Wallace Stevens: An Introduction.

The Poems

An executive with an insurance firm by trade, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) published only one volume of poetry prior to 1931, the first edition of Harmonium in 1923. Nonetheless, he was soon recognized as a significant voice in American poetry. Stevens's capacities as a major American poet became apparent during the 1930s, as he began to publish a greater volume of poetry. During the decade, Stevens’s work articulated “the speech of poets who are concerned with problems of verbal expression, of its relationship to subjective being or fantasy, and its larger relationship to the world outside—which does not care […] if the public hears its music it is either pleased or dissatisfied” (Gregory 330).

This interrogation of the "verbal expression" is intertwined with Stevens's desire to embue literature and the imaginiation with metaphysical meaning, as a substitute for divine instruction in a skeptical, post-religious world. In this conception:

poetry decrees our cosmic isolation, at once a curse and a nobility; it impels moral action and determines moral judgement; and [...] it is a means of influencing society. The poet is the realist with a spiritual role (Morris 3-4)
The poet aspires to join "the visible and invisible in symbol, rite, and creed" of poetic imagination (9). In "The Man with the Blue Guitar," the demands of "they" on the man imply a wide-spread appeal to the poet as a source of meaning in a difficult time:
"...play, you must, 
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves, 

A tune upon the blue guitar 
Of things exactly as they are."
The speaker later makes explicit this desire for expression both "beyond" and "exact":
The earth, for us, is flat and bare.
There are no shadows. Poetry

Exceeding music must take the place
Of empty heaven and its hymns
Though the poet engages with the possibility of art as a new source of meaning in reality, disagreement between the speaker and "they," with the speaker declaring that "things as they are / Are changed on the blue guitar," indicates a misunderstanding of the role of the poet by a world deprived of meaning. The activity of the creation of poetry or art, rather than the final presentation of content, seems the source of. As such, the potential for the poet's provision of a widely accessible "resource" is deeply ambiguous. The social demand for a supply of universal and comprehensive meaning remains frustraded, and the "effects" of poetry remain in the province of the individual, artistically generative imagination.

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