How Stevens Uses the Grammar of Is
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How Stevens Uses the Grammar of Is

ONE OF CHARLES ALTIERI’S more marvelous claims in Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity is that “the linguistic building blocks” of poetry have certain “affective properties” and “philosophical implications” latent within them (115).1 That is, grammar itself can be affective or philosophical. To explore how this might work in Stevens’ poetry, Altieri focuses on a number of grammatical constructions and operators, among them the word “as.” He writes:

I love how “as” complicates actual situations by combining temporal, qualitative, and psychological registers for staging events so that there is simultaneity in events, parallelism in qualities, and opportunities for expressing the manner of one’s interactions with objects.


So, “as” is just one word, but it can do a lot of things. As a preposition, it can introduce predicates “clarifying the scope of nouns” (119), as in “he embraced her as a friend.” As a conjunction, Altieri quotes from one grammar that lists six different kinds of adverbial clause that “as” can introduce:

  1. 1). Temporal simultaneity: “As I grow more tired, his energy increases.”

  2. 2). Clauses of proportionate agreement: “As I grow richer, I become more ambitious.”

  3. 3). Clauses attributing reasons, where “as” can be substituted for “since.”

  4. 4). Clauses introducing concessions or restrictions: “The apology is good as far as it goes,” or “Poor as I am, I am honest.”

  5. 5). Clauses offering comparisons: “They behaved as well as could be expected.”

  6. 6). Clauses defining manner: “I will do as you advise.”2

The specifics of this grammar are not important for the essay at hand; what should be emphasized is only that these multifarious functions can co-occur or overlap in any singular instance of “as.” One “as” could be [End Page 75] used, say, both to assert simultaneity and to define manner, or as a clarifying preposition and as a conjunction giving reasons. Altieri gives a perfect example of a line from “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” containing an “as” that operates on a number of different grammatical planes:

There is a month, a year, there is a timeIn which majesty is a mirror of the self:I have not but I am and as I am, I am.

(CPP 350, qtd. in Altieri 122)

It is the play of these diverse grammatical functions through the grammar of any given “as” that generates the “affective properties” and “philosophical implications” mentioned above. But how do they manage to do so? To answer this, we must consider the grammatical construction against which Altieri defines “as”—the verb “to be,” or copular verbs more generally, which can be defined as follows:

A verb is said to have COPULAR complementation when it is followed by a subject complement . . . or a predication adjunct . . . and when this element cannot be dropped without changing the meaning of the verb. The verb in such a clause is a COPULAR (or linking) verb, and is equivalent in function to the principle copula, the verb be.

While “as,” Altieri says, “comes as close as any linguistic element to embodying the powers of imagination Stevens idealizes” (116), “is” plays a beggared role as handmaiden to empiricism.3 To put it bluntly, “is” is what scientists say—it is the word they use to “describe and stabilize facts” (121). “Is” for Altieri almost ineluctably elicits a response of true or false: it has a grammar of reporting and concluding, of forming concrete links between things, of asserting identity.

I would like to engage with Altieri’s treatment of “is” and to recuperate, if I can, the copula as a robust source of so-called “affective properties” and “philosophical implications” in Stevens’ grammar. I have to begin this recuperation by confessing that, in one sense, Altieri is clearly right about “is”: it has typically been a linguistic tool of objectivity. We say, for example, that two plus two is four. It would make no sense to say it were as four. The copula’s most recognizable, most classical, most expected responsibility is to purvey fact. (And the critical valorizations of “is” that Altieri rejects, ranging from Helen Vendler to Peter Nichols, all fall...