29 August 2007

Constructing a Possible Poet

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:17 am

The other day I wrote about Wallace Stevens’ day job as a surety claims attorney, a job he kept until his death despite rising acclaim, a Pulitzer Prize, and a professorial offer from Harvard. For Stevens poetry was an avocation, the work of an amateur in the French sense of the term. Why did he do it, and for whom?

In 1940, when Stevens was 61 years old and at the height of his artistry, he extolled the nobility of poetry in an essay entitled “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words.” In a truly vital poetry the imagination must harness itself to reality, Stevens asserts, but it must also resist the “pressure” of reality. That poetic nobility had sunk to diminished and degenerate levels Stevens attributed to increased pressure and decreased imaginative resistance.

I might be expected to speak of the social, that is to say sociological or political, obligation of the poet. He has none… I do not think that a poet owes any more as a social obligation than he owes as a moral obligation, and if there is anything concerning poetry about which people agree it is that the role of the poet is not to be found in morals… The truth is that the social obligation so closely urged is a phase of the pressure of reality which a poet is bound to resist or evade today. Dante in Purgatory and Paradise was still the voice of the Middle Ages but not through fulfilling any social obligation.

Hitler had invaded Poland; the European conflict had begun, while America retained its tenuous isolation. Current events might prove a source of inspiration, but imagination cannot be commanded or moved by duty. It can operate freely only in an imaginative space that is released from the pressure of reality. The poetic process is psychologically an escapist process, Stevens acknowledges without apology. If your imagination draws you to war as a subject, by all means follow its lead. The poet is born not made, says Stevens: that which inspires him is also part of him.

If a possible poet is left facing life without any categorical exactions upon him, what then? What is his function? Certainly it is not to lead people out of the confusion in which they find themselves. Nor is it, I think, to comfort them while they follow their leaders to and fro. I think that his function is to make his imagination theirs and that he fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people live their lives.

I’m surprised. Here’s Stevens, not just a possible poet but an actual one, his country poised on the brink of entering a world war, sitting in his corner office in a Hartford office building taking care of surety claims, writing about how the poet’s function is to help people live their lives? Did he believe that being a claims man was an even higher calling?

Time and time again it has been said that he may not address himself to an elite. I think he may. There is not a poet whom we prize living today that does not address himself to an elite. The poet will continue to do this: to address himself to an elite even in a classless society, unless, perhaps, this exposes him to imprisonment or exile. In that event he is likely not to address himself to anyone at all. He may, like Shostakovich, content himself with pretence. He will, nevertheless, still be addressing himself to an elite, for all poets address themselves to someone and it is of the essence of that instinct, and it seems to amount to an instinct, that it should be to an elite, not to a drab but to a woman with the hair of a pythoness, not to a chamber of commerce but to a gallery of one’s own, if there are enough of one’s own to fill a gallery.

Often enough I’ve heard artists claim that they paint only for themselves, that they write because they must yield to an inner urge toward self-expression, that to make a film for an audience is to corrupt the freedom of artistry. Stevens the amateur will have no part of it. He doesn’t just want to write; he wants to be read. Why the elite? Because they are the harshest critics? I don’t think so. If for Stevens imagination is the noblest instinct, then only the noblest of mere mortals can allow their imaginations to be released without being held down by the strong hand of reality. Stevens wrote for the elite of the imagination.

And that elite, if it responds, not out of complaisance, but because the poet has quickened it, because he has educed from it that for which it was searching in itself and in the life around it and which it had not yet quite found, will thereafter do for the poet what he cannot do for himself, that is to say, receive his poetry.



  1. The Will to Poetry:
    The Uberpoet bends the imagination of the readers to his own will by the sheer power and force of his work.


    Comment by Friedrich Erdman — 30 August 2007 @ 10:20 am

  2. Stevens’ responses to an enguiry, 1934:
    Q: Do you intend your poetry to be useful to yourself or others?
    A: Not consciously. Perhaps I don’t like the word useful.
    Q: As a poet what distinguishes you, do you think, from an ordinary man?
    A: Inability to see much point to the life of an ordinary man. The chances are an ordinary man himself sees very little point to it.


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 August 2007 @ 11:05 am

  3. So, what turned you on to Stevens? The ability to relate to a guy who spent most of his life as a working stiff?


    Comment by Erdman — 30 August 2007 @ 2:59 pm

  4. Partly, although I can’t quite remember how I figured out that we had worked in the same business. How and why people do their jobs is of interest to me. I spent most of my business years working on work: measuring outcomes, evaluating best practices, building AI simulations of work processes, etc.


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 August 2007 @ 3:42 pm

  5. Interesting, isn’t it? Output it so important that we have analysts to measure whether or not we are maximizing resources. And, of course, we would need analysts to analyze the analysts. And maybe a few more layers of analysts to analyze them.

    Production! Production! Production!


    Comment by Erdman — 30 August 2007 @ 7:58 pm

  6. You express well the paranoiac cynicism characteristic of the chronic underperformer.


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 August 2007 @ 8:06 pm

  7. Freidrich Erdman. That was funny.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 31 August 2007 @ 12:14 am

  8. There are pills these days – I mean for underperformers, that is.

    And said pills are available in the market place for only a small fee.


    Comment by Erdman — 31 August 2007 @ 7:11 pm

  9. Are they effective, these pills? Is there a measurable difference? What is the relevant unit of measurement? Must a questionnaire be crafted, or will electrodes be attached? Or for eager consumers will rhapsodically-phrased testimonials on TV ads be deemed adequate testimonial?


    Comment by ktismatics — 31 August 2007 @ 7:37 pm

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