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4 Coda: the New Criticism and abstraction
Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction
of abstracting a ‘single quality’ from the nominally ‘single “mood”’ of
Dickinson’s poetry in order to define her place in literary history (practising what Tate labels ‘post-Romantic expressionism’).141 Tate was adopting
the laudable New Critical practice of reading texts not merely as historical documents but as literary artefacts. It was a new type of reading.142 If
Tate does not call Whicher’s reading habits abstract, his criticism is clear.
However, Kenneth Burke, a tangential but related figure, castigated what
Tate bemoaned and called the habit ‘abstract’: ‘[W]hen we are talking of
a work as it is, realistically, we must consider it in its totality, not singling
out some one feature and treating this, in its isolation, as the “essence” of
art’. For Burke, such an ‘essentializing’ process ‘abstracts one ingredient
in a work as the significant element, and overlooks the rest’.143
Admittedly, Stevens’ ‘abstract’ has nothing to do with this critical
mishap. But Stevens’ term does relate to Romantic idealism, even as a
Modernist adaptation. The Romantic poets who shaped Stevens’ early
sense of poetry were, by the 1940s, being rejected in the journals where
Stevens was himself publishing (the word ‘abstract’ becoming the favoured
pejorative marker appended to the Romantics in New Critical literature).
Brooks lauded verse in which ‘the poet has been just to the complexity
of experience, and has not given us an abstraction in the guise of experience’, criticizing Shelley for displaying a ‘confusion of abstract generalization with symbol’.144 When Ransom wrote to Stevens, applauding ‘Notes
Toward a Supreme Fiction’, he claimed to prefer the ‘non-philosophical’
parts of the poem. But he must have had one eye on further submissions
for Kenyon Review. Having decried abstraction for the best part of a decade, Ransom wrote:
I’ve just been reading Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction […] Nobody can do such
poems, besides you. I like the best the innocent, non-philosophical ones, […]
Yet I’m absolutely for the philosophical position you occupy.145
Ransom was, at least, careful not to discuss explicitly the poem’s first
‘philosophical’ section, ‘It Must Be Abstract’.
The distance between Stevens and the New Critics marks, therefore,
the ingenuity of the poet’s rehabilitation of a modernized ‘Romantic’
Allen Tate, ‘The Poet and Her Biographer’ Kenyon Review 1.2 (1939), 202.
See René Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism: American Criticism, 1900–1950 (London: Jonathan
Cape, 1986), 146.
Kenneth Burke, ‘The Calling of the Tune’ Kenyon Review 1.3 (1939), 282.
Brooks, Modern Poetry and the Tradition, 44, 237.
John Crowe Ransom, Selected Letters of John Crowe Ransom ed. Thomas Daniel Young and
George Core (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1985), 316.
The ‘ in-visible’ abstract
aesthetic. Clearly, Stevens’ battle with abstraction comprises part of that
picture, constituting a secular idealism. Surprisingly, the ‘I’ who dominates much of the late 1930s and early 1940s verse has received scant attention in Stevens criticism. This idealist figure is a major textual force in the
period when Stevens creates his abstract rubric. Tellingly, perhaps, the ‘I’
also drops out of Stevens’ verse, along with the lion’s share of his abstract
idiom, around 1945. The next chapter, therefore, explores the full extent of
Stevens’ idealist ‘I’, observing the poet’s creation of a speaker without precedent in poetry written in English, unique to Stevens’ time and since.
C H APTER 4
Abstract figures: the curious case
of the idealist ‘I’
4 .1 Ta m i ng ‘t h e gu e r r i l l a I’: t h e e a r ly p oe m s
of p a r t s o f a w o r l d (194 2)
In 1938 Stevens entered one of the most fecund phases of his writing career. With The Man with the Blue Guitar & Other Poems he reached the end
of an experimental period, during which he realized abstraction’s potential and the poetic possibilities of a novel first-person speaker. If Stevens
had not answered his speaker’s question in ‘Blue Guitar’ – ‘Where / Do I
begin and end?’ – he was certainly more confident about employing this
elusive ‘I’ as a speaker, especially in an abstract space.1 In the poetry following ‘Blue Guitar’ Stevens would break new ground, attracting fewer
comparisons with a dandy or Surrealist aesthetic (apart from in the eyes
of Cleanth Brooks and Yvor Winters).2
Even Picasso’s influence on Stevens waned. In 1938, approving a ‘just
placing of Picasso’, Stevens copied down Herbert Furst’s summary of
Picasso, unfortunately, has made his name pre-eminently as an intellectualist
[…] [H]is fame rests entirely on his cool and calculated exploitation of the elements of formal design, with or without psychological associations. Away from
Nature! was his slogan. Much of his work […] remained, except as a matter of
abstract designing, unintelligible. Nevertheless, there has appeared in his oeuvre
abstract form, solidly modelled, that had a grim significance of human emotions
[…] Picasso is not a painter […] he is an over-intellectual designer who moves
one to thought, but not to feeling.3
Endorsing Furst’s portrayal, Stevens conveniently forgot the 1935 Zervos–
Picasso interview and the influence Picasso himself wielded on ‘The
Cleanth Brooks, ‘A Retrospective Introduction’ (1965) in Modern Poetry and the Tradition, xxi;
Yvor Winters, ‘Wallace Stevens, or The Hedonist’s Progress’ in The Anatomy of Nonsense (Norfolk,
CT: New Directions, 1943), 88–119.
Stevens, Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects, 61, 63.
Man with the Blue Guitar’. Far from preaching the ‘slogan’ ‘Away from
Nature!’, Picasso told Zervos that ‘abstract art’ was impossible because
the painter ‘always start[s] with something’. Even if the artist ‘remove[s]
all traces of reality’ the ‘idea of the object will have left an indelible mark’
on his creation.4 For Picasso, objects and inspiration derive from Nature.
They are not created by intellectual abstraction. As he recalled: ‘I go for
a walk in the forest of Fontainebleau. I get “green” indigestion. I must
get rid of this sensation into a picture. Green rules it.’ 5 Stevens himself
echoed Picasso’s observation in ‘The Greenest Continent’: ‘The voice / In
the jungle is a voice in Fontainebleau.’ 6
Admittedly, Furst acknowledges that from Picasso’s ‘abstract form’ the
‘grim significance of human emotions’ appears. But the portrayal Stevens
favours renders Picasso ‘an over-intellectual designer’, one who ‘moves
one to thought, but not to feeling’. Stevens endorses Furst’s desire to have
it both ways. Picasso’s abstract art confines him to a realm of ideas, but it
is through ‘abstract form’ that the artist discloses ‘human emotions’. On
the one hand, Picasso possesses, like Wordsworth’s Coleridge, the ‘selfcreated sustenance of a mind / Debarred from Nature’s living images’
(‘Away from Nature! was his slogan’).7 On the other, Picasso conveys emotion through ‘abstract form’. On closer inspection his paintings are, Furst
suggests, not ‘as “mad” as they looked’.8
My point in highlighting how Stevens revised his view of Picasso is
to demonstrate how the poet was, by 1938, devising an abstract aesthetic
of his own.9 As Chapter 3 argued, this involved forging a modern idealism, affirming the phenomenon of a creative subject, an active ‘I’. In ‘Blue
Guitar’ this ‘I’ occupies an abstract locale, frustrating any attempt to
describe its position in dualistic terms. In fact, the ‘I’ must be ‘un-locatable’, must be continually mobile if it is to convey the fluid meditation
Hegel also discovers in his phenomenology.
Significantly, the poems Stevens wrote immediately after ‘Blue Guitar’
feature idealism and the textually invasive ‘I’ who dominates much of
the 1938–45 verse. Even more than ‘Blue Guitar’, these 1938 poems render
Stevens’ ‘I’ idealist. In 1937 Picasso’s troubling ‘image’ for ‘our society’
haunts Stevens’ speaker:
Ashton, Picasso on Art, 9.
Ibid., 10. 6 CPP, 162.
Wordsworth, The Prelude Book Sixth, lines 312–13: 202.
Stevens, Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects, 63.
Stevens showed increasing frustration with derivative Modernism, complaining: ‘There is no
painting because the only painting permitted is painting derived from Picasso and Matisse’, L,
622. See Chapter 7.