Today I would like to talk briefly (you will soon see the reason for brevity) about what I call “poets of private language,” “PPLs” for short. A poet of private language is one who writes poetry that is often so obscure that only the poet knows for sure what he or she intended, or whether there is any genuine meaning in it or just an assemblage of words.
A prime example of a PPL is Wallace Stevens, whose shoulders bear a considerable part of blame for the degeneration of American poetry as the 20th century progressed.
Why do I say it degenerated? Because other poets, following the lead of such writers as Stevens, came to the conclusion that poetry does not have to be understandable; instead, it could be read as an abstraction, as one views an abstract painting, which does not depict the “real” world, but rather the “abstract” world of the intellectual mind.
Such poems are often assemblages of words with reasonable grammatical connections, but with very little sense that can be made of them by the reader. The poet may know what stimuli brought forth certain images from his or her mind, but he does not share this with the reader, who is left adrift in a sea of verbiage without compass, sail, or rudder.
We may take the fact that Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens once got into a row as symbolic of the gap that lies between comprehensible poets (such as Frost) and often incomprehensible poets (such as Stevens). One may take a Frost poem, and with little difficulty make sense of it. But a Stevens poem often seems little more than educated gibberish, or as Frost once said of it, “poetry that purports to make me think” (my emphasis).
We can think of PPLs as the literary equivalent of non-representational (what used to be commonly called “abstract”) art. Abstract because it fits the general definition:
“Not relating to concrete objects but expressing something that can only be appreciated intellectually.”
“Nonrepresentational: not aiming to depict an object but composed with the focus on internal structure and form.”
Abstraction may work in painting, where one can appreciate color, form, texture, and composition even if there is no representation of anything recognizable or meaningful. But it does not work well in poems, which is a major reason for the general loss of public interest in poetry in the latter half of the 20th century and beyond.
Given that the poetry of Stevens is often an attempt at abstraction in words, we must take such poems not for meaning, or even for sound, but in many cases as things that just are, like a non-representational painting hanging on a wall; not as something that means (i.e. is understandable), but rather something that just is.
Now if a poem by Stevens is not something that means, but just is, then one might easily mistake it as fitting precisely the definition of ideal poetry given by Archibald MacLeish in his Ars Poetica, (The Art of Poetry):
A poem should not mean,
The key lies in how one interprets MacLeish. If one understands him, incorrectly, to mean that a poem should have little or no discernible meaning, but should just be an abstract assemblage of words pulled from the poet’s imagination, then Stevens would fit.
That is not, however, what MacLeish meant, as we see from the fact that the poem in which the famous “not mean, but be” is found is itself comprehensible; we understand what his poem means (MacLeish later changed to advocating poetry full of meaning and social commentary).
In fact the ideal example of a “poem” that does not mean, but is, may be found in the hokku, for example in this autumn verse of Bashō:
On the withered branch
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.
That does not “mean” anything beyond itself; it is not a symbol or a metaphor or a simile of anything else. It is just a sensory experience, and it has no “speakable” meaning beyond that.
Compare that with the beginning of the well-known (at least among English teachers) Wallace Stevens poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:
Among twenty snowy mountains
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Now on the surface this appears to have some meaning; it is recognizable words assembled in a reasonable grammatical fashion. But when we try to extract genuine, comprehensible, explainable meaning from it, it is not there. It is like a building facade on a movie lot; when one walks behind it, nothing is there; it is just a deceptive front with no back.
In attempting to explain Stevens poems such as this, the academics find themselves pulling the kind of “snow job” that almost every student who has no understanding of a subject has tried to pull on a teacher; one uses lots of words, but says virtually nothing, as in this example of interpretation of the poem I found online:
“In section I, the given, “Among twenty snowy mountains,” is both enticing and imprisoning. The tight chiasmic embrace of “A-mong . . . moun-tains” encloses the playful euphony of the adjectives “tw-en-ty” and “sno-wy.” Movement intervenes through semantic reference, but it is enacted through the play of signifiers when the spell of the phrase is loosened in the second line by the advance, of regular iambs and the “rhyme”-ing, unstressed in “moving” and stressed in “thing.” The final “moving” of the sentence’s subject, the “eye of the blackbird,” moves us from a natural given to an imaginative or imaginary one, still ontological, in the movement that is necessary for the flight of the poem. The paradox of predicating this imaginative and emotional reality–a bird’s eye is anatomically incapable of movement–stresses its metaphorical value.” (http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/stevens/blackbird.htm)
The only thing useful in that is the fact that a blackbird cannot move its eye.
Now you know when someone is reduced to such academic gibberish as
“The tight chiasmic embrace of “A-mong . . . moun-tains” encloses the playful euphony of the adjectives “tw-en-ty” and “sno-wy”,
that they really do not know what the @#! is going on in the poem any more than the reader, but they are working hard to fake it.
The best and most honest summary I have found of the poetry of Wallace Stevens, aside from Frost’s remark that it purports to make one think, is a comment by Elva McCormick, who knew and talked with Wallace Stevens. She had asked him what his poem The Irish Cliffs of Moher meant. His illuminating response was, “I don’t think you’d understand this unless you wrote it.” And McCormick’s very perceptive response to that revelation was, “I think that’s true of many of his poems” (see Parts of a World; Wallace Stevens Remembered, pg. 119).
It is significant that Wallace Stevens never actually went to Ireland, never really saw the Cliffs of Moher; he pulled the words out of his head, and that summarizes his poetry in general; he is a poet of the intellect, the world created in the mind, not of the real world around us.
It is an approach that holds no appeal for me, and that is why I spend so little time on Stevens and poets like him, generally using them only as examples of what to avoid.