A good morning’s breakfast with my work on Poetry
The Poet Quester’s Sense of Belonging
I call you by name, my green, my fluent mundo
You will have stopped revolving except in crystal.
In 1923, Stevens published his first collection of poems Harmonium in which he shows a firm attitude and determination to deal with his ambitious project. What is generally remarked is that Stevens is concerned with poetry as the theme of the poem. He aims at conceptualizing the poet, in his poetry, through the use of various strategies. My aim, in this chapter, is to show that meta-poetry is a strategy or a process that allows the poetic text to theorize about its own genre. I intend to continue with the quest theme as a self-conscious manifesto and how it paves the way for Stevens’ view of the poet in his relation with tradition.
If we look at the title “The Poet Quester’s Sense of Belonging,” we find it important to observe the questers of Stevens’ poem, on the one hand, and to deal with their stance vis-à-vis tradition, on the other. My interest in the poet’s sense of belonging to the community of writers is justified by Stevens’ own preoccupation with the poet quester and his continual search for a place in the world. In fact, the idea of the quest is deeply dealt with in Stevens’ poetry. In this chapter, Stevens’ poet Crispin is the main instance of the poet quester in Harmonium. In his first experiment with long poems, Stevens chooses a simple division of parts and cantos. Moreover, he uses a rather complicated language and fills his verses with allusions to the well-known “canonical” writers of the English, American and French traditions.
Crispin’s movement is symbolic and imaginary. My intention is to depict this persona and to unfold the symbols of the poem. In his long journey, Crispin fluctuates between three realms: tradition, imagination, and reality1. By the end of his journey, Crispin finds refuge in reality; he forgets the first aim that pushed him towards adventure in the poetic project of freeing the self from the ghost of the other/father. Whether he is a hero or not, what is certain– at least to me –is that the voyager is betrayed by the pressure of reality, and so he fails to achieve his aim, which was a new and fresh theory of life (the theory of poetry for Stevens). In my analysis of the relationship between the poet and his ancestors, I intend to benefit from psychoanalytic literary criticism for its paramount importance in establishing a theoretical framework of the father/son relation.
Apart from the fact that a poet is compelled to submit to his reality, Emerson adds that he needs a ground in “popular tradition” so that he remains held to his people. In short, he avers that “the poet owes to his legends what sculpture owed to the temple” (712). In Stevens’s words, imaginative creation must adhere to the limited principles of reality.
Tradition is glorified by Eliot, too, in the first section of his well known “Tradition and the Individual Talent”. He insists on the view that relates a poet to his predecessors. In this sense, he relates history with fiction, as he declares that
[t]he historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation is in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. (63)
In this essay, Eliot establishes a ground for a new style. J. P. Riquelme says that it is The Waste Land’s prose counterpart in its resistance of meaning; its use of analogies instead of arguments and the whole strangeness of its structures (12). In fact, it is in this respect that Eliot chooses to define the status of the “talent”. The ambivalence of this modernist essay is stated already in the title and it is more and more suggestive in its concluding, yet most complex statement:
And he [(poet)] is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living. (76)
This sentence presents multiple antithetical constructions of synonyms, repetition and contrast. These repetitions create alignments of meaning between “merely the present” and “the past”; or between “what is dead” and “living”. Indeed, the poet stands before this blowing of a gust of wind and cannot but be the newborn of the complexity of knowledge and creative imagination.
These poets agree on the core essence of the poet in theory. For them, this figure must owe his background of knowledge to his predecessors and cannot ignore their influence on him, even if he is willing to. Yet there is a floor for the difference in and disagreement on some major components of the poetic self. This difference is embedded in the key concept of poetic creativity or individuality. As I intend to proceed with analyzing the poetic personae in Stevens’ long poem, I will necessarily invoke these views.
In chapter one, I have come to conclude that Stevens’ poet questers are numerous, but some of his poems afford the best opportunity to depict these figures because they vary in time, place and theme. Reading “Peter Quince at the Clavier” (Collected 89) and “The Comedian as the Letter C” (Collected 27), I deduce that Stevens follows a maturational process, in which he starts on traditional bases and evolves from one poem to another until he declares that his most ambitious work (or any great artwork) must be a “note” toward a supreme fiction. He declares, “The great poems of heaven and hell had been written and only the great poem of earth remained to be composed” (Necessary 146). So how can this poet approach earthly issues?
Stevens’ characters are presented in a way that is real and fictive at the same time. Though they are poetic creations, these poets are burdened by the task of theorizing. That was Stevens’ gift to his personae, a kind of erased line between poetry and criticism of poetry, and hence he paves their way towards immortality.
“Peter Quince at the Clavier” is a poem from Stevens’ first volume Harmonium (1923). My choice to start with this poem is based on two reasons. First, this poem is a good instance of Stevens’ early style and influence. “Peter Quince” encapsulates varieties of mythical characters as well as the seventeenth-century fictional figure of the trickster or the clown. Second, this character is a mutation of a continual line of evolving figures in their way to accomplishing Stevens’ definitive conception of what a poet may be. This poem goes thus,
Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the selfsame sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna.
Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders watching, felt
In the green water, clear and warm,
She felt, among the leaves,
She walked upon the grass,
The winds were like her maids,
Fetching her woven scarves,
Soon, with a noise like tambourines,
Came her attendant Byzantines.
They wondered why Susanna cried
Against the elders by her sides;
And as they whispered, the refrain
Was like a willow swept by rain.
Anon their lamps’ uplifted flame
Revealed Susanna and her shame.
And then, the simpering Byzantines
Fled, with a noise like tambourines.
Beauty is momentary in the mind-
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh is immortal.
The body dies; the body’s beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden’s choral.
Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping left only
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.