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The Mountain Of One’s Imagination

I love dipping into the Collected Poems [1] 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 [2]), 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 [3]. 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 [4]: 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.

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16 Comments To "The Mountain Of One’s Imagination"

#1 Comment By Charles Cosimano On August 10, 2013 @ 12:01 pm

Rod, I think you are wrong. You would not lose the ability to write if you were completely at home in the world. Your writing would just be different. I don’t see how any art can ever be dead except in the imaginations of would-be tastemakers. It may be boring or distasteful or even downright stupid (see anything by John Steinbeck, three generations of Joads is enough!) but dead, no. No art is ever dead.

#2 Comment By Reid Hyde On August 10, 2013 @ 1:17 pm

Something about working in insurance I suppose for the modernists, as T.S. Eliot worked in the same field. I admire and was fascinated by Stevens in college. That said, one of his more famous poems, The Emperor of Ice Cream which I loved in my darker years, I find positively deflating. I realize all of life is not happy-happy-joy-joy, just as it is not endless suffering. Emperor is devastating in its depiction of the banality of life, with seemingly no grace or joy, though it is darkly beautiful. I guess at this stage in my life (50, working at being more devout, 3 kids) I do prefer sunnier fare, though it is hard to avert my eyes if Stevens and especially Eliot are in front of me.

#3 Comment By reflectionephemeral On August 10, 2013 @ 3:19 pm

Does anybody who is completely at home in the world (or as close as any of us can come in this life) create?

I know I saw Lyle Lovett say in an interview, maybe with Musician magazine, in the 1990s that plenty of his songs are written in a not-entirely-happy state of mind; but that it seemed immature to hope against contentment, even if it came at a cost in terms of songwriting.

So, there’s one data point for you.

#4 Comment By Michelle On August 10, 2013 @ 3:30 pm

I am surprised that Stevens was an atheist as so much of his poetry strikes me as religious in nature.

#5 Comment By bill On August 10, 2013 @ 3:41 pm

I think this is a terrific thought. I don’t know if that last part is correct or not, but I like the that it makes me ponder new thoughts!

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.

#6 Comment By Ann Olivier On August 10, 2013 @ 4:06 pm

I thought Stevens was an agnostic who, in later life attempted to create absolute beauty/truth in creating beautiful poetry. But in the end he realized that mere humans cannot produce divinity, whatever that might be.
When he was in the hospital dying he spoke several times with a Catholic priest. After his death the priest said that Stevens had converted and been baptized. Stevens’ daughter denied it, saying he never did such a thing.
But I’m inclined to think that he did. He was certainly open to belief at least at a times, and it is well known that when he visited New York City (which was fairly often — he had business and friends there) he sometimes would go to St. Patrick’s Cathedral to sit/meditate/pray/who knows what, so he might have been disposed particularly towards Catholicism. It seems clear to me that he was at least a persistent seeker, not an atheist. Kind of like Wittgenstein, who also spoke to a priest at the end. It does happen sometimes.
Helen Vendler has written a lot fine stuff about him. Also Harold Bloom.
What poetry!

#7 Comment By Thursday On August 10, 2013 @ 4:40 pm

Stevens may have been an atheist, but he was an awfully queer one if he was.

Here is his poem The Snow Man, where the materialists who see nothing personal out in the world are characterized as having a “mind of winter,” of being a little dead inside.

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

#8 Comment By Thursday On August 10, 2013 @ 4:43 pm

I’ve talked here many times before about how religion is linked to our sense that reality out there beyond is has at least some irreducibly personal aspect to it. That is very much related to how a poet sees the world, as being alive.

Another poem on this theme is Stevens’ Idea of Order at Key West.

[5]

#9 Comment By Another Matt On August 10, 2013 @ 11:11 pm

Good grief. One can be an atheist and a “seeker.” Being an atheist just means that you don’t believe there is/are god(s). Here’s an analogy I’ve used here before:

Imagine you and a friend are looking at a tree. Your friend says, “I believe the number of leaves on this tree is a prime number, don’t you?” If you say, “no, I don’t believe that,” it does not mean that you believe in fact that the tree has a composite number of leaves — it just means that you wouldn’t affirm the “prime number hypothesis” without further (pretty strong) evidence. Atheism is the same way.

And this from Thursday:

I’ve talked here many times before about how religion is linked to our sense that reality out there beyond is has at least some irreducibly personal aspect to it.

Out there beyond what? I’m an atheist a good 99% of the time (the other 1% I can somehow muster a deist intuition, but it disappears pretty quickly). I still at least experience persons — but the only ones I have experienced have had a corporeal brain. I have had plenty of experiences that one might call “numinous,” but it almost always involved art, and a sense that I was somehow closer to the person who created the works of thought I was experiencing.

But if I had the feeling that someone was watching me, I don’t think that would count as evidence that someone was in fact watching me. For all that the religious and non-religious both believe that human perception is not always trustworthy, I have been surprised how far the religious people I’ve known have been willing to trust their perception that “religious experience” is evidence that there is something “out there beyond” causing it.

#10 Comment By Ann Olivier On August 11, 2013 @ 12:16 am

Another Matt —

Yes, of course someone can be a seeker and and atheist (one who definitely does not believe but keeps wondering anyway), but, more commonly, one can also be a seeker and an agnostic. I suspect that Stevens was the latter.

Your descriptions of your experiences are interesting. Over the years I’ve read a lot of mystics. I’ve found that most Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim mystics speak about their experiences as being of someone or something immediately present *within* their consciousness, while Protestants talk about the object of their experiences as being *outside* of themselves.

I wonder why the difference. I guess that it is cultural, but what can it be?

#11 Comment By J DeSales On August 11, 2013 @ 12:21 am

If I want to read a poet talk about a mountain, I’d much rather read Petrarch’s “Ascent of Mont Ventoux.”

But, more to the point, your question “Does anybody who is completely at home in the world (or as close as any of us can come in this life) create?” is a good one. I think it depends on what exactly you mean by “the world” and “at home.” The way I take it, and this is colored by my affinity for Italian Renaissance Humanism, the question is “Does anybody who is engaged in the active life create?” Which, yes, people who are intensely engaged in political and civic life do create great works. Look at Leonardo Bruni or Enea Silvio Piccolomini – both created great works while engaged in the world (as Chancellor of Florence Bruni wrote the beautiful “Funeral Oration for Nanni Strozzi” as well as his History of the Florentine People, as Pope Pius II, Enea Silvio wrote his amazing Commentaries). Cicero, the idol for many humanists, is the best example for someone thoroughly engaged in the world who created beautifully.

But, I get the impression that you might mean something more like does anyone who is satisfied with the world around them create art. “At home” meaning something like comfortable and “in the world” meaning with the world? Perhaps? The examples of Soviet Realism and Christian kitsch seem to indicate that it’s the Soviet artist who is resolute in knowing that the Soviet system has or will fixed everything that is the problem, not that the Soviet artist is intensely tied to the Soviet system and reality. (That said, I think your condemnation of Soviet Realism is problematic given Mikhail Solokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don is quite good, as are some of the works of Maxim Gorky.) In that case, if the question is “does anybody who is intensely satisfied with the world as it is create,” then the answer is probably “No.”

I’m not sure why, though. Contentment tends to be dull, though.

#12 Comment By Another Matt On August 11, 2013 @ 9:05 am

Yes, of course someone can be a seeker and and atheist (one who definitely does not believe but keeps wondering anyway), but, more commonly, one can also be a seeker and an agnostic. I suspect that Stevens was the latter.

“One who definitely does not believe but keeps wondering anyway” describes an agnostic atheist. Until my 20s I was an agnostic theist — I wanted/tried to believe, but never with any feeling of security or certainty.

I have no idea how to answer your mysticism question. I do have relatives who make decisions using the following method:

1) Ask God what to do.
2) The next thought is the voice of God.
3) Do what that thought/voice said.

If it is successful, then your faith was rewarded. If it fails, then you must be trying to hide a sin, or it was one of those mysterious ways.

I think if they were to suspect 2) came “from within,” that would be the sin of doubt, because then it could be just a plain old regular thought — it has to come from without for the method to be reliable.

Also, “God speaks to me” the way he did to Moses. Saying “God speaks in me” means something entirely different, I think. Maybe it’s the difference between aspiring to be an “instrument” of God vs. an “appendage” of God. “God owns me” means something slightly different in either case.

#13 Comment By Another Matt On August 11, 2013 @ 11:28 am

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.

This, by the way, is also a huge theme in his great poem “Sunday Morning”:

(excerpts)

III

Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth.
No mother suckled him, no sweet land gave
Large-mannered motions to his mythy mind.
He moved among us, as a muttering king,
Magnificent, would move among his hinds,
Until our blood, commingling, virginal,
With heaven, brought such requital to desire
The very hinds discerned it, in a star.
Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?
The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain,
And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.

VI

Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?
Why set the pear upon those river-banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Alas, that they should wear our colors there,
The silken weavings of our afternoons,
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.

#14 Comment By J On August 11, 2013 @ 7:15 pm

I write my last college paper on Wallace Stevens- got into the high seventies in page count. He’s an atheist mystic like Rilke, and the Buddha, though significantly lesser (as both a mystic and a poet) than Rilke and another demonstration of the transient usage and dispensability, as an auxiliary theory, of theism from the p.o.v. of mysticism.

I’m not in agreement that what Rod likes is the best of Stevens or really gets at what he’s saying- Stevens knows the mystical Prayer of Contemplation as it is- so I’m staying out of the Stevens threads more general. To get at Stevens in a serious way- better than the “Hey, I recognize that- it’s so true!” level- you have to tally in a couple more of his really important poems, like Angel Surrounded By Paysans, The Idea of Order at Key West, the relative technicality of Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction, Chocorua To Its Neighbor, The Man With The Blue Guitar. All of those are about his eternal subject, the imagination and the human interdependence of reality and imagination and the need to constantly generate and purify and reiterate them as the central task of being human. And then Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour and Of Mere Being (of course).

Some Friends From Pascagoula is about as close as he got to St. Francisville, btw. Gorgeous poem, one of my favorites.

Tell me again of the point
At which the flight began,

Say how his heavy wings
Spread on the sun-bronzed air,
Turned tip and tip away,
Down the sand, the glare

Of the pine trees edging the sand,
Dropping in sovereign rings
Out of his fiery lair.
Speak of the dazzling wings.

Speak of the dazzling wings indeed.

#15 Comment By Franklin Evans On August 12, 2013 @ 11:50 am

Like J DeSales above, I would like to examine the premises more closely. Being “at home in the world” is too vague for me even with the context provided.

For me, being “at home” is a sense of recognition, not a destination or accomplishment. My home (no more scare quotes for me here) is a complete place, not one to which I escape nor one in which I find comfort or protection.

My spiritual practice is to be completely engaged in the world. The concept of “mindfulness” is my guide.

#16 Comment By JamesP On August 12, 2013 @ 8:44 pm

Have you ever seen gallstones? They are sometimes shiny with complex hues from the gall bladder rubbing them together for years. Human pearls for sure. Some folks make jewelry out of them after they are removed. I’ll never forget the medicine jar that held the ones from my dear uncle’s surgery.