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Into The Mystic With Wallace Stevens

“Intensity” by Anna Macedo

Ever heard of Wallace Stevens? If you love poetry or American literature, of course you have. Me, I remember that he was a conservative Republican and an insurance company executive, and I remember having to study a couple of his poems in a high school or college lit course, but I’ve not seen his work since then. I am not much of a reader of poetry.

The other day when I was visiting the artist Anna Macedo, she mentioned to me that Stevens was her favorite poet. Today, sitting around listening to it rain, I looked up some of Stevens’ poetry on the Internet. I found myself sitting in my armchair with tears in my eyes, so moved by their strange, dreamlike beauty. Look at this, from the poem “Sunday Morning”:

 What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measures destined for her soul.

This gorgeous, pagan poem is why the only Christianity that makes sense to me is the sacramental kind, Catholic or Orthodox.

Or take this poem, Jasmine’s Beautiful Thoughts Underneath the Willow:

My titillations have no foot-notes
And their memorials are the phrases
Of idiosyncratic music.

The love that will not be transported
In an old, frizzled, flambeaud manner,
But muses on its eccentricity,

Is like a vivid apprehension
Of bliss beyond the mutes of plaster,
Or paper souvenirs of rapture,

Of bliss submerged beneath appearance,
In an interior ocean’s rocking
Of long, capricious fugues and chorals.

Or “Homunculus et la Belle Etoile,” a meditation on whether or not abstract contemplation or direct experience is the more reliable route to encountering the true nature of things:

 In the sea, Biscayne, there prinks
The young emerald, evening star,
Good light for drunkards, poets, widows,
And ladies soon to be married.

By this light the salty fishes
Arch in the sea like tree-branches,
Going in many directions
Up and down.

This light conducts
The thoughts of drunkards, the feelings
Of widows and trembling ladies,
The movements of fishes.

How pleasant an existence it is
That this emerald charms philosophers,
Until they become thoughtlessly willing
To bathe their hearts in later moonlight,

Knowing that they can bring back thought
In the night that is still to be silent,
Reflecting this thing and that,
Before they sleep!

It is better that, as scholars,
They should think hard in the dark cuffs
Of voluminous cloaks,
And shave their heads and bodies.

It might well be that their mistress
Is no gaunt fugitive phantom.
She might, after all, be a wanton,
Abundantly beautiful, eager,

Fecund,
From whose being by starlight, on sea-coast,
The innermost good of their seeking
Might come in the simplest of speech.

It is a good light, then, for those
That know the ultimate Plato,
Tranquillizing with this jewel
The torments of confusion.

Of course I ordered The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens just now on Amazon. Anna Macedo’s collages strike me as a visual analogue to a Stevens poem.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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