“The poem refreshes life so that we share,
For a moment, the first idea . . . It satisfies
Belief in an immaculate beginning
And sends us, winged by an unconcscious will,
To an immaculate end.” – From “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.”
To call Stevens a difficult poet is an understatement. His work is full nonsense words, archaic words in English, French, and other languages, bizarre metaphoric associations reminiscent of the French Symbolists, philosophical meditations on metaphysics, and manipulates the syntax of his verse to the breaking point. Even if one struggles to understand the meaning of his poems, a reader can still appreciate the musicality and the sound of his poetry. In his own words, Stevens cultivated “the gaudiness of poetry.” Such gaudiness, the music of his words, can be heard in lines like this:
After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
– from “The Well Dressed Man with a Beard”
It was as if thunder took form upon
the piano. . .
– from “Woman Looking at a Vase of Flowers”
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and big him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
– first stanza from The Emperor of Ice-Cream
Those unable or unwilling to decipher the deeper meanings behind his poetry can still find enjoyment in the unique and beautiful verses he constructs. Indeed, Stevens is a poet that demonstrates the centrality of sound and language itself to poetry. He is a poet that tempts us with his obscurantism to stop searching for the meaning and just enjoy the sound of the poem and beauty of the language as it rolls like music across the page. This is one way to approach Stevens: ignore what he might have to say and just enjoy the beauty of the words themselves, wallow in the messy confusion of his language, and melt into an awestruck stupor at his magical molding of a poem. For a reader willing to work a bit harder, however, there is plenty Stevens has to say.
In his poems, Stevens continually explores the relationship between imagination, our perceptions of the external world, and the arts role in negotiating the two. According to many of his poems, objective reality doesn’t exist outside of our thoughts, feelings, and imaginative experiences of it. This shouldn’t be understood literally. Obviously an objective reality exists, but for all intents and purposes we can never truly experience it without it being filtered through our subjectivity and consequently our imagination. Poems such as “The Snow Man” illustrates that even though external reality exists independent of us, we can only experience it after its been filtered through our perceptions and consequently our imaginations and feelings about it. No observation of the world is a neutral observation. He often demonstrates this by showing how metaphor or unusual associations in poetry drastically changes our thoughts and feelings about the object being compared or described. However, while Stevens is dedicated to these themes of the relationship between perception, imagination, the external world, and poetry, he isn’t beyond showing other sides of the issue. In the love poem “Bouquet of Belle Scavoir” a person receives flowers from their lover, which proves an unsatisfactory stand-in for the real flesh-and-blood lover. In this poem, metaphor and poetic representation cannot replace the actual experience of being with the lover in the flesh, which is a different stance from many of his other poems that suggest poetry enhances our experience of the real world. Poetic and artistic representations of love are unsatisfactory in comparison to the real experience of being with the lover.
Stevens views the efforts of those searching for a single Platonic truth governing reality as futile and sees the world as malleable, constantly changing before our perceptions and the way we speak about it, such as in poetry. One such poem that deals with this issue is “The Glass of Water.” In the poem, reality consists not of a single meaning, but a series of constantly different states. Steven starts by looking at a simple glass of water whose physical state changes between solid and liquid depending on the environment. He then compares a beam of light striking the glass to a lion coming down to drink from it. By transforming a simple beam of light on the glass through an unusual comparison to a lion arriving to drink, the poem also transforms the glass of water into a vast pool, which further highlights the idea of changing states of reality through the interference of our language. The metaphors and associations used in the poem actually change our perception of the object. Eventually a character appears in the poem named Fat Jocundus who doesn’t care about the parts of the poem, but desires to know what exists in the true center, not of the glass, but the deepest truth behind the reality of the physical image of the glass. He desires the Platonic ideal, the singular truth governing reality, what many also desire from poetry. He misses the point, which is that like the glass of water with its changing states, which the poem constantly reimagines through metaphor, our experience of reality isn’t supposed to remain static, where not supposed to come to a final truth underlying all existence, but should enjoy the dynamic change of the world around us and the everyday objects we view. In looking for final meaning, a singular truth, Jocundus ironically misses the truth that Stevens’ poem attempts to teach: that the world is a constantly changing place and change is the only truth, making a single indivisible Platonic ideal impossible.
In this way, Steven is constantly thinking through the nature of poetry. In his poem, “Of Modern Poetry,” he meditates on the nature of modern poetry, which has had to abandon the old themes and tropes of previous poetry of the past, which has grown stale in modern times, in order to capture the feelings and emotions of the current times. In poems such as “The Poems of Our Climate,” Stevens suggests that often people want poetry to do more than simply be a poem; they want poetry to reveal some deeper truth about reality, and what we truly enjoy about a poem is its imperfections that allow us to reconstruct the poem in our own image. Whereas in “Prelude to Objects,” Stevens describes a more ideal reader who is so deeply connected to their selves that they have no need for poetry or art to find a deeper meaning in their lives.
One trope Stevens is fond of is the depiction of painting in his poetry. Some examples of poems that deal with painting are “The Man with The Blue Guitar,” “Study of Two Pears,” “The Common Life,” and “Landscape with Boat.” These poems often use painting to explore the thematic concerns about perception and reality, suggesting all art, not just poetry, plays an integral role in manipulating our perceptions of reality through the imagination. In “Study of Two Pears,” the poem describes an observer viewing a painting of two pears. The opening consists of the speaker insisting that the pear does not resemble viols, nudes, or bottles (other common topics of painting). They resemble nothing other than pears. They are not symbolic in anyway, but depicted realistically. However, as the observer explores this supposedly realistic painting, unusual colors start creeping in such as the bits of blue due to “the way they are modelled.” Such details remind the reluctant observer that he is viewing a painting and not real pears. The fifth stanza speaks of yellows, citrons, oranges, and greens; of all these colors, the Citron is jarring, suggesting a resemblance and metaphorical association with another type of fruit. This comparison has snuck into the observer’s perception, despite his earlier insistence on realism. The final stanza ends the illusion that he can view the artwork as a one-for-one natural representation of pears as he notices that the “shadows of the pears are blobs on the green cloth.” The shadows aren’t naturalistic, but rather appear as green blobs. The observer notices the green cloth of the canvas, suggesting the deconstruction of the illusion, and full awareness that he is viewing a painting. The last lines inform us that “the pears are not seen as the observers wills.” In a way you can view the poem as a kind of philosophical joke: this observer viewing the painting insists that pears should resemble only pears, a desire for realism in the visual arts rather than symbolic distortions of the Cubist sort, but of course, what he is really viewing is paint that is made to resemble pears through artistic invention. He is not looking at actual pears, but paint made to look like pears suggesting that even the most seemingly realistic art on some level is representational and once this is recognized the insistence that art should resemble reality perfectly becomes ridiculous because on some level art will always distort reality to lesser or greater degree, and this distortion is actually a good thing in the way it “refreshes life.”