Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517

Stevens expressed in letters his desire to define a role for the poet similar to the role of the priest. This poem is an effort to exalt poetry and to explore its possibilities as a replacement for religion or perhaps as a religion in itself. In one letter, Stevens commented,...

(The entire section contains 517 words.)

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Stevens expressed in letters his desire to define a role for the poet similar to the role of the priest. This poem is an effort to exalt poetry and to explore its possibilities as a replacement for religion or perhaps as a religion in itself. In one letter, Stevens commented, “In principle there appear to be certain characteristics of a supreme fiction and the NOTES is confined to a statement of a few of those characteristics.In trying to create something as valid as the idea of God has been, and for that matter remains, the first necessity seems to be breadth.” The varied themes of Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction bind into one strand leading toward such an exalted definition of the supreme fiction. Interestingly, Stevens said to one correspondent that the supreme fiction was poetry, but to another correspondent, after he had immersed himself fully in the project, he claimed that he did not want to be so limiting. The concept had begun to widen and to transcend itself.

Stevens was preoccupied throughout his life with the way art becomes dated so quickly, and, in “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” (a paper first given at Princeton in 1942 and later published, in his essay collection The Necessary Angel, in 1951), he described how some well-known statues reflected their culture and were incomprehensible if divorced by time or space from that culture. His long poem looks at the possibility of setting poetry or art or even the creative act itself free from the limits of time and circumstance. He suggests that this be done by altering the way the artist looks at the world. Creative perception requires all of the perceiver’s resources. It involves stripping away the accretions of the past to look at the real world as if through Adam’s eyes, accepting change as the basis for all art, and opening art itself to change. It also involves being aware of the pleasure that comes from both the world and the artistic act, thus allowing the work, in a sense, to celebrate itself. Thus the ideal fiction as described in this poem is not time-bound because it is abstract, changeable, and pleasurable. It is the one love object worthy of the poet’s desire. It is both subject and object, creator and created. To be abstract, the reality on which the fiction rests must be stripped of the perceptions of others and the fictions of previous perceivers. It must be of both humankind and the alien world. The poet and his human subject are to be realistic rather than aggrandized or presented as caricatures. To be changeable, the fiction must be based on nature’s cycles, not a prison for nature. Statues of generals or anything “set in stone” cannot be the truest form of art. To produce delight, the poem must be an energetic search for the real, in which the mind approaches the world like a lover. This poem is Stevens’s sustained effort to create, as a poem, a poetics that demonstrates itself in the lines that describe it.

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Analysis