It would seem at first blush that American modernism is incompatible with American conservatism. But this impression pivots on a too-narrow conception of both “modernism” and “conservatism.” The aesthetes who animated modern American poetry were, many of them, social and political conservatives. This fact has been lost on those intellectuals who do not admit or acknowledge alternative and complicating visions of the world in general and of modernism in particular. In the wake of the radical 1960s, many intellectuals simply ignored the contributions of the conservative imagination to literature, preferring to will away such unpalatable phenomena by pretending they do not exist. However well-meaning, these intellectuals either assume without much hesitation or qualification that all modernist theories and practices were progressive, or they brush under the rug any conservative tendencies among writers they admire. American modernism was progressive in its adaptation of forms, but it does not follow that avant-garde aesthetics necessarily entails progressive political programs. Nevertheless, under Frankfurt School and Marxist auspices, among other things, the literati and others in the academy have rewritten the history and thought of modernist American poetry to purge it of all conservative influence. George Santayana, Allen Tate, T.S. Eliot, Yvor Winters, Marianne Moore—these individuals, according to progressive mantras, were intellectually challenging and therefore, the argument goes, politically leftist. Such revisionism will not do.
Mendenhall commends the poetry of Wallace Stevens to conservative readers, in part because of Stevens’s Kirkian understanding of the role imagination plays in the perception of truth. Excerpt:
Truth, as it were, is always in flux. That is why a retained image never congeals into reality—or at least not into the reality that it stands in the place of. It may be reality unto itself, caught up in an endless chain of unrealities, but its understanding is always mediated and that mediation is both real and unreal at once. Truth exists to be sure, but it is always attendant upon and mediated by the fallibility and inadequacy of the human mind. The imagination is “the irrepressible revolutionist” because it is the “power that enables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos.” Without imagination, which precedes reason, we cannot appreciate the spontaneous order of things. Without it, we cannot achieve logic or rationality. And without logic or rationality, we cannot see the portal of literature, which is the portal of the imagination.
In my (so far) brief acquaintance with Stevens, he seems to take an apophatic stance towards reality. That is, he defines what things are by what they are not, never quite being able to name the thing. I like this, from his poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Blackbird”:
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
The meaning of the blackbird’s whistling is in the sound of the whistling itself, and in the subsequent absence of that sound. Similarly, we can never fully know what or who God, who is infinite, is, but we can know who He is in part by who He isn’t. You see?