The Violence Within/The Violence Without: Wallace Stevens and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Poetics
Jacqueline Vaught Brogan
University of Georgia Press, $34.95 (cloth)
Jacqueline Vaught Brogan’s second book on Wallace Stevens, The Violence Within/The Violence Without proposes nothing less than a total political revision of the poet’s commitments. The author ofStevens and Simile: A Theory of Language, Brogan aims here to refute the all-too-familiar image of Stevens as aesthete and to reveal a poet who “was in fact deeply responsive to his times and evolved rapidly over the course of World War II into one of the most compelling and ethical poets of the twentieth century.” This indeed has all the rumblings of revolution. Drawing on an extended analysis of Stevens’s two middle collections, Parts of a World andTransport to Summer, and an examination of the late poetry of The Rock, Brogan argues that the great achievement of Stevens’s poetry was not his “imaginative power to recreate reality,” as is commonly asserted, but a political, social, and ethical commitment “to the actual world”: an engagement provoked by the horror of the Second World War and manifested most radically in the proto-feminist and anti-racist attitudes of his late verse.
Critics, as Brogan reminds us, commonly label Stevens’s poetry “socially irrelevant, socially unconcerned, and even socially irresponsible.” From Stanley Burnshaw’s complaint about Stevens’s “preciousness” to Marjorie Perloff’s critique of Stevens’s aestheticism, there is a tradition of politically oriented Stevens criticism. The poet seems to invite these attacks: a writer who declares, after all, that he does not owe “any more as a social obligation than he owes as a moral obligation” would appear to have it coming. Yet what Brogan’s analysis does not make entirely clear is that these criticisms against Stevens’s “politics” are leveled on at least two distinct fronts. On the one hand, Stevens has come under fire for his perceived racism, misogyny, and social conservatism (see Adrienne Rich, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, et al.), and on the other he is attacked for political apathy. It would seem that these are two contradictory problems: is Stevens not political enough, or is he too political but not in the way we want him to be?
The Violence Within/The Violence Without does not explicitly answer this question, even as it staves off both approaching battalions, and an off-handed comment of Brogan’s may reveal why: “it may be true that Stevens is not as obviously concerned with the marginalizing power of language as some of us might wish” (my emphasis). If the explicit model for political reappraisal is the set of beliefs held by the contemporary reader (“as some of us might wish”), then one may begin to wonder about the legitimacy of Brogan’s “factual” accuracy (“Stevens was in fact deeply responsive to his times”) and how this book attempts to function as a form of genuine historical redress. Perhaps Brogan has found herself in a hermeneutic circle more vicious than some of us might have wished.
Brogan’s stated aim is to reinvigorate a de-politicized Stevens, and in itself this goal is neither anachronistic nor polemical. To the reader familiar with Stevens’s “Examination of the Hero in a Time of War” or “Of Modern Poetry” (in which poetry “has to face the men of the time and to meet / the women of the time. It has to think about war”) such aims would certainly seem justified; what is really surprising is that critics like Burnshaw were taken seriously in the first place. Indeed, Brogan seems to have assembled such critical literature into something of a straw man, and consequently her revisionism must lose some of its “revolutionary” footing. More importantly, perhaps, her new picture of Stevens as “poete engagé” must be held in tenuous, ongoing conflict with his genuinely apolitical tendencies. “If Stevens is a didactic poet,” writes Helen Vendler, “it is with a diffident didacticism.” There may be as many Wallace Stevenses as there are critics to hear his varied, diffident voices; Brogan is surely sensitive enough to hear this chorus, but seems unsettled by an excess of counterpoint. There were indeed several Wallace Stevenses, her analysis suggests, but they were not contemporaries of each other. In Brogan’s chronological narrative we find that Stevens’ aesthetic “resistance” (his poetic retreat from the “pressures of reality”) evolves through time into a poetics of “engagement” (a confrontational and ultimately redemptive attitude toward the world). The catalyst for this change, again, is his experience of the Second World War.
Such an interpretive strategy resolves Stevens’s self-contradictions in a seductive appeal to biographical narrative. The poet’s own terminology gives seeming credence to this story: Stevens’s ambivalence toward “the actual” and “the real” figures in Brogan’s analysis as a struggle between “the violence within” and “the violence without.” Here Brogan is citing a passage from the end of Stevens’s essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words”:
“[Nobility] is not an artifice that the mind has added to nature. The mind has added nothing to nature. It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without.”
There is a small, but nontrivial, discrepancy here. The poet’s equivocal “a” becomes in Brogan’s titular transcription the univocal “the.” Anodyne though this modification may seem, one is quickly reminded of the final line of Stevens’s “The Man on the Dump,” that poem that worked so hard to throw out all received ideas: “Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.” Stevens betrays the sinister, reductive dangers of this “the” in the first line of “On The Road Home,” the very next poem in Parts of a World: “It was when I said, / ‘There is no such thing as the truth’ ” (my emphasis). In the context of the entire volume, it is this philosophical “the” that is the enemy: when these poems were published in 1942, its hoped-for destruction would have meant the subversion of a precondition for violent ideological war. Stevens’s “a” was thus a refusal to assign definite meaning, a foreclosure of reductive allegory. Brogan’s “the” points toward just such an allegorical enterprise, an attempt to fix poetic meanings in stable historical causes. Stevens’s “a violence within” becomes, in her analysis, “the violence” of writing; “a violence without,” “the violence” of World War II.
This initial, innocuous transcription fronts similar interpretive moves. The “mal” of Stevens’s “Esthetique du Mal” becomes, allegorically, the “mal of war”; the “blood” of “beau language without a drop of blood” (“Crude Foyer”) is simply the “spilled blood” of battle. Brogan interprets the ambiguous “must” in “there must be mercy in Asia” as an instance of the moral subjunctive (i.e. “we must be merciful in Asia”) at the exclusion of other readings (i.e. “there surely is mercy in Asia”). At times the attempt to draw literal, historical analogies does violence to Stevensian irony. The poem “God Is Good. It Is a Beautiful Night,” for example, is implicitly condemned for its title, held as ethically untenable at a moment when “the entire male population of the Czech village of Lidice was being exterminated, the women shipped to camps, and the children dispersed, nameless.” These literal readings all pose the same, irresolvable problem. Poetry is here judged “politically conscious” in measure with its ability to point toward specific historical events; yet the effort to inscribe historical reference in Stevens seems to do injustice to his fluid, transformative language. Even if such references illuminate our understanding of Stevens’s biography, it is unclear how such historicity, the timely aspect of the poet’s work, actually constitutes a real political commitment.
In other words, what does “the political” mean to a reader of Stevens’s poetry? Brogan’s analysis offers, I think, at least three implicit answers to this question. The first, and perhaps the least satisfying, is the one we have been discussing: “the political” may stand in for “the timely,” and Stevens’s dictum about poetry (that “it has to think about war”) would seem to license all historical references to be read as expressions of political commitment. The trouble is, none of this sounds terribly “revolutionary” (unless, of course, we are able to read Stanley Burnshaw’s vitriolics with a totally straight face). As a sort of self-correction, Brogan offers a second, explicit definition, one that is at once more tried-and-true and more radical: “the poetic has always been political.” Though softened, to be sure, by frequent use, this critical stance makesprima facie good sense. Stevens’s poetic revolt against “the the,” for instance, can be read as a political gesture, an undoing of “logocentric structures.” Yet this argument seems at moments out of step with one of Brogan’s other guiding, if unspoken, assumptions: that “the poetic” in Stevens can be seen as pittedagainst “the political” (her third definition). This has already been witnessed in “the ‘violence within’ [that] came to wrestle with a growing ‘violence without’ ” (my emphasis), when the former is the reclusive act of poetry and the latter is a political confrontation with reality. Ultimately this definitional confusion blocks Brogan from making any specific or provocative claims about the nature of Stevens’s political engagements during World War II; much of her analysis in these chapters seems only to buttress the simple affirmation that he “[thought] about war.”
Such tangled terminology does not, however, prevent Brogan’s text from offering frequently insightful close readings of poems. Her analysis of Stevens’s parallel resistance to the positivism of William Carlos Williams’s poetry and to “the pressure” of war is fluid and engaging. The later sections on gender and race are especially well carved: that they are relegated to the periphery of Brogan’s historical sweep is certainly regrettable. In her section on feminism, for instance, Brogan is able to make tendentious and persuasive claims. We find that Stevens’s “most crucial problematic may not be the conflict between imagination and reality (as has been traditionally assured) or even the battle between competing theories of language . . . or even the poetic battle of how to integrate aesthetics and politics in a time of war, but rather a conflict between feminine and masculine expression.” Unencumbered by misleading historical analogies or confusing definitions, such hypotheses about the role of gender in Stevens are convincing; they seem to fall squarely within the boundaries of one of political criticism’s most established areas of competence. One wishes that such methodological circumspection and general lucidity were as uniform throughout the book as they are in its concluding pages.
In the final analysis, even the most persuasive of political claims must be viewed under close scrutiny. Stevens, that most fugitive and “diffident” of poets, does not offer himself easily as a mouthpiece for political programs. What Brogan’s study does well is to raise interesting questions for political criticism. What is the poet’s responsibility to his or her audience? How do we inscribe this sense of responsibility in the modern lyric? It may be that Stevens offers unique resistance to this style of interrogation. “Perhaps,” his poetry seems to assert, “these forms are seeking to escape / Cadaverous undulations.”
Originally published in the April/May 2004 issue of Boston Review.