Wallace Stevens was one of the preeminent modernist poets. He died in 1955, shortly after he received the Pulitzer Prize for his collected poems. He worked most of his career as an insurance executive and later VP for the Hartford Insurance Co. When he won the Pulitzer in 1955, he was offered a position at Harvard, but he declined, since it meant he would have had to leave the Hartford company. But his health declined soon after and he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He was politically conservative, but he was recognized in his life, and is still considered, one of the preeminent modernist poets. My favorite story about him is that when he was at a party in Key West, a place he loved, he punched Ernest Hemingway in the mouth and broke his hand. Hemingway dragged him into the street and pummeled him. Two of the most influential and established high Modernists, I imagine them fighting about poetry vs. fiction, or perhaps Hemingway’s non-philosophical, concrete approach to modernism vs. Stevens’s highly intellectualized abstractions. Maybe it was politics—I can think of a few political conservatives I’d like to punch in the mouth! Hemingway could be an SOB, so who knows. Stevens apologized, so no harm done. High literary hijinks with blood and broken bones in the streets of Key West. It’s too absurd and comical for words. Berryman got punched out more than once himself, so I guess mid-century poets and writers were quicker with their fists than they seem to be these days. Maybe I just don’t hang with the right crowd, I don’t know.
This is one of Stevens’s renowned poems, one I puzzled over long as an undergrad. When I formalized my study of nature writing as a grad student, I found my way back to it, and there it was, right there in focus. “The Idea of Order at Key West”: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172206
“She sang beyond the genius of the sea.” From the first line, there is this separation of the human voice from the natural one and an assignment of relative value: Her singing is beyond the sea’s genius. The sea is only body, that is to say, only physical—yet it makes sound. “The sea was not a mask”. This is a direct address to the Transcendentalists and Romantics, who looked to nature and saw God—or in the case of the Pequod’s Captain Ahab, something malevolent—behind its mask. A genuine modernist doesn’t buy into that stuff. Body is body, nature is nature. Human genius is something beyond. The sea is only the place she went to when she sang. “Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew / It was the spirit that we sought.” God?—spirit?—sure, but we don’t go to nature to find it. It’s somewhere in her, and in fact, as magnificent as the sea and sky is, “It was her voice that made / The sky acutest at its vanishing.” It was her singing, eventually our perception of the sea and sky, that gave it any significance.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.
So like the Aslan the Lion, she is the one who sings the world into being. It’s not the physical world, it’s the insubstantial perception of the physical world that matters. There’s something to this, because as I think I’ve noted here before, the sensations we depend on for report of the world—it’s colors, its smells, the sounds we pick up—are all arranged by the brain into perceptions, and that is insubstantial, a creation. A song. We order it into being. Though there is a rage for order—the dark side of the whole fabric of universal creation in each individual brain—it’s still the order itself that matters. Thus there is perception, consciousness, ultimately creation itself all residing in the rage for order. If there’s no one to hear a tree fall in the forest, does it make a sound? Stephens very clearly says, no way. No sound. If no one is there to hear it, then the whole idea of sound is absurd. Sound is a concept sung into creation by a spirit.
This still seems to me to ignore the fact that we’re of nature as well, something that indigenous peoples have always known very well, and the Romantics and Transcendentalists tried working their way back to. They got stuck—Thoreau is amazed in the famous sand-bank passage in Walden to see how his body and the flowing sand mirror the same forms, implying that he is made of the same stuff. But, later on, in another famous passage in The Maine Woods, as he’s climbing Mt. Katahdin, he is blown away by the alien quality of the rocks in the landscape and the same alien-ness of his own body. Humans as part of nature collapses in light of the mind so busy creating it. The Romantics, American and British, got held up. The Modernists quit looking, accepting that we are fundamentally different. We are un-natural in our essence because there is something unique in us that transcends nature. God and spirit are found within, and they are not found without.
I think there’s plenty of arrogance at work in that conception, and a resulting blindness, though it’s common enough. Teilhard de Chardin, the French priest/scientist/philosopher, was convinced that all matter had consciousness and that it was concentrated and refined as matter-based life forms ascended up the Great Chain of Being. Now, the rage for order that comes to its sharpest point in science is finding its way toward the knowledge that animals do things we have always assumed are uniquely human. They solve problems and use tools, they have individual personalities, and some even have a self-image. They have rich, complex emotional lives. They live and are defined in networks of communication that includes persistent cultures. New theories are describing plants as having a highly developed intelligence. We’ve just never recognized such a thing because we’ve been trapped in a chauvinistic arrogance that has blinded us to it. And machines are starting to push our understanding of spirit and consciousness in disturbing new directions as well. The notion of human exceptionality—that Stevens’s poem is built on—is unraveling all over the place. This is not exactly what B. means when he says of Stevens, “brilliant, he seethe; / better than us; less wide.” B. is referring to the limits inherent in Stevens’s philosophical vision, which doesn’t delve into the uncharted vistas of psychology and personality that B. is exploring. But for a contemporary naturalist, like me, who sees nature as the ground and animating spirit of whatever it is that makes us who we are, this is a view of Modernism that holds: Too narrow. Of course it’s petering out! What did we ever expect?