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4 Coda: the New Criticism and abstraction

4 Coda: the New Criticism and abstraction

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108



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the laudable New Critical practice of reading texts not merely as historical documents but as literary artefacts.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.

143

Kenneth Burke, ‘The Calling of the Tune’ Kenyon Review 1.3 (1939), 282.

144

Brooks, Modern Poetry and the Tradition, 44, 237.

145

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.

141



142



The ‘ in-visible’ abstract



109



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

‘Guernica’:

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

CPP, 140.

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.

3

Stevens, Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects, 61, 63.

1



2



110



Abstract figures



111



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.

7

Wordsworth, The Prelude Book Sixth, lines 312–13: 202.

8

Stevens, Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects, 63.

9

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.

4

5



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