Wallace Stevens is one of the greatest poets of the Modern Era. Some of his poems explain what modern poetry is; others exemplify it. First, I will discuss the poem "Of Modern Poetry" alone. Then I will relate it to the introductory notes to Lionel Trilling's "The Meaning of a Literary Idea," to James Joyce, and to another Stevens poem, "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction."
The most important line in "Of Modern Poetry" is the first, wrapping onto the second: "The poem of the mind in the act of finding/What will suffice." The words of this are repeated, all or in part, in several places in the poem, emphasizing their importance. On line ten,"find what will suffice" reoccurs. Line nineteen contains an "actor" echoing the "act" of the first line. Lines twenty-two and twenty-three include "wholly/Containing the mind" which reminds of "The poem of the mind," and, finally, the last line restates the first: "The poem of the act of the mind."
One aspect of this line and its echoes that holds great significance represents the modern aspect of literature almost as an epitome of modernity. That the mind is a point of strong focus and creative power and control is something Stevens believes whole-heartedly. Poetry is not a matter of a universal truth for the modern era, but the modern realization that every opinion, every reading, matters carries throughout Stevens' works. A great example of what he says of the mind in "Of Modern Poetry" is his poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." In this poem, thirteen stanzas present thirteen very different views of a simple blackbird. He wrote this poem because of his strong belief in "the poem of the mind" and "the act of finding" what is within one's own mind.
Another Stevens poem which supports the thoughts of "Of Modern Poetry" is "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction." The first part of "Notes" is subtitled "It Must Be Abstract," and the poem begins: "Begin, ephebe, by perceiving the idea/Of this invention, this invented world,/The inconceivable idea of the sun." In "Of Modern Poetry," Stevens uses the pronoun "" frequently and the referent is unclear. However, after re-reading "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," I decided that, for me, the "It" should refer to the reader of a poem and not to the poem itself. "It has/To construct a new stage." (10-11) With my reading of "It" and the context of "Notes," one realizes that Stevens is directing the modern movement toward one where the focus is on all who perceive. It is important for the poet and the reader to be "actor[s]," as in line nineteen of "Of Modern Poetry."
>From here, I'll branch to a discussion of the great modern Irish novelist, James Joyce. Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake epitomize the modern need for an active reader. "It" cannot accept Joyce's works unless "It" builds "a new stage." That is, the reader must redefine norms, comfort zones, rules, and experiences in order to "find what will suffice" in Joyce's works. This attitude that Stevens describes in "Of Modern Poetry," that Joyce exemplifies in his two great novels, and that Stevens epitomizes in his other works is one that the critic Lionel Trilling respected a great deal. Trilling brings up the point that modern literature, to be written, read or reviewed, requires a degree of liberalism. Trilling had real problems with writers of the great Modern Era being too conservative in their lives. However, I believe that both Joyce and Stevens, whether in their actions or not, were liberal men. Neither could take such liberties with styles, subjects, and languages unless they were liberal.
"Of Modern Poetry" is an important poem on its own. Still, in the context of Stevens' entire works and in the context of the modern era, it takes on an even great significance as a stepping stone for discussion of any modern literature. I feel that the act of my mind will never truly find what will suffice in this poem or in any other work of the modern era except through the "satisfaction" of the search. As long as my mind is active, Stevens will be happy with the search being what suffices for me.
There are several things I would like to say about Stevens's poem, but the first thing that strikes me,and what I think serves as an avenue into a broader idea of the poem, is the consideration Stevens gives to women. He prescribes that the essence of the poem (which I'll come back to shortly) has "to meet / The women of the time," and that it "may / Be of a woman dancing, a woman / Combing" (l. 8-9; 26-28). Finally we have an illustration of the consideration of the poem's audience, and not only that, but that women are included in this group, made a part of it. What jumps out at me is this idea of there being a shift in the role of writer and reader that the modern reader is looking to identify with the poetry. So when I say the "essence" of the poem, I mean to suggest that Stevens is talking about poetry before it becomes literal poetry, or actual words on an actual page. In this sense, "the modern poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice" has a much bigger job ahead of it than did its predecessors, as there is more to take into account, namely, the immediate present (l. 1-2).
I think the most important thing Stevens seems to be saying is that for modern poetry to carry some importance or some value, from its pre-conception to birth, it must suit itself to its time without compromising its tradition. That the poem is already "of (or in) the mind" suggests it is coming from something that already was, perhaps, as Frye (and Jung) would propose, the archetypes or myths we as human inherit with our psyche. Thus, in order to continue the tradition of poetry, to keep it alive, the poet must face that the tradition has "changed," that he or she must "construct a new stage" for the poetry to dance and strut its way across (l. 11). The essence of the poem must commune with the men, women, politics of the audience of the time. It must "be living" to those who will receive it (l. 7). Yet, even as its face has changed, and must accommodate its new time, it must still find "what will suffice," in other words, it must retain those things that will one day make it a "souvenir," as did its "past" (l. 10; 6).
Thus, the burden of modern poetry's endurance falls heavily upon the shoulders of the modern poet. As "an insatiable actor," the poet must reconcile "that which [he or she] wants to hear" with that which "an invisible audience" wants to hear, and in doing so, express these words as "two / Emotions becoming one" (l. 15, 16; 17-18). Stevens goes on to compare this poet/actor to "a metaphysician in the dark" who must "give / sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly / containing the mind, below which it cannot descend, beyond which it has no will to rise" (l. 20-24). In other words, the poet must find the perfect balance between, or coalescence of, a rich past and an ordinary present in order to give his or her poetry the hope to succeed.
So "the poem of the mind in the act of finding" logically progresses, in the final stanza, into "the poem of the act of the mind" (l. 28). "The finding of satisfaction" for Stevens becomes a blending of everyday life with the systems and structures of "scenes that were set" and "what / used to be]in the script" (l. 26; 3, 4). In fact, Stevens' entire poem becomes about a process rather than poetry itself. It is the process of the modern poet's mind and what he or she puts into his or her poetry that concerns Stevens. I think by the poem's end we are left with a paradox of colossal proportions; on one hand, Stevens encourages the poet to create what he or she wants to hear, but in doing so, he or she must incorporate these creations with traditionally "unpoetical" things such as "skating," "dancing," and "combing" in order that the audience may be able to connect with this "satisfying" poetry. So before the poet even begins to write, Stevens suggests, he or she must work all of these tensions out in the mind. Basically, it is "bye-bye Muse;" the modern poem is a conscious "act of the mind," not divine inspiration.
Whether or not he's truly concerned with the "past" or not, what is important is that the poem is an "act of the mind" about the now.
The first line provides a definition of modern poetry in which the locus of the poem is the mind, which serves as a distinction from other forms of poetry. This definition relays a sense of originality and difference that is felt by the modernist movement. The poem goes on to contrast the present form with the past and its reliance on a precedent. Here, the poem is creating for itself; its locus is the individual mind, and there is no sense of connection with other minds. Poetry used to be something that simply copied the tradition. Sentimental poets love nature and long for it but cannot directly copy nature; rather, they copy the natural poets, most of whom are located in the past. Here, though, the mind is in the midst of a personal struggle to find "What will suffice." The only way it is linked to other minds is in the search, not the outcome or the means.
In this description, the active metaphor is that of literary history as a theatrical stage and scene, which links the style as well as the topic to an idea of tradition. While modern poetry is something distinct from the rote repetition of script, there is still a sense of adherence to tradition. The second stanza, while emphasizing a Wordworthian desire for "the speech of the place," posits its point in a didactic form in showing what the mind "has" to do. Here, the emphasis is on the writer; there is a blatant description of how to write appropriately for the modern period. This is similar to Eliot's construction of a poetry that takes into consideration individuality, even relies on it, to affect or join in, without adding to or detracting from, rather sustaining, the completeness of tradition. Yet that same poem "has to" work on another level. It is an imperative for the mind, not simply the poem of the mind. Any mind must learn "the speech of the place" and "face the men of the time" in order to learn to connect. There is a strong undercurrent of the modernist sense of detachment and isolation. There is a mind at work striving to forge some sense of a connection with its surroundings. And yet the instructive style is reminiscent of a classical work of instruction for a writer. In toying with the balance between a sense of tradition and the individualism of constructing "a new stage," this poem provides a microcosm for the balance within the modernist movement: although there is a cry for originality, for a "new stage," it is still a stage, only a variation of what came before as modernism is a variation of romanticism and neo/classicism.
The desired effect in the "invisible audience" is also very intriguing in that the goal seems to be a granting of autonomy to the reader rather than some sort of connection to the poem or to the message of the poem. The mind is being observed and is aware of this fact, but it cannot make out its observers; it can only speak to itself. However, the poem of this mind acts as a conduit of some type of communication. The poem serves as a catalyst to invoke certain feelings or thoughts within the reader; the point of the poem is to foster the feeling of melding with the mind of the reader. There is reciprocity, a movement toward the center from both sides, poem and reader, in this argument. The poem moves toward each specific mind, and the mind changes and moves itself toward the poem. There is a shift or augmentation in the metaphor; the reader is a stringed instrument, and the actor simply brushes up against this string in order to invoke something that already had the potential, though not the occasion, to occur.
Perhaps in reaction to the emotionality of romanticism, the focus here is on the mind. Fragmented sentences that can work as definitions of modern poetry frame the poem and use the word mind to provide their definition. In addition, the end of the central stanza places the focus of the reader's reaction to a poem within the boundaries of the mind, with no possibility of descending and "no will to rise." The intense emotion described in the lines that directly precede this passage are filtered through the rationality of the mind, in "the delicatest ear of the mind," which is both sufficient and satisfactory for the task. While the emotion "wholly contains" the mind, the mind contains the emotions as well, providing upper and lower boundaries.
The double meaning of "act" extends to lend ambiguity to the idea of poetry and of the mind. The role of the word "act" in the first sentence fragment places poetry in the middle of a struggle for definition. The mind and the poem act now; there is a sense of immediacy in communication between the poem and the mind and in the fight for "finding what will suffice." The last sentence fragment, though, after the theater metaphor, highlights the other definition of "act" and makes the motion of the mind seem but a sham, bringing a strong sense of doubt on the sufficiency of the mind. The poem is critical of one of its basic suppositions, the freedom and importance of the work of the mind. The mind is in a state of isolated autonomy with only the vague sense that the invisible audience is out there. The only meaning available is that found in defining what will personally suffice. However, the last line of the poem questions that meaning in implying that the mind is engaged in self-delusion. The same sense of self-doubt is evident in The Wasteland, in which insecurity and isolation are pervasive. Independence plays a key role in modernism, as does originality. However, the function of the word "act" here places modernism's independence and originality on ungrounded territory where collapse is a distinct possibility. "Act" calls the integrity of the internal into question.
Another thing that caught my attention is the simultaneous inclusion of both genders and their separate characterizations. "It" faces men and meets women; men skate, and women dance or comb their hair. Both sexes are available as potential players in the poem itself or in the reading or writing, but their roles remain distinct. To what extent is this a mirror of the gender liberation status at the time this poem was written (excuse me, New Critics)? The multiple roles men and women take on in the last stanza may serve to highlight the subjugation in importance of the poem's subject to its core of satisfaction, that is, to highlight the importance of "finding what will suffice" over the form that it takes. However, there is an intentional division between the roles of men and women even while both genders are included.
Stevens' "Of Modern Poetry" requires of all artists a deliberate progression from their traditional predecessors in order to show any contemporary worth. He introduces this contrast in lines three and six when he goes from "[Poetry] repeated what / Was in the script" to "Its past was a souvenir." Furthermore, he urges the necessity for this change in following lines by claiming that "It has / To construct a new stage" by learning "the speech of the place" and meeting contemporary people. It would seem that he means by all this that poetry must make an effort to speak in a language familiar to its living audience, to build a new foundation, possibly an entirely new phase of tradition, from which poetry can progress. Stevens feels that these efforts are mandatory, "It has to be on this stage", if the poet wishes his work to achieve real relevance to its audience, to "speak words . . . In the delicatest ear of the mind . . . that which it wants to hear." Apparently, the writer wants art which requires minimal background on the part of the audience to be enjoyed to its fullest, for it to reach its most sublime movement. His analogy soon moves artists from an actor on a new stage to a "metaphysician in the dark", who aims his music directly toward the mind, intentionally lowering itself to "find what will suffice" for this particular audience. I felt that the most important statement in this work which supports the necessity of a break from tradition are that "an invisible audience listens, / Not to the play, but to itself, expressed / In an emotion as of two people". This argues that poetry is not created to be appreciated as poetry, it is to be appreciated for the creative process with whose product an audience can identify. This is a compelling argument to me against strict adherence to traditional methods; the work must satisfy on an emotionally unifying and elevating level, not on an academic or historical one. The creative act must in some way arouse its audience rather than deliver some perceptible, quantifiable content.
Wallace Stevens' poem, "Of Modern Poetry" traces the development of Modern poetic theory as a progression through Neo-Classicism and Romanticism toward Modernism. It is hardly surprising, then, to find elements suggestive of these previous periods alongside those readily identifiable as "Modern."
The first stanza of the poem presents a rupture, both literally and spatially, between the Modern poem, defined in the first line as "[t]he poem of the mind in the act of finding / [w]hat will suffice," and its predecessor, which did not have to find but only to repeat. This shift from imitation to expression, fundamental to the development of the Modern poetic conception, finds its roots in Romanticism. The Romantics abandoned imitation for its falsely passive perception of the world in favor of a poetic expression based upon an interchange between the mind and the world. The Modern poem furthers this Romantic move inward from the imitation of the world to the expression of the mind, eventually abandoning altogether the Romantic reliance on nature as the impetus for poetry. The Modern poem is, then, first and foremost the poem of the mind.
The first several lines in the next stanza are also reminiscent of Romantic theory, most notably that of Wordsworth, insofar as they further the rejection of artificial imitations on a poetic model and search, instead, for the expression of fundamental humanity. Wordsworth locates the source of this fundamental humanness in common subjects and language, which was at the time a dramatic break with tradition.
The two lines that follow continue this progression toward realism begun by the Romantics and are the most identifiably "Modern" of the entire poem. The reader familiar with English Literature thinks immediately of the War Poets who searched for new means of expression amidst mass destruction and who foresaw the Modern frustration with the limitations of language. The Modernists were conscious of the fact that they were "construct[ing] a new stage."
Another element fundamental to Modernism is the emphasis on the present, on the here and now, on the process; the Modern poem is not simply the poem of the mind, but the poem of the active mind, of the mind in action. It is this "act" of the mind that renders the poem available to all readers, as poetry becomes an active interplay rather than a passive reception.
The images of unity between the mind and the world that appear throughout the remainder of the poem recall most readily Schiller's theory of naive poetry. For Schiller, poetry reflects not a conscious imitation of the world around us but a primal sense of coordination between that world and the human mind. The audience, the actor, even the play itself become part of this unity in the poem "wholly / [c]ontaining the mind."
Thus, perhaps not surprisingly, while "Of Modern Poetry" exhibits some elements typically associated with Modernism, the poem also recalls previous theories, presenting us with a portrait of Modernism as developing from both repeated rejections and affirmations of both the Neo-Classic and Romantic traditions.
Stevens begins his poem by recognizing the inherent consciousness of modern poetry, calling it the poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice. The choice of mind rather than heart or soul emphasizes the objectivity that characterizes modern poetry as T.S. Eliot, for example, sees it. Eliot's historical sense indicates that the mature poet writes with the knowledge of tradition and of its main current. And the poet employs this historical sense that he may discover what will suffice for new art. Here, what separates modern poetry from tradition is its self-consciousness, which reaches one step beyond Schiller's conscious reflection upon the impressions that objects make upon the poet. Not only aware of these impressions which motivate their poetry, writers such as Eliot also recognize that they are creating art, and further that they do so within a main current of development, refinement perhaps, complication certainly. The result is that the modern poet aims to create new art. His awareness of tradition forces him either to imitate or to innovate; both Eliot and Stevens assert the latter, though they disagree as to the function of tradition. While Stevens sees tradition as repetitive and predetermined, Eliot opts for a constantly changing concept. And while Stevens calls it a souvenir, something to be pulled off the shelf only occasionally for memory's sake, Eliot's historical sense dictates that the poet carries his knowledge of tradition at all times.
Stevens proceeds to emphasize the poets consciousness of his contemporaneity, another concept mentioned by Eliot: "It has to face the men of the time and to meet / The women of the time." In the middle of his poem, he characterizes the modern poet as "an insatiable actor." Here he introduces the problem of modern poetry: it seeks to establish a new art, or to construct a new stage as Stevens says, but it can never attain satisfaction from its efforts. Does this lack of satisfaction stem from modern poetry's inability to sever completely its ties to tradition? At this juncture, Bloom's thesis comes to mind. Are modern poets left frustrated after they have failed in their attempts to misread their predecessors? Perhaps his analogy to the Oedipus complex is a bit far-fetched, but the more general idea that modern poets strive to create an independent identity seems acceptable enough.
Later, Stevens concurs with Eliot. By claiming that the actor is "A metaphysician in the dark," Stevens uses an effective analogy to separate poem from poet. Just as the audience can only hear, but not see the actor, so the modern reader ought to approach poetry without any knowledge of the author. Considerations external to a poem's text ought not be relevant to modern criticism. As Wimsatt and Beardsley remark, referring to a statement by Archibald MacLeish, "a poem should not mean but be." That is, the poet's intent is an irrelevant consideration in the judgment of a poem. Behind this rejection of externality is again the modern poet's preference for objectivity. Thus Eliot exhibits an extreme disdain for Romanticism with its failure to function as an escape from emotion.
Stevens closes with another call to seek the satisfaction which he has already claimed is unattainable. In this search, the modern poetry takes on a sense of urgency that leads him to seek that satisfaction in the most common of places. No longer must he turn his attention to lofty affairs. Instead of nobles and royalty, the modern poet can choose as a subject "a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman / Combing." With these concluding thoughts, Stevens frames his poem with his most fundamental view of modern poetry: that it is a conscious and active search.
Stevens begins "Of Modern Poetry" with his formulation of the modern poetic moment: "The poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice." Never before, Stevens goes on to say, has poetry "had to find," nor has the "mind" been engaged as the primary locus of poetic activity. Earlier poetry merely "repeated what / Was in the script" and has become for Stevens nothing more than a "souvenir." Where earlier poetry of those such as Pope was concerned with elaboration, with artful re-statement of what "oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed," Stevens' modernity erects new obstacles for poetry, so that artfulness, wit and creative recitation are no longer the poet's primary concerns. Instead the modern poet, in writing the poem of the mind, must resolve the problematics of modern subjectivity and struggle to access both his own interiority as well as that of others. While poetry for Pope was largely an artistic craft, Stevens defines poetry as real speech and communication between minds by representing the modern poem as a moment of brief but "metaphysical" resolution of the subjective and social isolations imposed by world war.
Distinguishing between Stevens' modern and Pope's "scripted" poetry depends in part on deciding whether or not "Of Modern Poetry" participates in the distinction or merely defines it. To be sure, as a poem by Stevens, himself a "modern poet", it performs elements of both functions. The extent to which it participates in the new poetry is especially vague, however, perhaps largely the result of the qualitative ambiguity of modern poetry. Recognizing Pope's couplets as exemplars of Pope's theory of good poetry is much easier than deciding whether or not this or any of Stevens' (or anyone's, modern or otherwise) poems is a poem of the act of he mind in the act of finding what will suffice let alone that the poet has assumed the role of a mystically articulate "metaphysician in the dark." Therefore, even if Stevens' poem may share certain characteristics with the new poetry, it is not necessarily a primary example of the new poetry, and like Pope's is a theoretical piece positing a general definition of modern poetry, or at least outlining the form, interests and trajectory Stevens prescribes for modern poetry. In this sense, then, Pope and Stevens are not so far removed from each other: Pope's poem conforms more obviously to and participates in his sense of what good poetry should be, but as theories in verse, as art describing art, both "Of Modern Poetry" and "The Art of Criticism" are interested in artfulness of expression in a way Stevens' actual definition of modern poetry might oppose.
In fact, both Stevens' theory and poetry consciously oppose Pope's "The Art of Criticism." Gone are the rhyming couplets, the regular meter, the mythological allusions, in fact, almost all stylistic references to "tradition" or "traditional poetry" have been dismissed with the advent of the new artistic dilemma. So too has the theory distanced itself from the poetic heritage. Specifically, the past, that is past poetry, is now a "souvenir." It is no longer a genuine experience; the poet has moved on (or returned home, if one wishes) and tradition is only a substitute, a memento of times past. More significantly, as a "souvenir" the past represents an interior dialogue, an isolating conversation with the self based in personal memory. Modern poetry cannot, in Stevens' opinion, dwell in such a realm, rather, "It has to be living" and respond to real, living people: "It has to face the men of the time and to meet / The women of the time." Even more importantly, "It has to think about war / And it has to find what will suffice." Communication in the modern age can no longer rely upon old ways of speaking or the recapitulation of old memories. The war has sundered individual experience and the poet is now engaged in "finding" in a way he never was before - not in the sense of merely finding a new articulation of classical art and ideals, but of locating something - words, sentences, a vocabulary - in the dark, in an era where old solutions no longer "suffice." In a sense, it must learn how to speak all over again.
Even so, this summary statement - that poetry must learn to speak all over again - only partially encases Steven's modern poetic program. Modern poetry must also attain to consciousness. That is, repeating the old script will no longer suffice in part because it is too old, but more importantly precisely because it is a script, and therefore unconscious. Modern poetry - the poem of the mind - must not simply speak a list of words into the darkness but recognize the world beyond the stage, that is, both the mind of the poet and the mind of the audience. The modern dilemma, according to Stevens, extends beyond the loss of speech to include the restricted modern access to one's own and others' minds. In finding what will suffice, modern poetry will discover a personal subjectivity in the capacity for creative speech at the same moment it discovers the speech itself. Again, modern poetry is the poetry of the mind in an act, that is, in the act of being a mind: thinking self-consciously and with a subjective purpose "scripted" poetry neither achieved nor had to achieve. But, as much as modern poetry is about using and discovering one's own mind to communicate clearly and meaningfully, it is about discovering, and repeating almost mimetically, the contents and activities of mind to whom the poem is addressed: "It has to be on that stage / And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and / With meditation, speak words that in the ear, / In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat, / Exactly that which it wants to hear." Modern poetry will pursue ("insatiably") the project of discovering and uniting sundered and atrophied interiorities, of "constructing" and actualizing the poems of the mind that already exist, but have been silenced: "of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman / Combing."
The aim of modern poetry, then, will be to communicate at the most elemental human level, a level Stevens equates to the interaction of an "insatiable actor" and an audience united together in the darkness of a theater. Poetry will "speak words... / In the delicatest ear of the mind." Perhaps paradoxically in a poem dedicated to the artful representation of literary theory, artfulness will not concern modern poetry, only the unity of two minds sharing and expressing a single emotion or experience. Thus "rightness," sufficiency, satisfaction are poetry's goals, not inspiration, amazement, wit, or anything more elaborate than the "twanging a wiry string."
In his poem, "Of Modern Poetry," Wallace Stevens presents a conception of modern poetry as characterized by a new interaction of poet, poem, and audience. Stevens begins his poem with a contrast between contemporary conceptions and past ideas of poetry. He looks back nostalgically at a time when the poet did not have to search for poetry that sufficiently expressed the emotions of the time. Comparing poetry to an actor playing a role, Stevens describes the past as a time when "the scene was set; it repeated what/ Was in the script" (3-4). In the past, then, poetry expressed ideas common among society, and the poet did not have to search for an adequate means of expression. However, Stevens quickly shifts the discussion from past to present at the end of the first verse. Suddenly, the past becomes a "souvenir" (6); the word choice suggests an object one carries along to represent a time period-an object that is static, unchanging, and sometimes trivial.
In contrast to the unchanging nature of past poetry, modern poetry must be alive and changing. It must "learn the speech of the place" (7), Stevens writes, suggesting the contemporary poets' need to find poetry sufficient for their world. For example, modern poetry must deal with war, an issue that was most likely in the forefront of Stevens' (and other poets') minds in the first part of the twentieth century. Modern poetry must be active, Stevens urges. It must change to fit the times, but not only that, it must even "construct a new stage" (11). Rather than accepting and following the accepted mentality of its time as past poetry did, modern poetry must help to create its own intellectual atmosphere in an often turbulent world.
Stevens compares the poem to an "actor" while describing the poem's role in modern society. In lines 11-19 ("It has to be on stage. . .two/ Emotions becoming one"), Stevens describes a complex intertwining of poem and audience. The poem is an "actor"; it moves and changes. This actor repeats what itt wants to hear, suggesting a passive audience, while at the same time, the "invisible audience"-invisible to the poem or to the poet at the time of writing-listens to what it –wants to hear. The audience listens to "itself"-or is Stevens still referring to the actor, the poem, there?-and feels the emotions created by the poem. Neither the poem nor the audience creates the emotions individually; only the combination of poem and audience produces the effect, the expression. The poem, then, is active and changing, because personal interpretations (the audience's reflections) differ, causing the poem to differ between people that hear or read it.
In the next sentence, Stevens expresses the purpose of poetry as a less than totally successful attempt to find meaning in the modern world. The actor (is this the poem or the poet now?) is in the dark, invisible to the audience. Only his sounds, his words, reach the audience, and words imperfectly express the concepts he thinks, as "twanging a wiry string" imperfectly expresses musical notes. Although through the poem the audience may reach brief moments of understanding, either of themselves or of their times, the mind remains in darkness. The sentence, however, contains many subordinate clauses, and Stevens' use of pronouns remains somewhat ambiguous: is "darkness" or "rightness" containing the mind? Is it "darkness," "rightness," or "the mind" that "it" cannot descend below or rise above? Is that final "it" the mind or the poet/poem/actor? The ambiguity is most likely intentional, because the blending of subject, object, and observer in the phrases reflects the poem's dual role in modern society of having both to create its intellectual atmosphere and express it. The same ambiguity begins and ends "Of Modern Poetry"; the strings of prepositional phrases leave unclear whether the poem stems from the mind or belongs to it, whether the act is the subject of the poem or the workings of the poet's mind, etc.
By the last sentence, however, the anxieties of composition are resolved, at least in part. "It" (25) now refers to the finished poem, which must be "the finding of a satisfaction" (26). Modern poetry, then, has no rules like the rules that tragedy must be about people in high places or that a sonnet ought to be addressed to an inaccessible woman. Modern poetry can be about any subject, and those that Stevens notes-"dancing," "skating," and "combing"-are significant because they can be either individual or social activities. One may dance or skate alone, and combing one's hair is an act of individual grooming, yet one may just as easily dance or skate in pairs, and combing implies a consciousness of society's expectations.
To conclude, I move away from emphasis on "Of Modern Poetry" and quote Stevens himself: "We never arrive intellectually. But emotionally we arrive constantly (as in poetry, happiness, high mountains, vistas)." These words support the ideas expressed in Stevens's poem: in the modern world, we cannot overcome a perpetual "darkness" to find a coherent and universal meaning of life, yet through observation of particulars, we may find an emotional, personal, and unique satisfaction. Modern poetry does not express preaccepted ideas but provides a forum for the thoughts of the poem, poet, and audience to combine and create a variety of personal interpretations. Stevens, Wallace. from Adagia. In The Harper American Literature. 2nd ed. McQuade et al, eds. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
Revised: 8 November, 1998
Return to English 499 Main Page