Wallace Stevens’ poetry has been called both “elegant” and “austere.” It has been criticized for “an air of sumptuousness, chic, expensiveness, ’conspicuous consumption,’” as well as for bleakness, abstractness, a lack of personal warmth. Neither of these criticisms, however, says much about Stevens, who, according to Northrop Frye, was a rhetorician and therefore expendable, but an essential poet.
Stevens’ first and perhaps most “elegant,” least “austere,” volume of poems, HARMONIUM, was unlike many first volumes in that it contained statements of all the major themes to appear in his later books. HARMONIUM, in other words, was a mature work, differing from the later volumes largely in manner rather than meaning. Thus, throughout Stevens’ poetry, whether early or late, one observes recurrent elements: a love for precise language resulting in a selection of words at once elegant and austere; a celebration of the imagination and the power of human creativity; a highly abstract, careful examination of different theories of perception and knowledge couched in highly concrete, colorful, often playful language; and a continuing concern for the myth-making capabilities of poetry in a world of defunct myths.
In IDEAS OF ORDER and THE MAN WITH THE BLUE GUITAR, Stevens made a perceptible step toward austerity in statement of theme and in technique, although the themes were the same as those in HARMONIUM. Thus, the title poem of the second volume (containing also “Owl’s Clover,” “A Thought Revolved,” and “The Men That Are Falling”) consists of a series of thirty-three re-evaluations of the position of the artist and the meaning of art in a world of “things as they are,” a phrase equivalent to the “ding an sich” of the earlier “The Comedian as the Letter C.” However, instead of Crispin the Comedian’s symbolic journey representing the various philosophical metamorphoses of an artist in a world of “ding an sich,” the guitar player in the later poem plucks out various types of “fictive music” corresponding to varying definitions of poetry. Crispin moves from definition to definition in the course of his journey; the guitar player appears to pose all thirty-three variations of “things as they are” without an exact progression. As in “The Comedian as the Letter C,” the guitar player is confronted by a world of fact and matter which he transmutes—or tries to transmute—even though they are greatly changed by the player—the artist, the disciplined imagination, the passion for order—on the blue guitar. That they are changed is known; just how they are changed, and to what degree, becomes the central puzzle in a poem dealing at once with aesthetics, epistemology, and something similar to Coleridge’s “poetic faith.” The general conclusion is the recognition of the importance of poetry as source for “order” and meaning in a world of dazzling, jumbled, apparently purposeless objects—a world without clear meaning. Although it may be that, given the myth-making importance of poetry in a mythless world, the oet cannot entirely succeed in making fact and matter meaningful.
This is Stevens’ central quandary: How can the imagination (another word for poetry) fulfill man’s craving for beauty, order, and meaning in a world—depending on the point of view—antipathetic to imagination? And Stevens’ answers—depending on the poem—are plural, operating as logical alternatives. Thus, at times, no problem seems to arise at all, for “the imagination” may be the only thing which is real in an imagined world. This is the possibility or alternative which gives rise to section XXV of “Blue Guitar,” wherein the hero flings and twirls the world. It is, however, only one possibility, the most playful and optimistic, among thirty-three. Perhaps the simplest statement that can be made about “Blue Guitar,” then, is that the basis of the poem is poetry — as it is of all of Stevens’ work—“poetry” meaning human perception and creativity (one and the same) rather than words on...
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