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A Secular Creator

A Secular Creator: Abstract Construction in the Poems of Wallace Stevens

            As a concept in art, abstraction relates to the idea that an object or image can be represented through the distillation of its form, colour, and line. The word also denotes a process of extraction, and the gathering of common features from specific examples. Wallace Stevens’ poetry examines how abstractions work to expose interdependencies between imagination and reality. In his poems, “Study of Two Pears,” and “The Snow Man,” Stevens illustrates the poet’s ability to capture and deliver abstract concepts and states of mind to his readers. Stevens’ work confirms that the modern poet “must be able to abstract himself and also to abstract reality, which he does by placing it in his imagination” (Stevens NA, 23).

            In “Study of Two Pears,” Stevens contrasts the form of poetry with its content, giving the idea of two pears through a process of abstraction. The poem’s content is concerned with representing only the pears themselves, but the form of the poem, which constructs the pears through indications of shape, colouring, outline, and resemblance, introduces imaginative elements that equate the pears with other forms and ideas. The speaker begins the study by stating that “the pears are not viols, / nudes or bottles.” Through this specific negation of form, the speaker invokes a resemblance between the pears and the three objects based in their association with painting. “Viols,” “nudes,” and “bottles” share connotation with cubist paintings, which blend human forms, organic forms, and the shapes of musical instruments (Costello 176). The pears are symbols of modernist painting, like the cubist forms they are compared with, but are ultimately denied that association.

            Within this space of resemblance and denied resemblance, the speaker continues composing the pears in abstracts:

They are yellow forms

Composed of curves

Bulging toward the base.

They are touched red.

            The speaker attempts to reduce the pears to their absolutes of form, colour, and shape, in order to avoid associating them with anything but pears. The words “curve,” and “bulging,” however, prompt the mind back to the nudes, viols, and bottles, while the indication of yellow, red—and later blue, relate how painters create from these primary colours. The descriptions of the two fruits, while attempting to remain exclusive to just the fruits themselves, also cause the imagination to increasingly link their abstracted forms and colours to other things.

            Stevens argued that “the subject-matter of poetry is not [a] ‘collection of solid, static objects extended in space’ but the life that is lived in the scene that it composes […] it is an interdependence of the imagination and reality as equals” (Stevens NA, 25, 27). In “Study of Two Pears,” the interplay between reality and imagination brings the pears to life. The fourth stanza introduces a modeller, who adds “bits of blue” to the pears, presently affecting their composition, while “a hard dry leaf hangs / from the stem.” The leaf has a present action of “hanging” that allows the pears to exist within a defined moment of time, indicated by the enjambment between the leaf’s action, and its location.

            Stevens’ use of the word “glistens” in the fifth stanza invites the representational space of the pears into question. On one hand, “the yellow glistens, / it glistens with various yellows” as if the pears were bathed in sunlight, and yet “glistens” may also remind a reader of fresh yellow paint. Citrons and oranges carry the dual association of fruit and colour. Here, the words can represent colours glistening over the skin of the pears, while also indicating fruits commonly painted in still-life compositions.

            Stevens’ study is broken into stanzas that, taken individually, offer abstractions that indicate both a pear that is real, and one that is imagined. The poem concludes with the speaker stating that, “the pears are not seen / as the observer wills.” The speaker’s introduction of an observer is puzzling because the reader has, up until now, been the observer of the study. The final lines force a reevaluation of both the poem and the nature of the voice speaking. What the reader finds is “somebody in the act of writing about the act of looking at two pears” (Eeckhout 166). The indication of the observer is reflexive back onto the speaker; the speaker is also the person looking at the pears: the observer. The pears are not seen as the speaker has willed them, which means the associations with painting and cubist structures are not owned by the pears. They have been constructed through the interdependence of imagination and reality, which exists within the mind of both the reader and the observer.

            Stevens perceived the relation between art and life as one of utter importance. The reflection of art on life, and imagination on reality, is worked into his poem, “The Snow Man.” Stevens wrote the poem as one sentence spread over five stanzas. The speaker firmly sets the poem in the “mind” from the first line and leads the reader back to the mind in the end. “The Snow Man” is delivered by a speaker who is at a removed vantage, allowing a complete emptiness to be engaged in the poem. The poem’s content builds upon the initial instance of the mind by imposing on it the faculties required to “regard,” and “behold,” and “listen” to the unravelling scene in the speaker’s telling. The poem’s content is delivered through a form that relies heavily on enjambments to expose distance and isolation. The reader is gradually led through the poet’s own process, abstracting himself from the imposed reality, then abstracting the reality itself.

            The first two strophes describe “pine-trees crusted with snow,” “junipers shagged with ice,” and “spruces rough in the distant glitter.” It is a scene of winter isolation. The enjambment between the second and third strophes increases this sense of isolation. It gives a visual, empty space for the reader to traverse, which is echoed in the space between the first strophe’s “mind” and the rough spruces in the January sun. There is no thought of misery “in the sound of the wind.” As this sound becomes “the sound of a few leaves,” then “the sound of the land,” and finally is carried into a “bare place,” the negated thoughts of misery are also carried through these places. Misery is an idea brought to the reader’s mind through its negated existence in the poem. The sound of wind and the land are devoid of miserable thoughts, but they ultimately carry a shadow of misery.

            There is an enjambment between the fourth and fifth strophe that separates the thinking mind from “the listener.” It is a double lined enjambment, creating a vast divide between the “same bare place,” and the “listener, who listens in the snow.” On one side of this divide is the entire winter scene brought into view at the speaker’s insistence, but on the other side there appear multiple “nothings.” The landscape is gone; the wind has carried it out of frame. There is just the listener, who is in the snow beholding the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” The listener is a being reduced to nothing, but still able to behold from his fixed position “in the snow.” The idea of a “nothing that is not there” is equivalent to one of “everything that is there,” but more accurately, as the poem ends, “everything” is equivalent to nothing. The end of the poem leaves the reader directly inside a “mind of winter.” The mind is filled with Stevens’ abstractions of the winter scene, but is ultimately abstracted from that scene, with nothing to contain it.

            The poem functions as an abstract notion of human identity, and calls into question how emotions are owned by individuals, how far the imagination goes toward creating a sense of reality and how reality may exist equally independent of human imagination, as it is equally dependent on that imagination to conjure it from nothing. One of the many aphorisms Stevens wrote examines the mind’s acknowledgment of its imaginative creations:

“The relation of art to life is of the first importance especially in a skeptical age since, in the absence of a belief in God, the mind turns to its own creations and examines them, not alone from the aesthetic point of view, but for what they reveal, for what they validate and invalidate, for the support that they give.” (Stevens 972)

            By maneuvering his readers through the composition and decomposition of objects as ideas, Stevens’ poems are able to show how creators and their creations interplay with each other. His work shows how the mind of the creator affects her creation, but also how the creation exists independent of its creator’s effects. His ideas reflect the workings of a secular mind in a time when war spanned the globe, and seemed to declare the death of God as much as any of Nietzsche’s writings. Through his poems, Stevens shows how a secular mind can understand both human creation, and the unfolding creation of humanity.

 

Works Cited

Costello, Bonnie. “Stevens and Painting.” The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens. Ed. John Serio. Cambridge:

            Cambridge University Press, 2007. 164-79
Eeckhout, Bart. Wallace Stevens and the Limits of Reading and Writing. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 

            2002.

Stevens, Wallace. The Necessary Angel. London: Faber, 1942.

---. “Wallace Stevens.” The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Ed. Jahan Ramazani. New 

            York: W.W. Norton, 2003. 235-67.
---. “Adagia.” The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Ed. Jahan Ramazani. New York: W.W. 

            Norton, 2003. 972-75.

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