Sunday, October 05, 2008

Wallace Stevens: Poetry is the Supreme Fiction

A couple of days ago this poem by Wallace Stevens arrived in my mailbox. I haven't read it before, and I need to look up a few of these words before I completely understand it, but it certainly looks like a poem in Stevens's easily recognizable style.

The following intro accompanied the poem. As it is a good intro to Wallace Stevens, even with a brief biograpy, I simply put the whole thing here:

It's the birthday of Wallace Stevens, born in Reading, Pennsylvania (1879). Stevens was an excellent student. He went to Harvard. He decided that he would fulfill his father's desires and go to law school. Afterward, he took a job with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, he eventually became vice president, and he remained at the job for the rest of his life. Each day, he walked the two miles between his home and his office, and during these walks to and from work, he composed poetry. Some people thought it was odd for an insurance executor to write poetry. Stevens did not. He said, "It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job." In 1955, just months before he died, he received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his volume Collected Poems. He wrote:


Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame.
Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms
Like windy citherns, hankering for hymns.
We agree in principle. That's clear. But take
The opposing law and make a peristyle,
And from the peristyle project a masque
Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness,
Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
Is equally converted into palms,
Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm,
Madame, we are where we began.


Poetry is the supreme fiction. I definitely like the ring of that line.

It is an excerpt from "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman", which according to the Wikipedia article on Stevens is a satirical poem in which Stevens plays with our ideas of religion and what to do when religion no longer holds a central place in our lives and societies. Apparently he wrote that “After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption." (From Opus Posthumous.) Only to encounter the troubles with finding this fiction, and ultimately concluding that there is no way to contact or experience reality directly. Well, I don't know whether I agree with Stevens on this point, but it is nevertheless an interesting piece of poetic thinking.

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