I love dipping into the Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Half of them make not a lick of sense to me. But some of them are absolute gems, are revelations. Take this one I discovered last night:
THE POEM THAT TOOK THE PLACE OF A MOUNTAIN
There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.
He breathed its oxygen,
Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.
It reminded him how he had needed
A place to go to in his own direction,
How he had recomposed the pines,
Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,
For the outlook that would be right,
Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:
The exact rock where his inexactness
Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged,
Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,
Recognize his unique and solitary home.
This is a poem about creation as supreme self-expression. Notice the word “dust,” and think of Genesis 3:19), and consider the image of how a book laying turned is peaked along the spine, like a mountain. This poet, in writing the poem, works out his inner disharmony, which is something he and he alone can do. In creating, the poet makes of the poem a resting place from which to view the world, so that his own restless spirit can achieve a sense of harmony, of at-homeness in the world. Do you catch how Stevens subtly poses his “inexactness” as a distinct entity that accompanies him on an act of discovery, through the creation of the poem? Writing the poem is both an act of self-expression and a quest for self-deliverance from imperfection, from restlessness, from disharmony. The poet can only achieve this kind of salvation alone, because his destination is “unique and solitary.”
It seems to me that for Stevens, the artist is like a monastic hermit; his art is his hermitage, where he meets his destiny, and is fulfilled.
Stevens, you may know, was an insurance executive. He also had an unhappy marriage, and, as an atheist, could not rely on the consolations of religion. I read somewhere once that he considered poetry to be his life, that he believed he had no real life outside of poetry. I’ve picked up in the Stevens poetry that I’ve read so far his conviction that reality is constructed through the imagination — that is, in a world without God, we must build a world of meaning for ourselves that we can live in. If you follow the Wikipedia link in this paragraph, you read that this is a metaphysical preoccupation of his poetic work. “We say God and the imagination are one . . .,” he writes.
But it is by no means the case that Stevens believed that we could create our own reality. He thought no human could have a direct experience of reality, that we could only approach it indirectly. Notice in the mountain poem how the poet constructs the mountain, but only as a place (“the exact rock”) from which he and his companion, his inexactness (= sense of incompletion, of imperfection), might be able to perceive Reality, and rest in a sense of harmony with it. I pick up an ambiguity in those last two lines. Is the unique and solitary home the sea, in which case resting on the mountain is the best we can hope for: to be able to perceive the sea, but never able to live in it? Or is the unique and solitary home to be found not in living in the sea, which can never be done, but from being able to establish the right view of the infinite?
In either case, it’s significant that the sense of a harmonious home is not sought for the poet, exactly, but for his companion, Inexactness, which is the impetus for his creativity. And notice too how the sense of completion, of resolution, is stated in the conditional progressive tense (“would be”) — that is, Stevens does not say that the “exact rock” has been created, only that the creator’s quest is to create a perspective through which ultimate reality can be perceived, and the poet’s restless nature can finally be satisfied.
This is not an act of rationality, but of noetic perception: the “unexplained completion.” It is ultimately a mystery, one that can be recognized and taken into one’s understanding, but cannot be “explained” in the purely rational sense. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this poem, but I imagine the Inexactness (= that companion of the poet’s that drives his creative quest) resting on the side of the mountain and “gazing down at the sea,” conscious of what separates him from complete unity with the Infinite: death. If he steps toward the Infinite (the Sea), seeking material unity with it, he will die. The best he can achieve in this life is to perceive it, and to allow that perception to grant him rest and a sense of completion. That Stevens puts the goal of creation in the conditional may suggest that this is a utopian quest — but it is the quest that all creators undertake.
Again, it is important to know that Stevens did not see art as merely the expression of the self, but as a mystical religion, as a way of establishing a relationship to Ultimate Reality. It seems, then, that the artist, if he is any good, is a kind of priest and prophet, through whose creative vision others may perceive Reality. Yet even they can only get so far. They can only receive a report of what the visionary poet has seen from the mountaintop; the view is the “unique and solitary home” of the poet, and can only be related in words, not experienced. I’m thinking here about how much difficulty people who have had true mystical experiences have in trying to convey them in words. One person who had a near-death experience said that trying to explain to others what it was like in ordinary language is like trying to write a novel with half the alphabet. Notice Stevens says “Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion.” Not “where all would be complete;” the experience of communion with Ultimate Reality is for the artist alone, and the rest he may find is “unique and solitary.” The best he can do is to convey through the limitations of his art what that experience is like. Moses met God on Mount Sinai, but had to use mere words to tell the Israelites what that was like. Talking about seeing God is not the same thing as seeing God.
Wallace Stevens was an atheist, but this is a profoundly religious poem. And though I am no poet, and not even a real artist, it does help me understand the source of my own restlessness, and why it drives me to write. I’ve said here recently that I often don’t know what I think about something until I approach it in writing. I too am trying, in my poor and limited way, to make a mountain from which I can perceive the world as it is, and to finally feel at home in it. I don’t think it is possible for me to succeed in this way alone, but this is why I work at it.
I wonder: if, through prayer and the grace of God, I was ever able to experience that “unexplained completion,” the price of being given the at-homeness I seek, that harmony I crave, would be the ability to write? Does anybody who is completely at home in the world (or as close as any of us can come in this life) create? Works of art in which everything is explained are dead (e.g., Socialist Realism, Christian kitsch); works of art that deny that there is anything beyond the material are also dead. It seems to me that Stevens is a religious poet in the sense that even though he denies the existence of God, he affirms that there is a world beyond what we can experience materially, and that the act of artistic creation brings us as close as we can come to perceiving it.
To put it into Walker Percy’s phrase, the artist is on to something, and his art is conditioned by the nature of his quest for it.
Random thoughts here on a steamy south Louisiana Saturday morning. Let me hear from you.
UPDATE: One way to think of this: an oyster that lives in perfect internal harmony does not create a pearl. It takes the irritation of the grain of sand that leads to creating a pearl to show what oysters are capable of. It is not the oyster’s choice as to whether or not a grain of sand will have been implanted inside him. He can’t wish it away, though he may envy the oysters who don’t struggle with it (e.g., I craved, and still do, the sense of at-homeness and internal harmony that my late sister had); what he can do, if he has it within himself, is to create something beautiful from the grain of inexactness against which his nature struggles.