Wallace Stevens

(October 2, 1879 – August 2, 1955 / Pennsylvania / United States)

Of Modern Poetry - Poem by Wallace Stevens

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. 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, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one. The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.


Comments about Of Modern Poetry by Wallace Stevens

  • Lantz Pierre (5/14/2017 10:54:00 AM)


    As Daniel Brick correctly notes in his post, this poem is meant to address what has historically become known as modernist art, not merely what is modern and contemporary in time. There was an upheaval in society's perception of the speed at which world events took place beginning roughly with the industrial revolution and really coming to a head with the horrors of the great war (World War I) . Stevens argues in this poem that the pretty pictures, the expected rhythms and rhymes are no longer adequate to describe the events and emotions of this modern world. You cannot rely on the old scripts and simply repeat them with new variations. The way we live in the world became fundamentally different and the art that could apply and appeal to these new circumstances had to be new. Had to be addressed to the actual living understanding that takes place in a mind in the act of being present and finding a way to conduct itself amongst the newest of this world and its advancements. An art form, a work of art itself has to be as alive and in the moment as the author and the audience both. To achieve that symbiosis is the goal. Not by looking back at the old forms and the old works, but by perspicaciousness requiring insight and not a little bit work and active interaction. That investment is paid off by subjective internalization of the work. A transcendence that suffices to carry us forward and anneal some the wounds of ignorance and division.

    This is one Stevens more didactic poems and from that angle not really one of his most satisfying, in my opinion. But it holds keys to reading some of the seemingly more opaque and metaphorical pieces he wrote, because just about everything he ever published touches on the theme explicated here.
    (Report) Reply

    Lantz Pierre Lantz Pierre (5/14/2017 11:56:00 PM)

    Denis, it might be helpful to you to see that where Wallace Stevens was a Modernist poet it sounds to me that your avant gardist friend is most likely a Post-Modernist. These are historical art movements and must not be confused with any notion of contemporaneous, recent chronological placement. There are still artists working within the Modernist framework of thought, which generally speaking still accepts the ideas of science and consensus of thought as a necessary and expedient means of navigating our world. Dialogue and conversation are not only possible but preferable under this aesthetic. There are universal truths that bind the Modernists together and help them to cohere. Post-Modernism, arising partly in response to the horror of World War II and the unthinkable atrocities that occurred then lead to an aesthetic response that reflected the idea that maybe we don't know how to talk to each other, maybe there are no universal truths to bind us, that are faith in community is ill-founded and all experience is first and foremost personal. But there is still an implicit acknowledgement of our communal plight in the fact that these Post-Modernist artists are still creating work for an audience and in that there is the idea of communication. It's just that there's a searching for a new model independent of the conventions that seem to always lead humanity back to atrocity. It is still hopeful, it is still conversant, it is still a galvanizing force.

    Daniel Brick Daniel Brick (5/14/2017 7:42:00 PM)

    Thanks, Lantz, for confirming my insight into Stevens's us of the word MODERN. With Stevens I am always a bit uncertain of my interpretation even though I've been reading his work since 1965. Sic! After his death Ezra Pound wrote Wm. Carlos Williams. Will we understand what he was saying now he's gone? He did not sound hopeful. Sic. But you can move securely through his puzzling poems.

    Denis Mair Denis Mair (5/14/2017 7:33:00 PM)

    This is a helpful explanation. You speak of symbiosis, of a poem as the embodiment OF A MIND IN THE ACT OF BEING PRESENT AND FINDING A WAY TO CONDUCT ITSELF AMONGS THE NEWEST OF THIS WORLD AND ITS ADVANCEMENTS. As an aim of creative writing this is certainly worth striving for. I find the seriousness attractive. However, some practitioners of modern poetry are more interested in rattling the cages of convention and in experimental practices of discourse, so maybe they wouldn’t admit that Wallace Steven speaks for them. I have an acquaintance, an avant-gardist poet, who claims to feel repulsion when he reads a poem that approaches a theme conversationally. As if the twang of a conversational string cannot resonate with the whole of consciousness! That kind of denial of the exploratory power of conversation to me seems perverse, because I think conversation galvanizes us, and I think poetry is a grand conversation. We are always carrying it forward with help from the force of what has already been said.

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  • Bernard F. Asuncion (5/14/2017 3:47:00 AM)


    Its past was a souvenir.... thanks for posting..... (Report) Reply

  • Pranab K Chakraborty (5/14/2017 3:39:00 AM)


    An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
    Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
    Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
    Beyond which it has no will to rise................................................................... well observed modern mind of poets.
    (Report) Reply

  • Daniel Brick (5/14/2017 2:30:00 AM)


    FIRST THINGS FIRST: not all poetry written in the present time is MODERN POETRY. Much of it is nowhere near Ezra Pound's requirement: MAKE IT NEW. The word MODERN refers not just to a shared passage of time, but a conception of THIS TIME and its particular needs. At very least the Modern Poem has to address, it not solve our current issues: it must suffice in fulfilling that task, or it's just pretty language and a nice but arbitrary way to pass the time, not to understand it or transform it. Neruda write about the ancient Incans killed by the Spanish: I COME TO SPEAK IN YOUR DEAD VOICES. He will be their witness. Stevens is saying something similar: Moderrn poetry must be so revelatory, so intimate, so personal that people reading think they are writing it. That the poetry and its meanings are already inside them, it they listen to the orphic depths of poetry which are fundamentally true.Stevens is always assuring is we have access to the same poetic depths he does, and we too can write the poem of the mind. (Report) Reply

  • Edward Kofi Louis (5/14/2017 2:15:00 AM)


    It has no will to rise! ! Thanks for sharing this poem with us. (Report) Reply

  • Robert Murray Smith (5/14/2017 1:29:00 AM)


    This poem is not up to the standard of a purportedly top poet. The first stanza leads the way into a poem that jars in my mind. (Report) Reply

  • (1/9/2016 2:44:00 PM)


    he probably just writing
    and writing whatever comes to his mind
    (Report) Reply

  • (1/9/2016 4:24:00 AM)


    An interesting and meaningful write on what is expected from a modern time poem and how it should speak and on what subject. Really an informative as well as educative too. Enjoyed the beautiful presentation in lyrical form. Thanks for sharing. (Report) Reply

  • (3/6/2010 12:14:00 PM)


    On a literal level, this poem can be very confusing. It speaks about a poem “of a mind in the act of finding/ What will suffice.” IMHO, Stevens is not talking about a poem in the act of finding, he is addressing a mind in the act of finding. Of course, the ambiguity is deliberate. Grammatically, one could follow down, substituting either “poem” or “mind” for “it, ” and one would be correct using either. Still, how good could a poem be if it is only looking for what will “suffice? ” Shouldn’t a poem reach for excellence instead of something that will merely suffice? Similarly, shouldn’t a mind stretch toward excellence?

    The answer of course is yes, we should—we must—strive toward excellence. But along the way, we must first find and accept what will “suffice.”

    It appears to me the “mind in the act of finding” is searching for truth, solidity, comfort, freedom, certainty—all the things that philosophy and theology have sought since the time of Socrates. In our relativistic time, what will suffice for truth? What will grant us comfort and yet allow us freedom?

    In previous eras, the “finding” was not necessary. The church, the government, society, or some other institution, provided what would suffice. One didn’t need to think about such things. One accepted the prevailing doctrine, the faith of our fathers. Now, however, that has changed. We must construct a new stage, we must be on that stage, and we must “speak words that in the ear, /In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat, /Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound /Of which, an invisible audience listens, /Not to the play, but to itself…”

    The philosophy, the code we find for ourselves, must fit. It must appeal to that “delicatest ear of the mind.” This is the measure of what will “suffice.” It must resonate with us, and produce “Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses…”

    In short, “It must /Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may /Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman /Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.”

    What will suffice may come in the simplicity of life itself; in the emotions of daily living.
    (Report) Reply

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Poem Submitted: Friday, January 3, 2003



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