The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1130

Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction , considered by many to be Wallace Stevens’s most important poem, did not receive much critical attention until the 1980’s. Regarded as long and unwieldy, the poem was overlooked in favor of shorter and more easily accessible poems until critics became aware that much current...

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Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, considered by many to be Wallace Stevens’s most important poem, did not receive much critical attention until the 1980’s. Regarded as long and unwieldy, the poem was overlooked in favor of shorter and more easily accessible poems until critics became aware that much current theory has its parallel in Stevens’s Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction. Contemporary notions of historicity, aesthetics, and even chaos theory can be read from this work.

The notion of the “supreme fiction” was a major preoccupation of Stevens, who, in the early 1940’s when this poem was written, was attempting to find a stronger justification for poetry in times of war and social disintegration. Poetry was not to be accused of escapism or irrelevance. Rather, the poet was to assume a heroic role in attempting to find meaning in chaos and to articulate the human myth. Indeed, this long, philosophical poem gives a relatively complete discussion of Stevens’s later aesthetic and can be used to gloss his other work. Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction was first published in 1942 and then collected in the 1947 book Transport to Summer. It is prefaced by a dedication and an eight-line introduction that addresses the fiction itself. The poem is organized formally, with three sections of ten sets of seven three-line stanzas, each developing a subtopic (or a single “note”) of the main theme, and a concluding set of seven tercets. The three subtopics are “It Must Be Abstract,” “It Must Change,” and “It Must Give Pleasure” (“It” in each case refers to the supreme fiction). The last group of tercets does not have a title, but it is an address to a soldier that attempts to make poetry and poetry writing relevant to war. When the poem was first published in 1942, Stevens wished to have the “soldier” lines emphasized. He claimed at one point to have planned a fourth section titled “It Must Be Human”; although this fourth part was never written, the humanity of the supreme fiction is assumed or asserted throughout the poem. The dedication (“To Henry Church”) is confusing; the reader is likely to connect it with the introduction to the poem, which begins, “And for what, except for you, do I feel love?” However, the dedication was a last-minute addition, and the opening lines are actually addressed not to his friend Church but to the fiction, an entity that seems as much creator as created. It is the fiction that is the ultimate object of desire.

The first section of the poem considers the process and nature of abstraction, one of the three essentials of Stevens’s supreme fiction. Abstraction is equated with seeing in “the first idea”—the poet must strip perception of accumulated interpretations in order to restore the freshness of the first-time vision. The speaker addresses an “ephebe,” or pupil/apprentice, whom he instructs in the art of abstraction. The goal of such rigorous stripping is to get back to the uninterpreted base of reality. The sun, to be seen in the first idea, must “bear no namebut be/ In the difficulty of what it is to be.” “Do not use the rotted names,” Stevens says elsewhere, and this instruction is at the bottom of his concept of abstraction. The supreme fiction cannot be another perfunctory statement of what has been previously thought and said—it must be fresh, and the revitalization of reality calls for stripping it. Abstraction is not easy, as the rest of this section explains. Reality is not merely a human thing: “There was a myth before the myth began” in the “muddy centre” of prehuman history. The world humans know is not theirs, and its foreignness both causes and complicates poetry. However, the creators of present fictions are human, although they have a superhuman task. After describing the meaning and process of abstraction, the poem turns to the figure of the poet. Who is the poet, and what is the result of this attempt to abstract not only the indifferent world but also humankind itself? A series of images is proposed, and the final and lasting one is an old clown, a Charlie Chaplin type, who will create and who will be the subject of the ultimate poem.

The second essential characteristic of the supreme fiction is explored in “It Must Change.” This part of the poem is filled with images of fruition and change, creating a picture reminiscent of the bountiful earth described in Stevens’s more famous poem “Sunday Morning.” These nature images are contrasted with a statue of the General Du Puy that does not change and therefore belies nature. (This poem is really about the process of creation rather than about the product, but it is clear that the speaker, here indistinguishable from the poet, believes following his directions for creation would provide the best art.) The speaker describes the meeting of opposites and the resulting births and speaks of the pleasure brought by change and the delight that comes from the natural cycle of birth, ripeness, and decline. The cycles of nature allow for renewal and refreshment, whereas art that turns flesh to bronze is deadening.

“It Must Change” is closely linked to the third part, “It Must Give Pleasure.” In the second section, the poet establishes that change produces delight, while in the third he examines the relationship between pleasure and art. It contains a long parable of the Canon Aspirin and his sister, that explores the differences in their perceptions of the world. She is more of a bare minimalist while he is a creator of order; neither one is able to create ideal art because neither strikes the right chord of the relationship between reality and the imagination. In the most difficult sections of this poem, the speaker tries to define what this relationship might be. The Canon imposes order, but the true poet must be able to discover rather than impose. It must be possible, the speaker muses, “To find the real,/ To be stripped of every fiction except one,/ The fiction of an absolute.” This point, at which invention becomes discovery, would be the locus of the supreme fiction. The speaker then retreats from his assertion that the poet can find this point of conjunction. (Stevens often retreats from positions he explores, as though unwilling to make any absolute statement.) However, the poem concludes with the possibility of a conjunction between mind and world that encompasses all his essentials: abstraction, change, and delight. The last group of tercets is addressed to a soldier and shows the connection between poetry and war, which is seen in the perspective of the human myth: “The soldier is poor without the poet’s lines.” Poetry gives meaning to the soldier’s life and sacrifice.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 744

The three-line stanzas are appropriate for a long, meditative poem and may evoke the spirit of Italian poet Dante Alighieri, who seems to be a ghostly presence in the poem (Stevens saw Dante as the creator of a powerful but now historical fiction that continues to haunt today’s would-be fiction maker). Stevens’s late work frequently uses the tercet together with a relaxed blank verse in extended explorations of poetics. The result is a kind of essay in verse enhanced by poetic devices such as alliteration, consonance, metaphor, and a variety of rhetorical devices.

The images and metaphors, mostly from art, nature, or art and nature combined, attempt to demonstrate the facets of the supreme fiction: abstraction, changeability, and capacity to delight. Each section is very different in tone and metaphor because the three characteristics differ, although the second and third sections are more closely allied than is the first with either of the others. Images of nature and art in the first section tend to serve as illustrations of abstraction or as analogies that demonstrate how the poet sees. Images of animals show the process of mythologizing, while art is wedded to nature in passages illustrative of how perception turns to art: “Weather by Franz Hals,/ Brushed up by brushy winds in brushy clouds.” The interpretation has been welded to the perception so that metaphor becomes equivalence, with art and nature mirroring each other. At the end of part 1, a sustained metaphor illustrates the notion that “The major abstraction is the idea of man.” This concept is further defined: “The major abstraction is the commonal,/ The inanimate, difficult visage. Who is it?” The figure that emerges is the old clown, the Charlie Chaplin type in “slouching pantaloons” seen “Looking for what was, where it used to be.” This is the basis for the image that must serve as the “final elegance.”

Images crowd together and change rapidly in “It Must Change.” The sequence of images of nature in flux (bees, apples, and pigeons, among others) is in stark contrast to the “great statue of General Du Puy” that is not subject to change and therefore not reflective of reality. There follow images of mystic marriages that represent the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis that constantly create new versions of reality. Part 2 also contains what may be an appealing reprise of one of Stevens’s early poems, “The Comedian as the Letter C,” which details the adventures of Crispin as he tries and discards different types of art only to completely succumb to the life of the world at last, becoming a cabin-dwelling farmer instead of a poet. In Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, the “planter,” by yielding to reality rather than attempting to impose order on it, has not lost out on anything.

“It Must Give Pleasure” uses images of music, a beautiful woman, and angels in its argument that pleasure is an essential ingredient of the supreme fiction. The complex concluding image of this poem is teasing and inconclusive. It is another scene of sexual attraction. The speaker addresses a woman who is identified with the earth, with the real: “Fat girl, terrestrial, my summer, my night/ How is it I find you in difference?” He is compelled by her, just as the imagination is compelled by the real; what he wants to do because of her attractiveness is to name her. This naming is the act of poetry and the act of love: “this unprovoked sensation requires/ That I should name you flatly, waste no words.” He concludes that the supreme fiction is “the more than rational distortion,/ The fiction that results from feeling.” Thus, images of mind and world merge with the male and female lovers: “I call you by name, my green, my fluent mundo./ You will have stopped revolving except in crystal.” The mind’s embrace of the world is the same as a lovers’ embrace. As in a lovers’ embrace, both mind and world are participants.

The last section, the seven-tercet address to the soldier, uses images of the soldier’s life in a comparison between the real war and the poet’s war in an attempt to justify the ways of poetry to the war-torn present. This section was not a part of Stevens’s original project. For many readers, the triumphant meeting of poet and world at the end of “It Must Give Pleasure” is the high point of the poem and its true conclusion.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 119

Bates, Milton J. Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Cleghorn, Angus J. Wallace Stevens’ Poetics: The Neglected Rhetoric. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Critchley, Simon. Things Merely Are: Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Ford, Sara J. Gertrude Stein and Wallace Stevens: The Performance of Modern Consciousness. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Leggett, B. J. Late Stevens: The Final Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

Morse, Samuel F. Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life. New York: Pegasus, 1970.

Santilli, Kristine S. Poetic Gesture: Myth, Wallace Stevens, and the Motions of Poetic Language. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Sharpe, Tony. Wallace Stevens: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

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