In the essay “Why Stevens Must Be Abstract,” Charles Altieri says “Stevens realized that the abstraction he desired on the level of content might be possible without the traps of ideology, if he could adapt to poetry the testimonial, self-referential dimension of art explored in painting. An art that enacts what it asserts can be said to finesse ideology, because its assertions do not depend on relating to the world through propositional, or even dramatic, chains of inference that have obvious dependencies on beliefs within a particular social order.” (Italics mine) (322).
Stevens’ movement toward adapting the testimonial, self-referential dimension of art in his poetry is apparent in comparison of his earliest and later work. His earliest poetry (pre-twentieth century) used a lyric style and content reflective of a Romantic/Humanist longing for organic unity seeking universal truth, described by Altieri as the ‘traps of ideology. His later poetry succeeds in finessing ideology, using abstraction and stylistic invention to depart from the universal and engage the reader in a modernist experience.
In this paper I will demonstrate an evolution in Stevens work toward a successful use of abstraction to ‘finesse ideology’ and create an art that enacts what it asserts. While this evolution can be seen throughout his work and applies to a multitude of themes, for the purposes of this paper I will focus on his use of seasonal and life cycle metaphor to engage the reader in the experience of the poem; the concept of negation as the point of emergence; and the use of structural techniques to enact the experience of negation and emergence in both form and content.
It is important to identify the assertion which Stevens’ enacts in his later poetry. Using the seasonal metaphor, Stevens regularly invokes the concept of negation and emergence. In doing so, his dominant assertion is that negation is necessary for the emergence of new possibilities. Judith Butler describes this assertion more broadly as part of what she calls ‘Stevens’ Project’. She says Stevens’ poetry is “partially a project to mourn the loss of an illusion of metaphysical harmonies and to affirm sometimes meditatively and sometimes playfully the multiple and fluid significations that emerge in the wake of this disillusionment to shift continually the terrain of ontology itself” (287).
In support of this statement, Butler builds a strong connection to “Hegel’s own
insight into the generative possibilities of negation, its capacity to circumscribe some domain of relationality not yet articulated. This is the assertion that Stevens enacts in his poetry through the life cycle metaphor. Two poems, “Vita Mea” (1898) and “A Discovery of Thought” (1954), show how Stevens’ use of this metaphor evolves from an easily accessed ideology of negation and emergence to an abstract testimonial which invites the reader to experience negation and emergence.