30 August 2007

Not the Exceptional Monster

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:38 am

A friend asked Wallace Stevens, then an old man, if he had any regrets about pursuing a full-time career in business instead of concentrating on his poetry. In response Stevens said this:

If Beethoven could look back on what he had accomplished and say that it was a collection of crumbs compared to what he had hoped to accomplish, where should I ever find a figure of speech adequate to size up the little that I have done compared to that which I had once hoped to do. Of course, I have had a happy and well-kept life. But I have not even begun to touch the spheres within spheres that might have been possible if, instead of devoting the principal amount of my time to making a living, I had devoted it to thought and poetry. Certainly it is as true as it ever was that whatever means most to one should receive all of one’s time and that has not been true in my case. But, then, if I had been more determined about it, I might now be looking back not with a mere sense of regret but at some actual devastation. To be cheerful about it, I am now in the happy position of being able to say that I don’t know what would have happened if I had had more time. This is very much better than to have had all the time in the world and have found oneself inadequate.

And yet, if Stevens was so unsure of his adequacy as a poet, why did he keep his day job even after he caught his artistic stride, even after the laurel wreath encircled his head? Did he prize his executive pay and privilege that much, or (almost inconceivably) was it the job itself that held him? The daily routine of commutes and files and phone calls that let the decades slip quietly by, the easy and self-limiting camaraderie of the big corporation counterbalancing a very private life, the grinding away at a tangible problem until a concrete solution makes itself known…

Red robin, stop your preludes, practicing
Mere repetitions. These things at least comprise
An occupation, an exercise, a work,
A thing final in itself and, therefore, good;
One of the vast repetitions final in
Themselves and, therefore, good, the going round
And round and round, the merely going round,
Until merely going round is a final good,
The way wine comes to table in a wood.
And we enjoy like men, the way a leaf
Above the table spins its constant spin,
So that we look at it with pleasure, look
At it spinning its eccentric measure. Perhaps,
The man-hero is not the exceptional monster,
But he that of repetition is most master.
– from “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” 1947, by Wallace Stevens

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