Sunday, 16 December 2012

"Blessed Rage for Order": Wallace Stevens, Balancing Inner and Outer Worlds


Storm over the Keys, photo by Jim Lukach. Used under Creative Commons license

Poetry is not nearly so impenetrable as many believe; but in general it requires some effort, and some poetry more than other poetry. The work of the iconic modern American poet Wallace Stevens has no doubt defeated more than a few readers in its time. I remember coming across 'Anecdote of a Jar' in university and I distinctly recall a feeling of bewilderment and irritation. I couldn't decide if I liked it, and I couldn't quite figure out what he was getting at. But my response was not indifferent.

I don't yet feel capable of writing much about Stevens's overall body of work and I'm not sure if I ever will. It is safe to say, though, that he was constantly preoccupied with the ways in which perception shapes reality - or is reality - and vice versa. Titles of his poems include 'Anything Is Beautiful If You Say It Is', 'What We See Is What We Think', 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird', and 'Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself'. I find many of his poems rather maze-like; you're not sure whether to begin at the beginning or to work back from the conclusion. But you want to try. At least I do.

A few months ago, I read this fascinating article from the New Yorker, "What Mitt Romney Might Learn From Wallace Stevens". Of course, this was published in the run-up to the US presidential election, although I would say its intent is only partly political. Stevens was conservative in politics and life, a wealthy businessman who likely seemed practical and even boring to many. But he wrote poetry which was deeply imaginative, abstract and philosophical. I like the concluding words of the article: "Stevens believed that the best in the world (which he called 'poetry') came forward when we allowed the imagination to roam free. But ever the realist, he saw that the shore - a firm, real, substantial shore - was a place it continually 'returned' to to rejuvenate itself."

I think that I am intrigued by Wallace Stevens, and loved this article, in part because I am fascinated by people who are able to live both in the "real world" (the corporeal world, anyway) and the inner world of imagination. I am always impressed by those who can get a lot done in the real world. I don't feel I am one of them, although some who know me might disagree; maybe it's a question of perception (again!). It's too easy to get trapped in my own mind, or to go exploring in some realm that others can't know or understand. Others, to the opposite extreme, are so engaged with the "real world" that their inner life is neglected or nearly non-existent. Wallace Stevens seems to have done both to an amazing degree, and he certainly has my admiration for that. At the very least, he must have been a lot more organised than I am.


In 'The Idea of Order at Key West', Stevens describes a Muse-like woman singing by the sea, and he suggests that she creates or at least shapes the world around her as she sings.

[...] It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang.

Alongside "Ramon Fernandez", a symbolic figure who may be a politically engaged critic known to Stevens, the poet describes a "blessed rage for order" which gives meaning and purpose to all that he sees around him. This is a world that in a sense becomes teleological through art.

The "rage for order" resonates with me because art can indeed be a way to chart a path through chaos. Those who know me well know that I don't like "drama" in the real world; any time it has touched me closely, it tends to be destructive and to blow my inner world into fragments, meaning that I have an even harder time than usual functioning in the outer world. I have realised that the arts are important to me because they are a way to access and explore "drama" - powerful and sometimes destructive human emotions - in a controlled environment. I think that this was partly what Stevens was getting at. The title of this blog, from Rilke, is The Stone and the Star, and I think it revolves around similar dichotomies; inner and outer worlds, restrictions and freedom, reality and imagination.

On a lighter note, I did want to point out that the American progressive-metal band Queensrÿche took the title of one of their early albums, Rage for Order, from this poem. I think Queensrÿche at their best did a pretty good job with the inner/outer worlds thing, actually. They're certainly strong on the wailing vocals and searing guitars, but their lyrics often provide searing social commentary and philosophical musings. Here is a live video of them playing 'Walk in the Shadows', from Rage for Order:

By the way, in case anyone is wondering...I really do like this kind of music in a largely non-ironic way. It's the influence of my brother, who is another English major - not all English majors are into Leonard Cohen, let's put it that way. I think that this further illustrates one of the points of this entry, actually. In general, I use poetry to go farther into the inner world; music, on the other hand, takes me out of my head and farther into a sensory "real world". (Although I'd be lying if I said it wasn't yet another form of escapism.)

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