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"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

Modernist poets struggled with the question of what poetry does and from what (or where or whom) it derives 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. These 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.  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.   Stevens' own poetic theory and practice were gnostic in spirit:

  1. There is no knowledge of reality directly.   Instead, the mind creates reality through perception. [Description = Perception = Conception]  Note how in "Anecdote of the Jar," the humanly contructed jar "takes dominion" over the hill in Tennessee, "the wilderness" rises "up to it."  It does this because human perception focuses on it instead of the hill.  The jay becomes the center, and therefore, what's most important.

  2. 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. 

  3. 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. 

  4. For poetry to be effective 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."  Thus, in "The Idea of Order at Key West," the singer's song is what makes meaning rather than the physical sound of the sea itself.  Likewise, the lights across the sea "master the night" because those who look at them create a pattern of order where there otherwise is none.

  5. In contrast, "the trash heap of history" is the place for worn-out ideas that no longer move us.  In "The Man on the Dump," the dump is full of human objects and ideas which have been rejected.   Language must constantly undergo a "purifying change" in order for new created truths to move people.

  6. 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.

From a Christian perspective, 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 Stevens' dillemma.  As Christians, we believe that there is objective truth that really exists, yet we also realize that we are not God and that our perception of that truth is partial.   As I've suggested elsewhere, this is a poetics of the incarnation.  To limit truth simply to human perception and creativity renders our minds little gods--a kind of modern idolatry.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding