Wallace Stevens - Poetry - Supreme Fiction
The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real. When it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, while its first effect may be extraordinary, that effect is the maximum effect that it will ever have.
Throughout his poetic career, Stevens was concerned with the question of what to think about the world now that our old notions of religion no longer suffice. His solution might be summarized by the notion of a “Supreme Fiction,” an idea that would serve as a fictive replacement for the idea of God, known to be fictive but willfully believed. In this example from the satirical "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman," Stevens plays with the notions of immediately accessible, but ultimately unsatisfying, notions of reality:
Poetry is the supreme Fiction, madame.Take the moral law and make a nave of itAnd from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,The conscience is converted into palmsLike windy citherns, hankering for hymns.We agree in principle. That’s clear. But takeThe opposing law and make a peristyle,And from the peristyle project a masqueBeyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness,Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,Is equally converted into palms,Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm,Madame, we are where we began.The saxophones squiggle because, as J. Hillis Miller says of Stevens in his book, Poets of Reality, the theme of universal fluctuation is a constant theme throughout Stevens poetry: "A great many of Stevens’ poems show an object or group of objects in aimless oscillation or circling movement.” In the end, reality remains.
The supreme fiction is that conceptualization of reality that seems to resonate in its rightness, so much so that it seems to have captured, if only for a moment, something actual and real.
I am the angel of reality,seen for a moment standing in the door....I am the necessary angel of earth,Since, in my sight, you see the earth again,Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set,And, in my hearing, you hear its tragic droneRise liquidly in liquid lingerings,Like watery words awash;...an apparition appareled inApparels of such lightest look that a turnOf my shoulder and quickly, too quickly, I am gone?In one of his last poems, "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour", Stevens describes the experience of an idea which satisfies the imagination, “This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous. / It is in that thought that we collect ourselves, / Out of all the indifferences, into one thing.” This one thing is “a light, a power, the miraculous influence” wherein we can forget ourselves, sensing a comforting order, “A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous, / within its vital boundary, in the mind.”
This knowledge necessarily exists within the mind, since it is an aspect of the imagination which can never attain a direct experience of reality.
We say God and the imagination are one . . .How high that highest candle lights the dark.Out of this same light, out of the central mindWe make a dwelling in the evening air,In which being there together is enough.Stevens concludes that God is a human creation, but that feeling of rightness which for so long a time existed with the idea of God may be accessed again. This supreme fiction will be something equally central to our being, but contemporary to our lives, in a way that God can never again be. But with the right idea, we may again find the same sort of solace that we once found in divinity. " finds, too, a definite value in the complete contact with reality. Only, in fact, by this stark knowledge can he attain his own spiritual self that can resist the disintegrating forces of life . . . . Powerful force though the mind is . . . it cannot find the absolutes. Heaven lies about the seeing man in his sensuous apprehension of the world . . .; everything about him is part of the truth."
. . . PoetryExceeding music must take the placeOf empty heaven and its hymns,Ourselves in poetry must take their placeIn this way, Stevens’s poems adopt attitudes that are corollaries to those earlier spiritual longings that persist in the unconscious currents of the imagination. “The poem refreshes life so that we share, / For a moment, the first idea . . . It satisfies / Belief in an immaculate beginning / And sends us, winged by an unconscious will, / To an immaculate end." The "first idea" is that essential reality that stands before all others, that essential truth; but since all knowledge is contingent on its time and place, that supreme fiction will surely be transitory. This is the necessary angel of subjective reality—a reality that must always be qualified—and as such, always misses the mark to some degree—always contains elements of unreality.
Miller summarizes Stevens's position: "Though this dissolving of the self is in one way the end of everything, in another way it is the happy liberation. There are only two entities left now that the gods are dead: man and nature, subject and object. Nature is the physical world, visible, audible, tangible, present to all the senses, and man is consciousness, the nothing which receives nature and transforms it into something unreal . . . ."
Read more about this topic: Wallace Stevens, Poetry
Famous quotes containing the words supreme and/or fiction:
“Few and signally blessed are those whom Jupiter has destined to be cabbage-planters. For they’ve always one foot on the ground and the other not far from it. Anyone is welcome to argue about felicity and supreme happiness. But the man who plants cabbages I now positively declare to be the happiest of mortals.” —François Rabelais (c. 1494–1553)
“To value the tradition of, and the discipline required for, the craft of fiction seems today pointless. The real Arcadia is a lonely, mountainous plateau, over-bouldered and strewn with the skulls of sheep slain for vellum and old bitten pinions that tried to be quills. It’s forty rough miles by mule from Athens, a city where there’s a fair, a movie house, cotton candy.” —Alexander Theroux (b. 1940)
The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real. When it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, while its first effect may be extraordinary, that effect is the maximum effect that it will ever have. ~~~ Izzat so? Not in my imagination. Imagination is all I have. Academia in poetry is always lacking in my opinion. .
Really good stuff... Strikes a cord of notable similarity with eastern thought / philo.
But then again god as a concept (any concept) is reductionist driven...
Bottom line, in my world "poetry" is precisely where the exploration of both imagination and infinite possibilities converge and once in a while create an epiphany in the readers mind -- of course imagination is the illuminating source (engine) behind such encounters.
The poem (A High-Toned Old Christian Woman) is excellent. Thanks for posting that!
Love that Stevens poem, Maggie. And interested in context of Theroux quote, does anyone know its source? (He was freshman comp teacher in college, BTW. Very groovy guy at the time, no great shakes as teacher tho...!) Tom
A High-Toned Old Christian Woman BY WALLACE STEVENS
Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame. Take the moral law and make a nave of it And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus, The conscience is converted into palms, Like windy citherns hankering for hymns. We agree in principle. That's clear. But take The opposing law and make a peristyle, And from the peristyle project a masque Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness, Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last, Is equally converted into palms, Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm, Madame, we are where we began. Allow, Therefore, that in the planetary scene Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed, Smacking their muzzy bellies in parade, Proud of such novelties of the sublime, Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk, May, merely may, madame, whip from themselves A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres. This will make widows wince. But fictive things Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince.