Wallace Stevens, Modern Science and the Irrational Element in Poetry
Ford Maddox Ford instructed Ezra Pound that "poetry, like everything else, to be valid valuable, must reflect the circumstances and psychology of its own day. Otherwise it can be nothing but a pastiche" (The Pound Era, 80). This caution carries particular weight in Pound's case because the Cantos like much modern poetry which is meant to reflect the modern age's sense of cultural and psychological fragmentation - seem so disjointed in an intellectual sense that they appear to be only a pastiche. Wallace Stevens' poetry, too, might come in for a similar charge, but in reality neither Pound's Cantos nor Stevens' lyrics is characterized by pastiche. In fact the opposite is true: Stevens' poetry (and theory of poetry) actually embodies and leads us, not to a further sense of modern fragmentation, but to a sense of wholeness which emerges on the far side of the rational, scientific reductionism that in some ways characterizes the circumstances and psychology of the modern age.
While the subject of this paper is Wallace Stevens, Pound's Cantos provide a useful context because of their obvious difficulty. Their patchy, disjointed appearance causes many readers to take them for an incomprehensible hodgepodge, merely a collection of allusions and quotations. But in reality the Cantos have an underlying coherence of imagery which is meant to defy rational interpretation.1 Pound, one of whose many useful dicta on poetry was "Only emotion endures," deliberately sought to force his readers to interpret or understand his poetry primarily in emotional, intuitive, and (through the masterful control of rhythm and sound) bodily terms. The Cantos are not a pastiche; rather, they resist the intelligence successfully. They challenge the modern age - which is the age of scientific rationality - to find kinds of meaning or understanding that operate beyond or outside conventional modern rationality.
With the idea of "resisting the intelligence," we are squarely in the realm of Wallace Stevens, from who~ often-quoted sentence in the Adagia this phrasing is taken: "Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully." One reason for saying the intelligence must be resisted is that by the early twentieth century the rational, objective, scientific means of describing the world had seeped so thoroughly into the western world's cultural patterns and intellectual complexes (what Pound called the "paideuma") that it threatened (sometimes explicitly) to eliminate the emotional - not to say the spiritual - elements of human reality. If 'only emotion endures," then the scientific elimination of emotion would also eliminate experiences of lasting value. Western culture's journey down the road of pure rationality was a disaster in the making, as perhaps the two world wars imply. The culture had to change.
Pound's idea was that the use of language was the key to making a transition, as Hart Crane said, "from a decayed culture toward a reorganization of human valutions"2. "It is essential that great poetry be written," Pound said, emphasizing the importance of language, and particularly poetry, in the healthy maintenance of culture and civilization.
Pound's method was to build up sequences of imagery which convey emotional and moral meaning generally intended to be felt rather than inferred. Stevens' method, similar to some extent, was to build up patterns of rhetoric (as Helen Vendler shows in On Extended Wings) which both contain and evoke particular ideas or "propositions" (as Stevens often said) about reality itself, rather than (e.g.) culture. But even though Stevens is usually held to be a highly rational poet, and his poems are in many other ways very tightly controlled, the poems themselves do not operate by conventional linear rationality. They do not begin with one thought or event and reason or narrate logically to an end, but are "meditative" (as Louis Martz shows). Poems like "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," "The Auroras of Autumn," and "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" (to name only three better-known works) are composed of a number of shorter poems or cantos built up around a particular idea or theme, or set of themes.
This method can, as in Pound's Cantos, seem like mere pastiche. And when combined with what is commonly termed in Stevens criticism his predilection for "the gaiety of language," the sense of pastiche and superficial word play makes the poetry itself seem superficial; or as Yvor Winters argued, Stevens' poetry might even seem hedonistic.

But throughout his poetry, Stevens treats serious themes and ideas which are in their background, their philosophy and their presentation distinctly yet unconventionally part of the circumstances and psychology of the modern period. His ideas and sensibilities feel highly rational, and yet they press beyond the limitations set by rationalist, scientific cultural patterns. In fact, his synthesis of the rational and the poetic transports the modern sensibility into the perennial aspects of culture. The word "perennial" here refers to "the perennial philosophy" - the ways of understanding which attend to questions about the place and nature of human consciousness and, ultimately, the human spirit. One of Stevens' unique contributions, I'm about to argue, is that he comes at spiritual concerns, especially late in life, by synthesizing scientific ways of understanding with poetic ways of understanding.
Stevens was, for example, aware of developments in modern physics, and he commented on these developments in his letters and essays. In a letter to Barbara Church (Letters, p. 725) he refers to quantum theory and wonders if the philosophy of the sciences will turn out to be a poetic concept itself. Further, his references in "A Collect of Philosophy" and other prose pieces name physicists in connection with their ideas' influences on philosophy; he quotes Samuel Alexander, Andre George and Dr. Joad on the relationships between mind and reality suggested by certain interpretations of quantum physics. And Joan Richardson tells us in her biography of Stevens that he as generally familiar with developments in quantum physics and-relativity theory.
In being aware of modern physics' implications for philosophy, Stevens was also aware of radical changes in the western view of nature and the relation of human consciousness to nature. Briefly put, quantum physics implies than an observer participates directly in the reality of what s/he observes, in a "complementary" relationship between observer and object. This departs significantly from the previous, but still widely held Newtonian-Cartesian view that a human observer is objectively separate from what s/he observes.
Science being the dominant world-view of the modern age, and Stevens being aware of developments in the philosophy of modern science, it's fair then to wonder if or how his poems (and theories of poetry) were influenced by science. In ways parallel to the modern physicists, Stevens sought keenly to devise a working theory of the human relationship with reality - or nature, or the universe, put it however you choose.
We know from many poems, including "Description Without Place," that for Stevens reality as we experience it depends on the way we describe it. The words we use, since they have meanings (however ambiguous the meanings prove to be), shape the reality we move in. A poem or configuration of words is a reality itself, but moreover it is an expression of reality as it has been composed by a particular consciousness or maker, like the singer of "The Idea of Order at Key West."
"Description Without Place" meditates on this principle. The poem begins, "It is possible that to seem - it is to be," and then later proposes: "observing is completing" (a statement, by the way, that sounds very similar to the quantum idea of complementarity). These assertions come in the context of "description," and so:

If seeming is description without place,
The spirit's universe, then a summer's day,
Even the seeming of a summer's day,
Is description without place.
(CP 343)

The experience of a summer's day, in other words, does not occur in a "place;" it is composed of a description which occurs "in the spirit's universe," which is not a physical location. The poem goes on to speak of "the difference that we make in what we see," until toward the end of the poem emerges the statement, "It is a world of words to the end of it,! In which nothing solid is its solid self."
This is a poetic expression of, or parallel with, quantum physics' finding that reality does not happen apart from the observation of its happening, but complementarily with it. Werner Heisenberg, one of the major minds in twentieth century physics, concluded that an event cannot be said to have happened, or be "real," until it registers
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