of Gnosticism, Materialism, and the Incarnation
Modernist poets struggled with the
question of what poetry does and from what (or where or whom) does it derive its power.
They were particularly divided over whether true poetry is a poetry of ideas or
concrete objects. They also had divergent positions on how much of a role the poet
plays in the creation of meaning. This stemmed from the modern dilemmas of where to
locate truth and value, how to balance subjective experience with the world's actual
existence, and the search for some unifying vision of life. I would like to suggest
that Stevens, Williams, and Moore answered these questions in part based on their
understanding of God. Ancient Gnosticism held that the material world was
ultimately evil, and that one needed a secret gnosis or knowledge to escape the
world. By analogy, a modern form of gnosticism exists that practices solipsism and
sees human beings' creative abilities as a way to "transcend" brute
reality. In a similar fashion, other poetics rather than placing faith in ideas,
place faith in the ability to enliven or accent the material world, to make it sensately
present. But this, too, tends to see human creativity at the center of
meaning. Only a poetics that seeks to balance human subjectivity with the world's
objectivity, as well as a humility to locate truth and meaning both inside and outside
history, time, and place will answer this problem. As I've suggested, this is a
poetics of the incarnation.
"The idea of God is a thing
of the imagination. We no longer think that God was, but was imagined. The
idea of pure poetry, essential imagination, as the highest objective of the poet, appears
to be, at least potentially, as great as the idea of God, and, for that matter, greater,
if the idea of God is only one of the things of imagination."
-- gloss to "The Greenest Continent"
Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one...
How high that highest candle lights the dark.
Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.
-- "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour"
Wallace Stevens' Modern Gnosticism
There is no knowledge of reality directly.
Instead, the mind creates reality through perception. [Description = Perception =
Conception] Poetry bestows meaning on the (meaningless) universe. It does this
because the mind locates a pattern in what otherwise seems random. Poetry can
achieve a "supreme fiction" that allows us to order and create purpose. In
this sense, the imagination enhances experience. Poetry must be abstract,
changeable, and yet give pleasure, for it is a thing of the mind. It also has a particular
music, a euphony, that sets it apart from daily language. For poetry to be affective
it must have original ideas: "In the absence of a belief in God, the mind turns to
its own creations and examines them, not alone from the aesthetic point of view, but for
what they reveal, for what they validate and invalidate." In contrast,
"the trash heap of history" is the place for worn-out ideas that no longer move
us. Symbolism is particularly important, for it gives poetry a way to
"inspire" the particulars of the world. Symbols are also what give
significance (or at least interest) to the human struggle.
||Why should I move from this place
where I was born? knowing
how futile would be the search
for you in the multiplicity
of your debacle. The world spreads
for me like a flower opening -- and
will close for me as might a rose --
fall to the ground
and rot and be drawn up
into a flower again. But you
never wither -- but blossom
all about me. In that I forget
myself perpetually -- in your
composition and decomposition
I find my .
-- from Book 2, Patterson [In the manuscript,
Williams had addressed this to "God"]
William Carlos Williams' Impulse Towards Enlivened Materialism
The most famous phrase associated with Williams is "No ideas
but in things." He stressed that poetry should seek to impart a vivid realism
of the active things of life. Williams was deeply opposed to symbolism, distrusted
overuse of figurative language, and (at least for a portion of his life) avoided
metaphysics. He did hold that life, particularly nature, had some kind of power
innate to it, though he never quite understood this as divine. He tended to distrust
universals. In reaction to positions like Stevens, he wrote, "I do not believe
that writing is music." He felt that poems were shaped objects designed to
"lift up the word of the senses to the level of the imagination and so give it a new
currency." But this does not mean that he believed that the words used by a
poet actually spoke for reality. Instead, he stressed that words and things are two
separate elements. In some sense, the poem is a natural thing itself.
||It comes to this: of whatever sort it is,
it must be "lit with piercing glances into the life of things";
it must acknowledge the spiritual forces which have made it."
-- "When I Buy Pictures"
. . . To explain grace requires
a curious hand. If that which is at all were not forever,
why would those who graced the spires
with animals and gathered there to rest, on cold luxurious
low stone seats -- a monk and monk and monk -- between the thus
ingenious roof-supports, have
slaved to confuse
grace with a kindly manner, time in which to pay a debt,
the cure for sins, a graceful use
of what are yet
mullions branching out across
-- "The Pangolin"
Marianne Moore's Incarnational Humility
Moore, a Presbyterian Christian, holds that all good poetry is a
result of a mixture of objective and subjective elements. The objects that a poet
writes about are a product of her perception, but also real objects that act on the
poet. She stresses that in a fallen world, poetry is imperfect in its ability to
discover and capture the moment, and yet that inability is its strength: "Humility is
an indispensable teacher, ennabling concentration to heighten gusto. [. . .] The thing is
to see the vision and not deny it; to care and admit that we do." Poets do not
create truths; poets' genius comes from their sincerity and craft, not some
"capture" of truth in form. She stresses that true poets are "literalists
of the imagination," ones who see the genuine, raw subjects of the world engraced
with transcendent power. She also insists that her extensive use of quotations are a
form of genuine community: "If you are charmed by an author, I think it's a very
strange and invalid imagination that doesn't love to share it." Poetry is both
personal and objective. Such careful observation is a product of the contemplative
Coda: A poetics like Moore's reminds us that all
poetry can be read incarnationally -- the poem of ideas can be read as poets' failable
attempts to speak of their personal conceptions; the poem of objects can be understood as
bright attempts at naming the value in creation. They can teach us in their valuable