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Latest 5 Poems of William F. Dougherty
William F. Dougherty's last comments on poems and poets
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William F. Dougherty
(11/12/2007 10:04:00 PM)
Just passing by:
If you are a poet or imaginative prose writer, study Carl Jung. If you are, as Jung proclaimed, interested in the 'second half of life, ' you will still be pursuing your 'individuation' through poetry. If you are engrossed in the adult mind's attempts at transformation through creativity, Jung's 'Symbols of Transformation, ' which draws, like most of his twenty volumes, on imagination, art, mythology, archetypes, symbolism, categories of personality, word magic, mandalas, and the development of personality beyond the formative dead-end of Freud's thumb-sucking stages, you will add, as James Joyce and hundreds of other significant writers, a source of insight and invention. It would be enormously unfortunate if, by treating the notion of synchronicity as a causal syllogism (straw man argument) serious writers did not delve into Jung's ideas.
[Joseph Cambell's popular 'The Man with a Thousand Faces' is rooted in Jung.]
If someone thinks synchronicity [everyone experiences it] is mostly a matter of intuition, it might reconcile them to related Jung's major personalities of feeling, cognition, emotion, and intuition/imagination. Jung first developed the binaries of introvert/extrovert, so that personalities vary by degree and interpret perceptions in different ways.
If I understood the premise, it related Jung to literature. I suggest Jung's essay 'Literature and Psychology' as an introduction, and then 'Symbols of Transformation' (Vol.4): 'Psychological Types' (Vol.5) , and 'The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious' (Vol.9) /. The succinct 'The Spirit of Man, Art, and Literature.' Jung's collective unconscious and W. B. Yeats's 'anima mundi' are rough equivalents: depositories of archetypal that poets enhance as symbols.
Princeton University's Bollingen series of Jung's works is available in paperback, including 'Four Archetypes: Mother, Rebirth, Spirit, and Trickers, ' extracted from Vol.9. To oversimplify: Freud treats biology; Jung treats biography.
William F. Dougherty
(1/10/2007 6:03:00 AM)
Voltairine de Cleyre, a feminist activist, subscribed to such tacky theories and wobbly schemes as to make a cat laugh.
If her mawkish anarchism, isolationism, and denial of self-defense to any country is such quaint quackery that men in spats and women in bustles guffawed. This mindless screed, with no logical or historical means of support, was written in 1902. She died in 1912. That it is regurgitated in space supposedly (but rarely) reserved for poetics says something about intellectual honesty, but not much.
William F. Dougherty
(1/9/2007 6:58:00 AM)
Wallace Stevens: Book-by-Book
This general overview of Wallace Stevens’ work, introducing his individual volumes of poetry book by book highlights the major points of his poetics, without the usual associative amalgam of theme, form, diction, imagery, symbolism, and belief that complicates most surveys of his poetry. The volumes appeared as separate collections, but the Stevens criticism and scholarship invariably commingles them as if they were parts of a simultaneously generated whole. A book-by-book overview clarifies the poetic perspective and suggests revisiting his collections with a fresh modular approach.
Wallace Stevens’ poetic development began with his apprentice poems published under pseudonyms in the Harvard Advocate at the turn of the century, but it was not until more than twenty years later that his elegant style and ambiguous motifs detonated into the flashy modernism of Harmonium (1923) . The first change of style was drastic; he jettisoned the conventional sonnet, absorbed imagism, experimented with semi-open forms and, by liberating his style, he liberated also his sense of the bizarre, comical, and relentlessly aesthetic. Even between the brief lyrics and the deft prosody of the longer poems, Stevens’ style invariably shifts to accommodate his tenets about the axis of imagination and reality. This overview looks at those shifts book-by-book.
“The Comedian as the Letter C, ” Robert Buttel contends, despite its boisterous “excesses of ingenuity, ” amounts to an artfully disguised declaration of ars poetica (The Making of Harmonium 247) . Although the style of “Comedian” occasionally smothers its substance, Buttel argues that the seeds of poems like “Sunday Morning” are detectable in the final poems; moreover, he suggests (250) that Stevens’ elaborate hypotheses boil down to the last title in a section called The Rock: : “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself” (Collected Poems 543) .
The clipped lyrics in Harmonium are vibrant, chiseled, imagistic, flippant, striking, variegated, puzzling, nonsensical, and teasingly obscure. The underlying philosophical (epistemological) themes begin here and expand into elaborate meditations in subsequent volumes. Others are sound-poems notable for an exotic diction or assiduous perspectives of mundane matters and everyday observances. Even frolicsome or comic subjects suggest Stevens’ life-long scrutiny of the liaison between imagination and reality. Harmonium’s flirtation with pure poetry, its sparkling images, and its sheer panache comment it as innovative volume in American poetry.
Samplings in anthologies often include “Domination of Black, ” with its fire, falling leafs, peacock’s cry, and descent of annihilating darkness; “The Snow Man, ” and the epistemological question of what is seen and not seen;
“Floral Decorations for Bananas, ” and its color aesthetics; “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman, ” an assertion that pleasure as well as religiosity has its own morality; and “The Emperor of Ice-Cream, ” an assertion that even at a proletarian wake only pleasure overcomes the finality of death.
“Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock” disdains the bourgeois sameness of apparel and mind, but applauds the eccentric show of imagination by an old sailor; “Anecdote of the Jar, ” for all its deceptive simplicity, represents ekphrasis, an object in a creative work that unifies perspective the way the man-made jar orders the wilderness in Tennessee. “Peter Quince at the Clavier, ” illustrating the theme that music is feeling, combines euphony and fancy to revise the biblical legend of Susanna and the Elders with marvelous chiming lines. The longer, principal poems in Harmonium, like “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle, ” about love in middle age, and “Sunday Morning, ” in which divinity merges with the physical world, require detailed explication. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, ” by contrast, arranges a series of haiku images whose meanings differ with each context and baffle the reader in search of a continuous thread of thought. Ronald Sukenick wisely prescribes a piecemeal approach to “Blackbird”: “Its meaning depends on each context, just as the meaning of that context depends on it. It does not have a constant signification” (Musing the Obscure 70-71) . As in most of Stevens’ work, meaning is both idiosyncratic and tentative.
Ideas of Order
Ideas of Order (1935) , Stevens’ long-delayed second volume of verse, shifts from the flamboyant poems and elliptical anecdotes in Harmonium toward a meditative blank verse on the genesis of poetry, a theme he pursues throughout the rest of his canon. The title poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West” personifies the theme in a girl singing alone by the sea whose voice, as in endowed by some Orphic power, transforms sound of the wind and sea into her own voice as the sole maker of the poem and poetic translator of reality. She is the artificer of her own world, as poetry is the artificer of the world the poet imaginatively apprehends.
The awed speaker of the poem, with a speechless sidekick in tow, wonders at the phenomenology of perception and the imposition of order the song seems to impose on natural elements, as a counter-pressure against crashing seaside reality. She symbolizes the maker’s (i.e., poet’s) rage to create order from the sea, a universal symbol of life’s overwhelming power. The central question remains: whose idea of order reigns among the plunging of the waves at Key West? Is the singing girl a poet prop? Is she a version of a classical Muse or an Orphic singer whose lyrics can rearrange the physical world? The answer, found in this poem and in other poems by Stevens, is that she is a spirit, but not a supernatural spirit. Her seeming sway over the elements represents the human spirit rising in the voice of poetry. “The Idea of Order at Key West” is one of the foundations upon which Stevens builds his poetics of the supreme fiction, the almost alchemical interaction of imagination and reality. Bloom recognizes the importance of the poem in Stevens’ canon, but complains that, having identified a “transcendental poetic spirit, ” the poet fails to locate it (103-4) .
Other poems in this volume deal with personal aspects of poetic order. “A Farewell to Florida” bids goodbye to the poet’s strenuous search for an inspiring feminine archetype in the tropical lushness, an earth mother figure as nubile maiden. The change of perspective from Stevens’ Florida poems to the epiphany at Key West changes the compass of his poetic explorations. “Ànglais Mort a Florence” presents a moribund Englishman (the poet) striving to recover his spirit and reclaim his vehemence, mistakenly assuming the exterior world offers the only source of strength.
“A Postcard from the Volcano” reflects on the differing perspectives toward poetry and its enduring warrant between generations. The central symbol is a mansion, whose long-gone occupant rumbled though its hallways, leaving a poetic legacy to the playful, uncomprehending children who will eventually incorporate their vision of reality in their own speech. The mansion seems blank to them because the meanings the poet attributed to it with his sensibility and style are dislocated by time. The postcard (poem) addresses the new generation’s inevitable struggle to reconcile the inner self and outer world through the imagination, the pervasive theme of The Man with the Blue Guitar.
The Man with the Blue Guitar
The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937) , the long title poem of Stevens’ third collection of verse, invariably evokes Picasso’s blue period painting of the same subject, bent over his instrument of art with creative intensity. The analogy and the symbolism are apt and illuminating in his elaborating poetics.
Form and function in The Blue Guitar collaborate. The unprecedented improvisational form of the poem mirrors the improvisational thinking in it. The splendid blank verse of “Sunday Morning” and Ideas of Order break up into a poem of thirty-three numbered but discontinuous sections, composed of between five to eight pairs of unrhymed couplets. Thus, the form underscores the impression that the guitarist is extemporizing; that the images and ideas are just tumbling about in his mind, searching for the right chords or color combinations. The longer disjunctive poems or sequence of poems, the variations on a theme, represent Stevens’ “true mode” (Bloom 194-5) .
Disjointed stanzaic improvisations mimic the musical improvisations in The Blue Guitar, so that the arrangement of themes and sequences resembles the non-representational motifs of the world of art. Stevens’ themes, always difficult to paraphrase, are color-coded. Blue is the color of the imagination. Green is the color of reality. The perfect blend of that blue and green is the object of poetry. His imagery and allusions in The Blue Guitar prefigure the themes that pervade his later poetry:
A) Poetry (creative vision) is the subject of the poem. B) The Blue Guitar processes reality and changes the perception of reality without changing its concrete nature. C) This phenomenological rendition, later developed at length as the “supreme fiction, ” is the centerpiece of Stevens’s outlook. D) Numinous secular poetry may serve as a successor to outworn modes of belief. E) The world remains in a state of Heracliltean flux, for both reader and poet, and modern poetry composed on The Blue Guitar must recognize those shifts since, as he defines the evolution in “On Modern Poetry”, the poetic stage has changed radically.
In the last sections of the poem, the guitarist/poet vows to “evolve a man, ” a new version of a heroic presence related to but distinct from traditional creative heroes. The evolved man must be a perceptive hero with his feet always planted on the ground of his circumstances, and not, as were his predecessors in the Romantic age of poetry, imprisoned in some visionary or idealistic emblem, like Shelley’s preternatural skylark shut up in the archives of the sky. (Stevens plumbs the idea of a quasi-Nietzschean hero in “Examination of the Hero in Time of War” in Parts of a World (1942) . In The Blue Guitar he envisions the transcendent hero symbolized as a lion locked up in the guitar (guitarist) , as opposed to reality, a lion carved in changeless stone. What the poet plays on the blue guitar and what the listeners hear vary from individual to individual; what and why the guitarist strums confirms the role of the poet in the context of “Oxidia, ” the toxic present. However, the poet-guitarist relies so heavily on improvisation that, as Joseph Riddel remarks, he composes “elliptical if not abortive variations which simply stop when things seem to be going badly or become tiresome” (The Clairvoyant Eye 137-38) .
Stevens’ stylistic development, in both his short and extended poems, is readily distinguishable. His longer poems become more declarative and discursive; in keeping with his thematic expansion; the sparkling images and gem-like lyrics that defined Harmonium give way to more contemplative, almost pedestrian triadic stanzas. Thematic study succeeds his earlier imagistic etching.
Parts of a World (1942)
The poems in Parts of a World (1942) make up an uneven collection. The best poems are compact and convincing, including: “The Poems of Our Climate, ” with its ekphrastic bowl; “The Man on the Dump, ” a thinker up to his hips in stale, discarded images; and “Asides on the Oboe, ” with the glass man who reflects images without supporting mythology (“external reference”) and realizes a self-sufficient vision. “Of Hartford in a Purple Light, ” a delicate hometown pastel captures the sunset and a wistfully aesthetic mood.
“Of Modern Poetry, ” a theoretical pivot in Stevens’ poetics, categorizes poetry as an activity: “The poem of the mind in the act of finding /
What will suffice (Collected Poems 239) because, in the theatrical metaphor that unifies the poem, the stage has changed, the old scripts discarded, and a new actor speaks to a new audience, which represents his own mind and the readers of his poem. He is akin to the strummer in “The Man with the Blue Guitar, ” an actor (poet) in search of the satisfying chord or phrase, no longer the stock character of the past. The theatrical metaphor works well, Susan Weston notes, because it gives Stevens “a telescoping device; he can talk about the modern mind at the same time he is talking about his favorite his favorite topic—poet, poem, audience” (Wallace Stevens 76-77) .
“Examination of the Hero in Time of War” has little to do with the two world wars in Stevens’ lifetime. The poem is another version of seeking Man Number One in The Blue Guitar, the Shelleyean theme of role and the power of the poet. The hero, all of whose speeches “are prodigies in longer phrases” (Collected Poems 277) , never achieves a workable or even readily comprehensible definition, try as Stevens does to reduce him to topic sentences and to what Vendler describes in On Extended Wings as “quasi-rational” and “pseudo-logical” statements (162) parading as an “imitation of philosophic discourse” (164) . The hero, under a pile of appositional phrases, turns out to be a non-human heroic feeling.
Transport to Summer (1947)
Some of the finest poems in Transport to Summer (1947) get short shrift in a volume dominated by “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction, ” generally considered Stevens’ masterwork among his longer pieces, his most ambitious effort to elaborate his poetics. “Esthétique du Mal, ” “Description without Place” and “Credences of Summer” suffer neglect by proximity.
The series of poems cobbled together in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” start from the baseline “ignorance” of the ephebe (a citizen-poet in training under Stevens’ tutelage) and the difference between the sun and the “first idea” of the sun. Borrowing from phenomenology, the master lectures the student at length about the relation between perception and poetry, a relation summed up by Milton Bates. The sun (life) appears crusted with myth and metaphor; when the ephebe sees the “quick” of the sun (quidditas?) , Bates says, “he will see not the thing itself, the ‘something that could never be named, ’ but his idea or mental image of the thing. If the ephebe cannot escape his own mind and know the sun as sun, however, he can still know it in its ‘first idea, ’ that primitive distortion” close to the thing itself (Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self 214-15) . The “Notes” explain the “Supreme Fiction” (poetry) under three rubrics: It Must Be Abstract; It Must Change; and It must Give Pleasure. Explanation comes by way of illustration, anecdote, interior myths, parallel narratives, ample allusions, and qualifications. It is an explicator’s feast.
Auroras of Autumn (1950)
The title poem of Auroras of Autumn (1950) spends 240 lines, trimly divided into sections of twenty-four lines composed of eight tercets, the signature form of Stevens’ later, open-ended contemplative verse. The aurora borealis flashing across the sky above Hartford make an appropriate metaphor for the mind of the observer as he wrestles with its meaning and, by allusions to family members, the meaning of his life. Mutability, a time-honored theme in poetry, unifies the poem’s digressions and recollections. The auroras blazing across the heavens represent merely a natural phenomenon whose significance, in Stevens’s established thought, means what each imagination makes of them.
Life, the observing poet, and his imaginative reckoning change constantly; and change is, as in “Sunday Morning” and a dozen other poems, the value the northern lights signify. Stevens’s vague asides about parents imply his own advanced age, and his autumnal tone prefigures winter’s death, when the wind will “knock like a rifle butt against the door” (Collected Poems 414) . It is farewell to the Schopenhauer’s world as idea. The lights, the wind, and the tumult, as Harold Bloom asserts, reveal deep roots in Romantic poetry (The Poems of Our Climate, passim) . Bloom ranks “Auroras of Autumn” and “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, ” the longest meditative poem in the volume, with “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” as Stevens’s three finest poems (The Poems of Our Climate 253) . Opinion differs. The longer poems tend to sprawl. David Jarroway describes them as “full of assertions and reversals, feints and low blows [sic], tacking and doublings and tracings, and, always, qualifications, intensifications, supplementations, and multiplications' (Wallace Stevens and Questions of Belief 287) .
The Rock (1954)
The poems in The Rock appeared as the last section of The Collected Poems (1954) , a titled section that includes some of Stevens’ most admired and elucidating poems. The poetics seems to have settled down, and an age-appropriate philosophic attitude steadies both theme and tone. In “The Plain Sense of Things, ” with its autumnal depression, reality has not changed, but the speaker’s way of looking at reality, his poetics, has changed. “The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” attempts to identify the imagination with God or, in an archetypal reading, completes the reconciliation of the Jungian anima and animus, even as “Madame La Fleurie” symbolizes mother earth as hungry grave. “To an Old Philosopher in Rome, ” a tribute to the dying philosopher and friend George Santayana, Stevens composes arguably his most convincing personal poem, dignified by five-line stanzas of blank verse. “The Rock, ” despite the illusions and imaginative conceptions, remains the hard substratum for all, but in “A Primitive Like an Orb” he revives the notion of a long-standing poetic cosmos in a final opulence. Vendler’s books on Stevens have given her the insight that desire and lack of desire motivate Stevens:
“For Stevens to be a lover is to write (he was thinking hereof his letters and poems to his wife before they were married): to be a poet is to speak sotto voce, mumbling to oneself; to be a believer is to listen to the word of God; to be a painter is to see. He himself was all four—a writer, a mumbler, a listener, a seer, an echo from Shakespeare, where lunatic, lover, and poet “give to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V,1,7) . That is, notwithstanding his pyrotechnic diction and abstractions, how Stevens spends his imagination.
Owl’s Clover, Steven’s third collection of verse after Harmonium (1923) and Ideas of Order (1935) does not appear in his Collected Poems (1954) , which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954, the year before his death. The long poem is palpably a forced political and poetical self-defense by a non-political poet. Owl’s Clover appears in Opus Posthumous (1957) , which also contains the poet’s unpublished and uncollected writings, which furnish Stevens scholars with peripheral influences on his canon.
The chief reason Stevens withheld Owl’s Clover from his final collection was that he felt goaded into slim volume by the savage criticism of his previous work as far too gaudy and politically indifferent to poetry’s role in the depths of the Depression. In start contrast to the cornucopia of colorful images and figurative panache acclaimed in Harmonium, with its sensual dash and even dandyism, Owl’s Clover mounts a drab defense of the politics of order against the heady Marxian dialectics of the day. Leftist critics sharply criticized Stevens for ignoring the crises of the Depression and for dealing in poetical bric-a-brac. Although Stevens captures a political mood in a descriptive phrase or symbol, even in his so-called war poems he shows meager talent for polemics.
Owl’s Clover is at best tangentially political. It runs five discrete poems to a length of 860 lines: “The Old Woman and the Statue” pits the suffering poor versus a public, noble, but ignored symbol of art and order. “Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue, ” the second poem, rejects Marxian visions imposed on organic development. “The Greenest Continent” links the Dark Continent with the dark human unconsciousness to rebuff dialectical fancies. “A Duck for Dinner” employs a grab bag of images from American history, but lands squarely on Emersonian individuality, from which Stevens rarely departs.
“Somber Figuration, ” the most compelling poem in the group, delves into “subman, ” equivalent to the collective unconscious in Carl Jung’s archetypal psychology, although Stevens construes its potency as imaginative rather than biological. Helen Vendler sees the subman as a male replacement for the weaker muses, a mythical construct allied with instinct (Words Chosen Out of Desire 79-87) . The connection between the subman—the man below the man—emerges as the signal idea in Owl’s Clover. The parallel connects Stevens’s poetry with Jungian depth theories and offers a new avenue of archetypal interpretation to Stevens’s entire canon.
-William F. Dougherty, Ph.D.
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Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate. Ithaca:
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Metaphysician in the Dark. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP,1993
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Sukenick, Ronald. Wallace Stevens: Musing the Obscure. New York:
New York UP,1992.
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-. Words Chosen Out of Desire. Knoxville: U of
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