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Curtis White on Wallace Stevens

The following is taken from White’s excellent book The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves (2003 HarperCollins) (reprinted with permission):

“Wallace Stevens’s little book of essays, The Necessary Angel (1942), deserves far more relevance than it seems to have in the present. Stevens’s book is intelligent, humane, and inventive in a way that we should want to value in the present and ever other future moment. The subtitle of this slim book is ‘Essays on Reality and the Imagination.’ What is extraordinary in Stevens’s perception is his certainty that reality and imagination do not stand different from and opposed to one another. They are in fact the same thing. Imagination ‘has the strength of reality or none at all.’ (7)

“The reality that we refer to as our daily reality is simply the work of the human imagination that has become ossified, cofidied, and generally naturalized. It is imagination that has achieved such consensus that it is an ‘of course.’ This is so in both a good and bad sense. We need a shared reality because we live together, we need to be able to communicate, and we need to be able to trust that we’re part of a shared world. This is ideology, or a shared imaginative understanding of the world, in its weak (meaning ‘neutral’) and most inescapable sense. The authority to manage this shared understanding is what politics is about at its most basic level. Who will have the authority to say what kind of world we will all live in? Who will have the authority to answer Wallace Stevens’s question about ‘how to live, what to do’? This is ideology in its strong and most threatening sense. This ideology is about insisting on one human world as the true and only proper human world, and the first gesture of this ideology is always, of course, to say, ‘I’m not ideology. The world is a collection of static objects and behaviors arranged in space. nature is stable and unchanging. The imagination is fantasy and if it has a place in our world it is a place like Fantasyland, carefully circumscribed by the walls of Disneyland. I won’t utterly deny it, though I don’t like it much, but I will limit its province.’ Limit and carefully monitor.

“We’re not much in the habit of poking at these dominant realities that are so much the ‘of course’ of our lives. We’re delicate. We’re used to deferring. What parents, teachers, presidents, and media spokespeople like Dan Rather (the bosses in our social factory) say is good enough for us. We demur out of habit and fright over what not demurring might require of us. We sacrifice our lives out of a feeling that there is some sort of comfort in deferring. Do I dare to eat a peach, indeed.

“For Stevens, the problem was one of equilibrium. ‘The relation between the imagination and reality is a question, more or less, of precise equilibrium.’ (9) That this relation was at the time he wrote a ‘failure’ was not, for Stevens, a question. The only question was to ask why and to what degree it was a failure. The failure was due to ‘the pressure of reality.’ (13) As Stevens wrote, ‘By the pressure of reality, I mean the pressure of an external event or events on the consciousness to the exclusion of any power of contemplation.’ (20)

“On the other side, for Stevens, the figure of the poet, standing in confrontation with reality, achieves near revolutionary stature. Even though he was an insurance executive, Stevens had a vision of the real that was politically radical. He argued, in words that describe our present moment to a frightening degree:

In speaking of the pressure of reality, I am thinking of life in a state of violence, not physically violent, as yet, for us in America, but physically violent for millions of our friends and for still more millions of our enemies and spiritually violent, it may be said, for everyone alive…. A possible poet must be a poet capable of resisting or evading the pressure of the reality of this last degree, with the knowledge that the degree of today may become a deadlier degree tomorrow. (27)

“But how emasculated and domesticated Stevens has become in the American literary canon. He is remembered for cute, metaphysical poems such as ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream.’ Practically something for children. This Stevens may cause us to smack our ‘muzzy bellies’ in delight, but he won’t cause us to change our lives. He is safely domesticated, made a friend to the quotidian, someone you read at the school-factory in the museum of the safely established canon. He is read now, if he is read at all, as an example of literary greatness, another culture hero, quite irrelevant to what happens when we get in our cars, go to work or the mall, turn on our TVs or computers. And this when what he wanted to say to us was, ‘You’re being murdered’!” (3–5)

Curtis White is a novelist and social critic living in Normal, Illinois. His many other books include The Idea of Home (1993/2004), Memories of My Father Watching TV (1998), Requiem (2001), America’s Magic Mountain (2004), The Spirit of Disobedience (2006), and The Barbaric Heart (2009).

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

17 thoughts on “Curtis White on Wallace Stevens

  1. I like the excerpt from Stevens. It’s something that needs to be read.

    Some once said, We create our own reality and then many people started repeating it.

    I can see how it may appear that Stevens might be thought of as “emasculated and domesticated,” but that’s a reality that doesn’t belong to me. It seems true that the anthologies zero in on those early poems, but as testament to this week and the concentration on all the poems (and now the wonderful essay you’ve quoted) Stevens lives as all of his selves.

    1. I think it’s generally true, a la Adorno, that the culture at large gradually removes the revolutionary aspects from artists. As is often noted, companies use Beethoven today to sell cars, and the Impressionists are considered quaint, good material for printing on shower curtains. I agree with White that the same has largely happened to Stevens: his poetry is no longer the destructive force it once was, and we’re all much poorer for it.

      And while I agree with you that we here at Big Other probably find Stevens more unsettling and provocative than most small others—we still feel the ox in our breasts, breathing there—let’s not pat ourselves on our breasts too hard. I’m glad you organized this week, but there’s been little real discussion so far of what’s truly radical in Stevens’s work, both then and now (with an emphasis on now). A lot of the posts have amounted to people saying, “I really like Stevens.” …Well, who doesn’t?

      1. Can this be the slogan of Big Other?

        Walter Pater, last line of the “Conclusion to the Renaissance”:

        “For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake. ”

        Nobody can dictate how art is supposed to be taken, right? If this is what White is saying (that his poetry is no longer the destructive force it was), I wonder why he is saying it. How does he know what Stevens’s poetry does to all people’s innards?

        What’s radical for me about Stevens is he makes me want to be a better writer.

        Your last remarks feel kind of cranky. If you want to call this cheesy – “raising awareness” about a writer who is a marvel, by all means…but for me, this awareness will be a boon, it will make the submissions many of us read better, and some hopeful part of me thinks, we will by careful with that pen before we embark further.

        1. I don’t think White is arguing from the position of how he sees people taking it (subjective knowledge he can’t have). Rather, he’s arguing from the position of seeing how it’s often talked about and presented in the culture (in anthologies, for instance). That’s more objective knowledge, and I think White (who taught at ISU for like 30 years) is in a fine position to appraise that.

          I don’t think I called anything cheesy…? I think it’s OK to point out, though, when people aren’t being all that critical.

          I’m happy that attention is being paid to Stevens. But that alone isn’t and shouldn’t be good enough—one must ask, what kind of attention? That’s a fair question, I think. Being a critical crank, I often ask it.

        2. And of course I’m cranky. I’m always cranky. …Actually, what I always am is contrary. And I know it’s often annoying; it annoys even me…

          Remember, though, that God allowed evil into the world because otherwise it wouldn’t be hard to be good. And so we see there’s a place even for folks like me in His creation.

          1. Hey Adam,

            The trouble with always a person always being contrary–and I wouldn’t characterize you as being such–is that people will often not know where that person stands, and will, at best, most likely result in that person often being misunderstood, or, at worst, often being regarded as someone whose mind is so mercurial as to always slip through the fingers. And just because one can’t be pinned down, doesn’t mean he or she can’t be pegged.

      2. To say that “‘[a] lot of the posts [here at Big Other] have amounted to people saying, ‘I really like Stevens…'” strikes me as off the mark, and hardly strikes me as critical (surely criticism is much more than making such a gross generalization), contradicting your desire for greater critical examination. What’s the real point of that?

        As for who doesn’t like Stevens, I’ll answer that question in as uncritical a way as possible: lots of people.

  2. The Middle Mind! I haven’t thought about that book in years. (Many years ago, I actually used it as the basis of my application to grad schools for political communication. Probably a weird strategy, but it worked.)

    But I have to disagree with White a little here. I agree with Greg–I like Stevens because he makes me want to be a better writer. think Stevens celebrated life–he may have wanted to explore it and break it down and warn us, but don’t think I would truly call his poetry a destructive force, ever.

    And even if it once was radical, no matter what political art will always lose its teeth. It has to, because the means it has of communicating the message will become old school, old hat, will seem old-fashioned and a kind of nostalgia will surround it. This SHOULD happen. And when it does, we’re left with either crap (like with all the proletarian lit from the 30s) or great art that transcends time, place, message, meaning, and even artist. And Stevens’ poetry is clearly is the latter.

    1. Hi Amber,

      I, too, like Stevens because he makes me want to be a better writer. I don’t think that’s even a consideration here. (White adores Stevens.) And all great art, in White’s estimation, is life-affirming: like his heroes Theodor Adorno and Viktor Shklovsky, White always celebrates artists who refresh life, and allow us to feel more alive, even while we’re confronted with the ossifying, deadening effects of so much of the culture at large.

      In blunt other words, when I got to the mall and hear the top 40 singles on a loop, and see the crap’s that for sale, I want to kill myself. But if I go to a library and read some Stevens, I feel a lot better. Not because the poetry comforts me, or anything like that, but because I see someone else who was serious about critically investigating the culture he found himself in, and who held himself to high standards, and who worked very hard within certain intellectual traditions to not just reiterate and accept the crap of his time. And it gives me some hope that the same can be done today.

      As for your other points:

      I don’t think it’s true that all political art becomes blunted. It depends on how the culture makes use of it. The same things don’t happen to all artworks. For instance, much of Guy Debord’s art (and the entire Situationist International) is still pretty radical, even though Adbusters Magazine has tried to commodify détournement. Going on a dérive is still a rather radical action—indeed, it’s become only more radical, as people become increasingly sedentary, lethargic, and chained to computer screens.

      And not all messages become conventional. For instance, Jean Vigo was a weird little fuck of a filmmaker, back in the 1930s. He’s still a weird little fuck of a filmmaker, even now, mainly because his work hasn’t been commercialized. Seventy+ years later, it’s not really that widely seen. (Some people have seen Zéro de conduite, but beyond that…? I rarely meet anyone who’s seen L’Atalante, let alone À propos de Nice or Taris, roi de l’eau. The effect of seeing any of that work now is still pretty startling.

      What White’s describing is something else, however: the way that work becomes commodified by the larger culture. In other words, the culture can make a stupid use of an artwork. It can take something radical and turn it into something safe. This is happening with Edward Gorey right this second. His safer, cuter works are for sale in every gift shop, while his darker, more diseased works are out of print. And I see artists everywhere absorbing the safer, cuter aspects of his style, but ignoring the more bizarre ones. And so everyone loves Gorey these days, but it’s a love of a certain Gorey.

      I think White’s right, and that something similar has happened with Stevens, or is still happening. You see his more accessible, less disturbing poems anthologized more heavily than his more radical work. Teachers and critics propose standardized, watered-down interpretations for students to slurp up. Books like The Necessary Angel go largely unread. (Has anyone who’s posted this week ever read it? Greg, have you read it? If not, why not?)

      great art that transcends time, place, message, meaning, and even artist.

      We might have to disagree there, because I don’t believe that’s possible. In the meantime, here’s an essay I really love (despite its patronizing tone):


      Stevens himself called his poetry a destructive force. See for instance his poem “Poetry Is a Destructive Force.”


      1. Hey Adam,

        This strikes me as unnecessarily condescending:
        “(Has anyone who’s posted this week ever read it? Greg, have you read it? If not, why not?)”

        In answer to your rather smug question, I offer this rather smug answer:
        I’ve read The Necessary Angel, twice this year; I also read all of his poems, collected and uncollected, as well as all of the uncollected prose, and everything else contained in the Library of America’s Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose. Twice. Have you, Adam? If not, why not?

        Most of Wallace Stevens goes unread. Even by those who bemoan how much of his work goes unread.

        1. Adam, Amber, Curtis, John:

          Looking more at what’s been written, this phrase of Curtis’s: “We’re used to deferring. What parents, teachers, presidents, and media spokespeople like Dan Rather (the bosses in our social factory) say is good enough for us,” strikes me as simplistic and wrong. How does Curtis know this? It’s obviously not good enough for many people, and seemingly those many people are the one who read his books and read Wallace Stevens.

          The important thing is that Stevens wrote in a time of war and WWII is much different from the Afghan and Gulf wars for America. I have read parts of the Necessary Angel, not the whole, but it seems in the Noble Rider essay, which the above quotes are from, that Stevens is more concerned with aesthetics and less about how the populace are lazy cattle – both essayists write out of their time. Now there is tendency to apathy and ego – “I don’t care about the Iraqi children, my netflix didn’t come in the mail.”

          In the excerpt you’ve provided, while I love his calling attention to Stevens’s essays, it seem the point is to use Stevens to push forward his own personal political propaganda, which according to the excerpt is excoriating the general US populace for laziness.

          Another excerpt: “He is read now, if he is read at all, as an example of literary greatness, another culture hero, quite irrelevant to what happens when we get in our cars, go to work or the mall, turn on our TVs or computers. And this when what he wanted to say to us was, ‘You’re being murdered’!”

          In this White seems perfectly right. Stevens’s poetry is irrelevant to us going to work or turning on the computer. And again the Pater (I am a Paterist):

          “For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake. ”

          If you want to take political action join Greenpeace or many of the other wonderful organizations out there. Don’t mix politics with Stevens, like chocolate on bratwurst they don’t go that well together.


          Chieftan Ifnotynot of Ifyoutrynot in Itwillberot

  3. Adam, fine post. White’s a fine thinker, & thanks to this, I can now see the ghost of Stevens hovering in the living of White’s best novel, alongside his father watching television.

  4. Great post! Thank you! Adam, Amber, Curtis, John, Greg, I don’t see why everything said here couldn’t be taken into account, although personally I think I may be siding with the crank in this discussion! No one brought up Helen Vendler’s take on things. On purpose? I’m wondering why not. She has a lot of good things to say, but essentially sees Stevens from a domesticated nightmare point of view. I’m sure that has to be taken into account, but why only blame the household? Why not extend it to the whole social system which requires one? At least that’s how I view a few of Stevens’s poems, as he toggles in between what’s close at hand and the larger picture. For those interested, I have put up a post comparing Stevens’s view of democracy in “Somnabulisma” with Bishop’s view of the same in “Insomnia”, along with a Japanese and Chinese poet take on it too. Would welcome everyone’s critique on my critiques…


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