The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1130 words.)