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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 744 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.