“A more severe, more harassing master”: A Comment on Stevens
My more patient reading of Stevens, driven by the hope I can read him on his terms as opposed to the countless arguments of commentators, is bearing fruit. My reading studies the transitions, especially in the long poems where the mind fatigues as it follows Stevens’s seemingly inexhaustible muchness. Toward the end of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” section XXVIII bears most eloquent testimony to Stevens’s mature philosophical vision. Here’s the relevant text:
This endlessly elaborating poem/Displays the theory of poetry,/As the life of poetry. A more severe,//More harassing master would extemporize/Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory/Of poetry is the theory of life,//As it is, in the intricate evasions of as,/In things seen and unseen, created from nothingness,/The heavens, the hells, the worlds, the longed-for lands.
To paraphrase: this poem, very long, always changing, always evolving and revolving, seems — SEEMS–satisfied as illustration of the very theory and life of poetry. It’s self-referential, self-mediated absolute wholeness. But self-satisfaction is always vulnerable to outside criticism from “a more severe, more harassing master.” The other to the self exposes the difference between immanence and “the theory of life,/As it is . . . ”
What characterize the theory of life is contingency (created from nothingness) and analogy, the continuous communication of identity between beings, “in the intricate evasions of as . . .” “Evasions” suggests the “indirectness” of meaning in the between as opposed to the conceptual clarities of geometry and the “things-in-themselves” of immanence.
The transition from the immanence of self-mediation and the communicating open whole of “life” is what I call metaxyturn. It marks the turn of the poem, the crucial transition between the aporia of the closed “theory of poetry” and the open whole of the “theory of life.” After metaxyturn, poetry IS life.