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Wallace Stevens, Poetry, and France

Juliette Utard
Bart Eeckhout
Lisa Goldfarb


My “Stevens in France”

Charles Altieri

Texte intégral

1I hate relying on personal detail in my writing. In my view, we have minds so that we can finesse the personal. But on this occasion, offering a personal response seems the only means by which I can account publicly for what the conference organized in preparation of the present volume meant to most of us attending. I have been at full-time university teaching for 47 years. Juliette Utard and her cadre produced as efficient and as stimulating a conference as I have ever experienced during that time. Yet this will not be what I remember best. They also established an aura that I have never encountered before. It seemed as if the participants had entered a world where not only every need, but almost all our respectable desires, seemed to have been thought of and addressed. In the four days of the conference there was a poetry reading, a jazz concert, a reception at NYU’s lovely digs in Paris, an attempt at a guided tour of a museum after a boat trip around Paris, and two outstanding dinners, one unforgettable because Edward Ragg made a gift of four marvelous Burgundy wines. I think I speak for all of the participants in saying that we did not want to go home: no one would take care of us as well as Juliette had.

2One downside of those 47 years spent teaching is that I have grown pretty confident in my knowledge of modern poetry, especially of Stevens. There is nothing like repeating oneself on many occasions to stabilize one’s arrogance about what one thinks one knows. But that confidence can itself also be somewhat shattered by what it has to admit reluctantly is fresh news that requires changes in one’s thinking. This occurred at the conference first in my coming to appreciate the many productive frameworks Stevens’ work engages—from the story of how Modernist painting took hold in the US, to Stevens’ uses of masks from Italian theater, to how he mediates the spirit of Baudelaire, to how his poetry might be related to a future as well as the past. Stevens’ fascination with the contextual in his work opens it to all kinds of slices of time and of space.

3Even more important, I had to admit that there are demands embedded in Stevens’ poetry, and poetry in general, that I had not recognized. Tony Sharpe, Antoine Cazé, Lisa Steinman, Lisa Goldfarb, and a marvelous panel on translation offered papers that exemplified what it might mean to attend to the material presence of the French language within Stevens’ English. A sense of the presence of French brings a different kind of weight to the line, especially because it gives access to all the dense Latinate etymologies on which Stevens plays, often contrasting texturally with passages heavy with Germanic echoes. So I had to admit that only by slowing down my reading could I take into consideration how important verbal texture is to the pacing of poetic lines: Stevens could appreciate painting so much because his poetry manifests a persistent engagement with the physicality of how these textures of sound and syntax constitute crucial elements of lyrical experience. Antoine Cazé in particular offered as a reward for slowing down a sense of how densely imagination is embedded in Stevens’ tendency to seem to be translating from a Romance language even when he is not. For the translator, this entails the strange task of negotiating what seems already a translation. And for the reader, this recognition entails the sense that a kind of abstractness is always present in the language as it moves between the space of description and the space where mediation by the imagination allows us to frame the unreal forces that make the description come alive.

4Lest the reader think my arrogance was completely transformed, however, I have to mention a third aspect of some of the talks that made me confident my concern with philosophy in relation to poetry might prove useful for some final remarks. I think some papers struggled with an issue that becomes inescapable when one takes “It Must Be Abstract” seriously: how does one produce a conceptual language that enhances the power and value of Stevens’ imaginings, rather than attempt to establish their significance in terms of borrowed conceptual schemes? So I will concentrate on one aspect of Stevens’ work that is clearly connected to qualities of experience rather than projections about their significance. This aspect is his concern for how poetry might interpret the possible significance of its devotion to the pleasures of both consuming and producing intricate experiences—a lusciously French concern as worthy of attention in this book as his uses of the French language.

5I begin these remarks on pleasure with gratitude to Glen MacLeod, who called our attention to the ways that the Arensberg circle, meeting usually in Walter Arensberg’s apartment, mediated Stevens’ understanding of how French art was establishing a distinctively Modernist sensibility. It is obvious that these experiences convinced Stevens he had to repudiate the Keatsian sumptuousness of “Sunday Morning” in favor of the sharp edges and elemental conflicting forces emphasized by an emerging Modernist dispensation in all of the arts. I want to ask what that repudiation involved for Stevens’ understanding of pleasure in the arts, particularly in relation to what he was seeing of how Fauve art reinterpreted what Impressionism had achieved.

6For me, and I hope for Stevens, the most striking feature of this new art is its focus on the sheer pleasure of the activity of painting. This is not a pleasure in what painting could represent (inevitably haunted by what the painting failed to represent). Rather it is a pleasure primarily in the power to produce representations in ways that could satisfy and fulfill an individual’s sense of how the painter’s activity might momentarily organize the world that it produces. In this way painting could triumph over what had come to seem the realist banalities of Impressionism while not requiring either the transcendental ambitions of a Paul Gauguin or a Maurice Denis, nor the anguish of Paul Cézanne’s will to vital form. All it took was a capacity to make present the artist’s pleasure in his or her own powers to establish worlds that were visually engaging and inventive. Now art could follow its own impulses and modes of satisfaction—relatively free of the demands to see clearly, or to engage in the visual consequences carried by compelling stories. Art could stress the subject’s activity in terms of powers established rather than emotions articulated.

7We can see immediately the influence Fauvism had on subsequent modes of Modernist painting, especially Cubism and non-iconic Constructivism. Cubism becomes less an analytic activity breaking the real down to facets than a transformative activity building the world up as responsive to new constructed ways of seeing. These constructions stress the activeness of perception and the capacity to transform what recognition involves when objects and environments develop strange conjunctions of force. Taking pleasure in one’s constructive activity becomes inseparable from the possibility of satisfaction in processes of recognition that are different from how traditional painting conceived of objectivity. And Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist painting can be treated as directly registering the pleasures inherent in constructing fresh modes of balance for intricate relations among particular shapes and colors. In Malevich there is no object apart from a self-consciousness dwelling in how art can position subjectivity or non-being in the world so that the activity of positioning itself occupies the world of fact.

8How do we theorize about the force that the expressiveness of pleasure takes on in such paintings? We need a language capable of handling three issues. The critical language must be attentive to the variety of ways in which pleasure ties consciousness to the world while willing its own condition as satisfying substantial needs; it must be able to treat the expression of pleasure as a kind of power central to well-being; and it must show how taking pleasure in one’s own subjective states can have transpersonal dimensions extending beyond the art object, because the pleasure is not owned by a subject but allows the subject release into states of being that themselves have the capacity to structure subjectivity as something shareable.

9First, then, we have to imagine pleasure in terms that break entirely from the kind of dichotomies between body and mind that must take pleasure as something crude and lacking dignity. We have to see that the object defines the kind of pleasure the agent can experience. And with art the object is inseparable from how it is constructed, and therefore not only depends upon something we have to call mind but also gives the force of mind a local habitation and a name. Let me take as my example not a work of art but the conference out of which the current book emerges. We all registered how much the planning involved a sense of the interests of the participants as extending well beyond professional concerns. And we all saw that this shared sense of excess allowed us to treat our pleasure in the entire conference as an intelligent response to the kind of care that had given it shape. The conference seemed to have its own eloquence established by the planners.

10I deploy the concept of eloquence because valuing it is crucial to appreciating Stevens’ commitments to style. All of the major Modernists set themselves the task of establishing an eloquence that is at the same time an anti-eloquence resisting what we might call the instrumental eloquence of typical rhetorical statements. Rhetorical eloquence has designs on our action; Modernist imaginative eloquence stresses the audience’s possible powers to flesh out capacities for appreciation by participating as fully as possible in the life the imagination produces in and for the art object. But only Stevens and perhaps Hart Crane emphasize the feelings produced by the simple attaining of that eloquent anti-eloquence as a set of specific sensuously charged sites that seem momentarily to elevate the being of anyone who can speak the poet’s sentences. Eloquence defines a kind of space that establishes a civilized mode of pleasure as an accompanying condition, rather like money being “a kind of poetry” (CPP, 905) or being dressed up in expectation of a party.

11The second aspect of my discussion requires speculating on how we can characterize the fundamental powers involved when we feel ourselves called to the kind of pleasure that modifies our sense of our capacity to inhabit our surroundings without either the surroundings overwhelming the self or the self experiencing modes of self-consciousness that remain alienated from those surroundings. Here I have to call upon Spinoza’s conative sense of subjective orientations because pleasure offers a way of projecting specific satisfactions for all animate beings. Pleasure is simply the sense that the subject is in control of its proximate environment so that the subject’s ways of making its being felt registers as an extension of that being’s power and capacities. Pleasure becomes inseparable from expressive activity. And, more important, because Spinoza offers a teleological view of what all animate beings share, the principle of pleasure becomes something to which all beings are drawn. There is no guarantee at all that all subjects will share the same pleasure. But there is also no conceptual block to an artist trying to compose a constructive force that most subjects will be able to share. Consider the example of the single sentence in “The Snow Man”: it works to compose the poem so that the forming power is based simply on the poet’s relation to the capacities of the English language to provide intricate and inventive structure for the discourse organizing the poem’s thinking. Or we could refer again to the conference activities, where, because of the governing care, each agent recognized how the other felt empowered, and that recognition deepened the sense of satisfaction each experienced.


12Pleasure is not an object although one can treat it as objective. Pleasure is a condition of activity that carries significant affective investments. One of these potential investments is a sense of sociality, of the possible sharing of what brings pleasure, and of the self-consciousness that such sharing is possible, even for a species prone to alienation and self-doubt. This sense of sociality derives from the fact that we locate pleasure in our activities rather than in specific conditions of the self or the world seen as objects and described as such. Acts simply do not have the same kind of physicality, or the same kinds of material boundaries that condition our sense of distinct objects. For one thing the objects have specific locations in space-time while actions can be fundamentally repeated by a variety of agents. We could say that the place of actions in space-time depends on conditions of participation rather than on describability.

13 This difference is crucial for literary theory, especially for a poetic practice like Stevens’ that dwells so much on the work of the imagination. If we deal with the imagination as having to engage with the object world, we encounter two traps that I think Stevens became aware of, and that his critics have to recognize more fully than they have in the past. Because objects occupy limited spaces, there is a tendency to treat the imagination as also a specific kind of entity distinctive to minds and embodied as a faculty in individuals. But then we also have to treat the imagination as a kind of creative power in relation to the inertness of objects. And we have to characterize what this creative force can produce so that we can explain how it can produce effects in the kind of world defined by how we learn to speak about objects. If the imagination cannot modify the objects themselves, it must offer a means of transforming how we interpret or value objective situations.

14How can we then describe something that has force in relation to objects but does not appear within the language we deploy for objects? Perhaps the only way to do so is to attribute the creative force of the imagination to its ability to elaborate and sustain fictive worlds that model how valuing can take place within the world of objects. But then we have to speak of a faculty that nourishes itself on the unreal, on what we make up, in order to have any force within the real. And that force is always mysterious because we can recognize the fictive only by its challenges to our habitual ways of dealing with what we treat as “real.” We get an unreal inseparable from the real but haunting it as its other, as perhaps what can establish the shapes of desire rather than mime for the mind the shapes that comprise objective knowledge. And we have to feel that our valuing depends not on our ways of encountering objects and situations but on our capacity to dwell in fictions that give an aura of the real to what we know is unreal. We are stuck in problematic binaries between what minds make and what they find as a world that we can manipulate a little but do not seek to escape.

15This situation changes drastically when Stevens starts to talk about philosophy as seeking to explain the world while poetry seeks to animate it (CPP, 862-865). Now we are talking about modes of activity rather than contrasting ways of relating to objective conditions. And then we are not bound to dichotomies like true vs. fictive or real vs. unreal, or even mediated vs. immediate. We are free to see the arts as simply having different ways of engaging with a world that retains the same kind of reality as the world philosophy engages with or describes. And we are free to imagine modes of relation to that world that are not bound to sharp distinctions between points of view or between a useful and an indulgent fantasy. Now the basis of our theorizing does not depend on any faculty psychology. What matters is simply our capacity to characterize what the world becomes under certain conditions of activity; we need not talk at all about the nature of subjects and how they differ or do not differ from objects.

16I cannot continue in this theoretical vein without going beyond the limitations of an afterword. Suffice it to say that one relevant theoretical approach is my use of Wittgenstein in my Reckoning with Imagination in order to establish the value of characterizing actions rather than relying on any kind of abstract binaries (although this collection made me wish I could redo certain sections of that book). For this afterword, poetry itself will have to carry the theoretical weight of testing what can be done by a language based on characterizing actions, a task that Stevens’ poems seem particularly well-suited to accomplish.

17I will turn to “A Dish of Peaches in Russia” because thus I can also pay homage to Lisa Goldfarb’s superb reading in her chapter, which put me in a position to offer the following brief remarks:

With my whole body I taste these peaches,
I touch them and smell them. Who speaks?

I absorb them as the Angevine
Absorbs Anjou. I see them as a lover sees,

As a young lover sees the first buds of spring
And as the black Spaniard plays his guitar.

Who speaks? But it must be that I,
That animal, that Russian, that exile, for whom

The bells of the chapel pullulate sounds at
Heart. The peaches are large and round,

Ah! and red; and they have peach fuzz, ah!
They are full of juice and the skin is soft.

They are full of the colors of my village
And of fair weather, summer, dew, peace.

The room is quiet where they are.
The windows are open. The sunlight fills

The curtains. Even the drifting of the curtains,
Slight as it is, disturbs me. I did not know

That such ferocities could tear
One self from another, as these peaches do.
CPP, 206

18 Lisa Goldfarb calls our attention to many strange features in this poem. Why is there such a distance between the speaking and the “I” who recognizes himself as the speaker? The speaking elicited by the peaches must have qualities that release various aspects of the speaker’s position that are not contained in his idea of himself. Or we might say that poetry invites hearing the grounds of speaking as well as what is spoken. And this distinction helps explain the even stranger sense of treating the sensuous fullness of the scene as “ferocities” that the speaker “did not know […] could tear / One self from another, as these peaches do.” Are these ferocities good things or things to be avoided? Even more important, what is the speaker’s relation to knowledge in claiming that he now recognizes he did not know the power of the peaches? Does he now know that power? Or does he now recognize that the peaches put him in a situation where talk of knowledge must be evasive in relation to such ferocities? Perhaps only poetry can deal with those ferocities because it does not seek knowledge but desires only to stage recognition of how language can be deployed to engage complex particular situations. Then the poem would not be a fiction so much as an engagement with how an animated world takes on power.

19I think three linguistic features of the poem highlight its repudiation of knowledge for a competing state of mind that is rather anchored in attention to how the peculiarities of the situation take on force for the speaking “I.” These features point to what the poem is doing as it embodies a concern about the contrast between knowing and doing. First, notice the contrast between the series of “as” clauses that characterize the speaker’s seeing and the “as” clause that ends the poem. The clauses early in the poem are essentially psychological: they define affective states by elaborating equivalences comparing possible feelings to each other. The final clause, on the other hand, is completely action-oriented. The emphasis is solely on the power of the peaches in relation to the situation. How might one recognize ways in which the peaches can have the capacity to tear one self from another? In order to answer this question the poem must purify the speaker of the temptations to dwell in the vacillations of wistful subjectivity.

20Stevens makes this contrast to the earlier moments in the poem more striking by developing a second contrast, this time between the language of self-reflection in terms of “that exile” and the very different demonstrative “these peaches.” “[T] hat exile” involves dealing with the condition of self-consciousness as turning on the self that now becomes a fixed object of thought taunting the self as trapped within a specific condition. In contrast, mention of “these peaches” emphasizes the ability to seize the present and occupy it in such a way that the divisions of self-consciousness and exile are simply banished. To one who cultivates identity as an exile, “these” peaches have a ferocious immediacy in wrenching the world away from self-consciousness.

21And then we get the clinching movement. Lisa Goldfarb has made me see that the last word in the poem is “do,” an odd off-rhyme with “know.” This “do” is the poem’s response to the speaker’s recognition that knowing may not be an appropriate framework for the ferocity of an experience that tears him away from his typical ways of assuming he knows who he is. The ultimate power of the peaches is to earn this verb, stressing the contrast between knowing about objects and treating objects as capable of acting on consciousness. The final verb, then, provides a sharp frame for contrasting the vagaries of self-consciousness with the force of what remains resolutely concrete, even as its imaginative significance expands exponentially.

22But now that I have stressed the poem’s resistance to knowledge, I seem also to have foreclosed any typical route by which we establish the significance of particular objects and events. I may have succeeded in honoring the power of poetry by effectively banishing it to the imaginary realm where we become limited to relishing the particular delights it offers. In other words, we have to face the basic dilemma of all poetic theory that wants to give poetry a cogent role in social life without invoking its possible place in ritual or in religious experience. In my view that dilemma is as simple to state as it is difficult to engage successfully in theoretical terms: how can poetry preserve the individuality or singularity that is its raison d’être, while offering something general that other people can use in their own lives, which normally depend on the instruments of knowledge like the formation of concepts and the testing of truth values? This is why people offer thematic readings, or speak of imaginative literature as realizing some kind of truth (which can never meet the criteria that philosophers use for “truth”), or posit supreme fictions that provide a kind of abstracted content for what the imagination constructs. And this is why conference participants like Gül Bilge Han and Rachel Malkin worried over giving art a social role that depends on reconciling specific qualities exhibited in the text with the kind of generality that might afford social relevance.

23Indeed, my own reading draws on a conceptual opposition between knowing and doing that comes dangerously close to a thematic reading. But I can defend it by offering my frequently repeated idea that art offers the world not truth but exemplification. It displays or exhibits what can be involved in engaging certain aspects of the world from specific points of view as these dramatize ways of being concerned about how we pay attention and formulate ways of acting. Such activity offers possibility, not truth. And possibility depends on the specific rendering of experience. Examples can elicit several levels of engagement, each with possibilities for extending aspects of the text into the world without having to make claims about its truth.

24For brevity’s sake let me rely on an example of levels of engagement drawn from my discussion of “A Dish of Peaches in Russia.” I think it matters for society to have images of the struggle between what allows knowing and what must be based on what is done by particular forces that have a certain violence involved in them. That, I take it, is the most important level of the example. But one can establish several other ways in which this text affords conditions for how we might experience and reflect on aspects of the world. At the most general level, it offers a way of dealing with exile by drawing a contrast to how the mind produces images that turn one’s condition into pure objectivity: here the poem gives objects like “these peaches” a dynamic transformation of objectivity into a sense of co-presence with the world of things. And at the most particular level, it demonstrates various modes of sensuality, from the self-indulgent movements of memory to becoming open to the violence that allows us to register fully the force of the strange but evocative late poem, “How Now, O, Brightener...”:

Something of the trouble of the mind
Remains in the sight, and in sayings of the sight,
Of the spring of the year,

Trouble in the spillage and first sparkle of sun,
The green-edged yellow and yellow and blue and blue-edged green—
The trouble of the mind

Is a residue, a land, a rain, a warmth,
A time, an apparition and nourishing element
And simple love,

In which the spectra have dewy favor and live
And take from this restlessly unhappy happiness
Their stunted looks.
CPP, 460-461


25The major value of reading for exemplification is that it gets us out of the business of claiming that the critic or the artist or the work possesses truths compelling certain kinds of behavior. My proposed alternative promises ways of treating the particular aspects of the work of art as developing concrete frameworks for understanding and assessing particular possibilities of engaging the world. Entertaining those possibilities provides a sense of power and potential that has long been the province of the humanities, and it is time we reclaimed what the humanities afford that no other practice can offer with such scope and intelligence. In my case, I have learned to treat the Burgundy wines so graciously offered at our conference dinner as possessing powers strikingly similar to those Stevens gives his peaches.


Stageberg Professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley and serves on the Editorial Board of The Wallace Stevens Journal. He is interested in relations among poetry, painting, and modern philosophy. He is the author of many books, including Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry: The Contemporaneity of Modernism (Cambridge University Press, 1989) and, most recently, Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity: Toward a Phenomenology of Value (Cornell, 2013) and Reckoning with Imagination: Wittgenstein and Literary Theory (Cornell, 2015).

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