A Mirror on the Mind: Stevens, Chiasmus, and Autism Spectrum Disorder
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A Mirror on the Mind:
Stevens, Chiasmus, and Autism Spectrum Disorder

1. Introduction

DISCUSSIONS OF Wallace Stevens’ poetry often leverage a contrast between “sense” and “nonsense” (Winters, Kenner, Ehrenpreis, Rieke, etc.) that can be stated more technically as a distinction between semantic concepts and non-semantic percepts and patterns. Language, of course, involves both, but most of the time we pay little or no conscious attention to the non-semantic information of an utterance; we look right through it to the conceptual content it encodes. Poetry, and Stevens’ poetry especially, delays such automatic semantic processing by foregrounding language’s perceptible dimensions—its visual-spatial arrangement of letters, words, lines, and stanzas on the page; its audible rhymes, alliterations, and assonances; its kinesthetic rhythms; and so forth—fully as much as its conceptual dimension. In Stevens, this “dominance of pattern . . . over the particulars of sense” works to “dissolve certain normative notions or schemes of reality while gesturing, ultimately, towards something that lies beyond them” (Rosu, “Theoretical” 212; “Images” 178). That something, Stevens critics by and large agree, can be specified as the “prehistorical, preconceptual, and prelinguistic” dimensions of human cognition itself (Dechand 1116), in particular “the manner in which experience is actually sensed, in the blaze of all of its affect and meaning-laden intensity,” prior to its translation into language-mediated conceptual sense (Sahner 59).

Strikingly, these literary-critical characterizations of the experience of reading Stevens’ poetry echo the emerging understanding of language-processing differences in autism spectrum disorder (ASD).1 Many individuals with ASD are prone to process any linguistic sequence as if it were poetry, dedicating heightened attention to an utterance’s perceptible features and thereby delaying and sometimes compromising their ability to decode its semantic content and pragmatic function (see Savarese). To better understand the “enhanced perceptual processing” experienced both by readers of Stevens and by readers with ASD (Järvinen-Pasley et al.), the following essay examines Stevens’ pervasive but underappreciated [End Page 182] deployment of chiasmus at every level of linguistic and poetic structure. The analyses here supplement those offered by Samuel Jay Keyser in his 2011 study of “Stevens’ use of reversal in phonemes, morphemes, words, letters, and images” (234), and my arguments extend his by supplying a cognitive-neuroscientific explanation, based in research on ASD and the reading brain, for the chiastic phenomena in question. This kind of explanation may contribute to a more exact characterization of Stevens’ “nonsense” poetics and, reciprocally, to a deeper appreciation of language-processing differences in ASD.2

2. ASD, Chiasmus, and the Non-Semantic Subject of (Stevens’) Poetry

Though explicitly concerned neither with ASD nor with chiasmus, Charles Altieri’s recent study of “Aspect-Seeing and Stevens’ Ideal of Ordinary Experience” nevertheless offers pointed openings upon both topics. Early in the article, Altieri underscores Stevens’ almost wholesale inattention to “actual social relations” in his poetry:

Stevens pursues a transpersonality in poetry derived from the power to occupy imaginatively what he calls the center of human valuing. But the transpersonal is not social, at least in the sense that the social involves taking into account a plurality of voices and the need for endless negotiation. For Stevens, there is no talk of community, and no mention of the kinds of compromises and recognitions of alterity that are required for communal social life.


Originating with Stevens himself (see L 352), this astute distinction of the transpersonal “center of human valuing” from the endlessly negotiated and other-inflected “social life” might just as easily derive from research on ASD, a very broad spectrum of neuro-behavioral differences whose symptomatology includes deeply human (or “savant”) sensitivities, interests, and abilities coupled with selective difficulties in performing “the kinds of compromises and recognitions of alterity that are required for communal social life.”3 In the poet’s case, this “turn away from others, which has been criticized throughout Stevens’ reception history,” has frequently been explained in terms that, with only slight adjustments, might likewise characterize the verbal experience of many individuals with ASD:

the actual world that his poetry escapes from, or which he escapes from in poetry, is one in which...