Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Wallace Stevens' "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words"

Just read three essays from the "Poetics" section at the back of Volume One of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry: "The Poetry and the Present" by D.H. Lawrence (1919); "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" by Langston Hughes (1926); and "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words" by Wallace Stevens (1942). The first is an artful polemic for free verse in contact with the "insurgent naked throb of the instant moment." The second is a spirited rejoinder to a young Negro poet who wanted to "write like a poet--not a Negro poet." The third, my favorite, is a wide-ranging meditation on the nature of poetry and the role of the poet. So many grand things said but I will only quote a few passages:

I am interested in the nature of poetry and I have stated its nature, from one of many points of view from which it is possible to state it. It is an interdependence of the imagination and reality as equals. This is not a definition, since it is incomplete. But it states the nature of poetry.

What is his function? Certainly it is not to lead people out of the confusion in which they find themselves. Nor is it, I think, to comfort them while they follow their readers to and fro. I think that his function is to make his imagination theirs and that he fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people live their lives. Time and time again it has been said that he may not address himself to an elite. I think he mway. There is not a poet whom we prize living today that does not address himself to an elite. The poet will continue to do this: to address himself to an elite even in a classless society, unless, perhaps this exposes him to imprisonment or exile. In that event he is likely not to address himself to anyone at all. He may, like Shostakovich, content himself with pretence. He will, nevertheless, still be addressing himself to an elite, for all poets address themselves to someone and it is of the essence of that instinct, and it seems to amount to an instinct, that it should be to an elite, not to a drab but to a woman with the hair of pythoness, not to a chamber of commerce but to a gallery of one's own, if there are enough of one's own to fill a gallery. And that elite, if it responds, not out of complaisance, but because the poet has quickened it, because he has educed from it that for which it was searching in itself and in the life around it and which it had not yet quite found, will thereafter do for the poet what he cannot do for himself, that is to say, receive his poetry.


Yet the imagination gives to everything that it touches a peculiarity, and it seems to me that the peculiarity of the imagination is nobility, of which there are many degrees. This inherent nobility is the natural source of another, which our extremely headstrong generation regards as false and decadent. I mean that nobility which is our spiritual height and depth; and while I know how difficult it is to express it, nevertheless I am bound to give a sense of it. Nothing could be more evasive and inaccessible. Nothing distorts itself and seeks disguise more quickly. There is a shame of disclosing it and in its definite presentations a horror of it. But there it is. the fact that it is there is what makes it possible to invite to the reading and writing of poetry men of intelligence and desire for life....

It is hard to think of a thing more out of time than nobility. looked at plainly it seems false and dead and ugly. To look at it all makes us realize sharply that in our present, in the presence of our reality, the past looks false and is, therefore, dead and is, therefore, ugly; and we turn away from it as from something repulsive and particularly from the characteristic that it has a way of assuming: something that was noble in its day, grandeur that was, the rhetorical once. But as a wave is a force and not the water of which it is composed, which is never the same, so nobility is a force and not the manifestations of which it is composed, which are never the same. Possibly this description of it as a force will do more than anything else I can have said about it to reconcile you to it. It is not an artifice that the mind has added to human nature. The mind has added nothing to human nature. It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.

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