Sunday, October 2, 2016

Who Is Wallace Stevens?

When I recently solicited search engine help from a computer geek, that’s the question I got, followed by, “Is Wallace Stevens a corporation?”

Wallace Stevens (1879 - 1955), arguably the greatest poet America has yet produced, may not be recognizable to everyone. After all, not many poets are. But he should matter to every writer, which, of course, includes novelists.

Tip:  Know your audience well enough to present details responsively.

Here’s what Stevens could encourage writers to consider: 

~ Audience. 

This poet’s name, beloved to certain writers and unknown or only vaguely recalled by others, clarifies the question of audience. Until you’ve identified yours, you’ll never know what to take for granted and when you explain too little or too much. Readers (including agents) discard possibilities from both ends of the spectrum: feeling patronized, or feeling that they spend more time with Wikipedia and the dictionary than the novel itself. Neither is much fun.

As a novelist, it’s your job to know whether your readers are likely to be familiar with Wallace Stevens, Grace’s version of “You Don’t Own Me,” or The Battle of the Bulge.  Write for everyone, and you might wind up writing for no one.

~ Mystery and inference.

Stevens urges us to “Throw away the light, the definitions, and say what you see in the dark.” What’s the invitation here? Rationality can sometimes be—too rational, too clear, too blazingly bright to let creativity  flourish. Close your own eyes so you can open your reader’s.

~ Symbolism.

“Reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor,” Stevens says in “The Necessary Angel, Essays on Reality and the Imagination.”  Both the poet and the novelist need an original vision, accompanied by figurative language that lets readers see beyond the ordinary.

~ Concreteness

In that same book of essays, though, Stevens insists that it’s the relationship between the individual mind and the sound, smell, taste, sight, and touch of the physical world that lets writers fulfill reader needs: “The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real.” Because of that, “Conceptions are artificial. Perceptions are essential.”

~ Unity of content and its expression.

Yes, great ideas can be expressed badly, and shallow observations phrased exquisitely. But in the most compelling verbal moments, the quality matches. And the language seems to reinforce the mood, the idea, the emotion. That’s why “A change of style is a change of meaning.”

~ Ambiguity.

Some of the greatest literature is accessible only if the reader is casual about exactitude, so “The poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully.”  Poetry becomes quite difficult if one expects an identical literal meaning from every reader every time. Hmm. Can’t we say the same of certain esoteric but highly influential novelists like Virginia Wool and James Joyce?

~ Inspiration. 

In “Sunday Morning,” Stevens postulates that “Death is the mother of beauty,” Is it the knowledge that life is finite that helps us appreciate the pathos of the seasons, that makes us want to draw? Paint? Write?

That’s who Wallace Stevens is. Want to know more? Start with “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “Evening without Angels,” “Sunday Morning,” and “Adagia.” 

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