on a look of hardness and emptiness. What was most extraordinary is that they left no mementoes behind, no thrones, no mystic rings, no texts either of the soil or of the soul. It was as if they had never inhabited the earth. There was no crying out for their return. They were not forgotten because they had been part of the glory of the earth. At the same time, no man ever muttered a petition in his heart for the restoration of those unreal shapes. There was always in every man the increasingly human self, which instead of remaining the observer, the non-participant, the delinquent, became constantly more and more all there was or so it seemed; and whether it was so or merely seemed so still left it for him to resolve life and the world in his own terms.

The Difference Between Creative Anticipation & Enduring Hope: More Notes on Simone Weil & Wallace Stevens

From an interesting email response to my previous post concerning Simone Weil and Wallace Stevens:

I hope this won’t seem tediously contrarian, but I must say that in some respects I find Stevens more of an ascetic than  Weil.  True, it’s a peculiar kind of opulent asceticism, but in his poetry the real world is consistently devalued for the realm of pure imagination. When reality does make an appearance it’s usually as a rude intruder, the  source of horrible sorrow, as in the great short poem “Gallant Chateau.”  Elsewhere, as in “Arrival at the Waldorf,” he actually seems to mock this world with all its supposed wonders and adventures, suggesting that they’re all basically interchangeable and equally banal.  At best the world may be a source of imagery for his solitary meditations.

I read Stevens most deeply during a time of acute loneliness; he was a great solace.  His poetry teaches you how to be alone.

It was around the same time that I was reading Weil, and her effect was almost the opposite. [. . .]  They represent two distinct spiritual practices.  Even when she is most abstract, and seemingly pure, I can never forget the world with which she was passionately engaged til the horrible end.

It delights me to no end to get such responses. I responded in kind, via email, but thought I might extend the reflections here as well.

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