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  • Things Merely Are: Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens
  • Tom McBride
Things Merely Are: Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens, by Simon Critchley. 137 pp. New York: Routledge, 2005; $22.50.

This book—a brief meditation on the poetry of Wallace Stevens and an even shorter one on the cinema of Terrence Malick—might have been a disaster. The author, a philosopher, is sometimes in worried denial that Stevens is an "anti-realist" or a "transcendental realist," and one occasionally senses that in the ancient tension between philosophy and poetry, herding the poets into the philosopher's pen is a bullying way to resolve the conflict. But the book isn't a catastrophe at all; it's a lucid, ruminative, and personable reading of Stevens (and Malick) that even offers a good general guide to the reading of poetry in what Critchley calls "the wake of romanticism" (motto: "God is dead; therefore I am").

Critchley's major idea is twofold: that poetry is a therapeutic art form because it slows us down and encourages, about countless subjects, "the whole voluptuousness of looking"; and that Stevens's poetry is informed by a contest between a poetry of "supreme fictions" (in which phenomena come under the [End Page 503] dominion of a potent imagination) and a poetry of "antipodes" (in which phenomena resist the imagination—they "merely are"—and thus reduce the imagination to impotence). Here Critchley affirms a usual view of Stevens as a poet of the weather—another way of saying that he is a modernist with strong roots in the Romantic movement—and he notes that the supreme fiction poems often tend to be set in summer, when the imagination seems especially yeasty, while the antipodean poems tend to be set in winter, when the miserly realness of things seems to rule the earth. In his sensitive and astute reading, however, Critchley remarks upon something else: that in his late poems Stevens seems more overtly metaphysical (Critchely says Stevens is the most philosophically interesting poet of the twentieth century) and that his later poems are set more and more in the seasons of transition (late autumn/early spring). Late in Stevens's career the battle between supreme fictions and antipodes is therefore played out in the same, often overtly philosophical poems. Here Critchley's commentary is at its most astute. Occasional lovers of Wallace Stevens's poetry will remember why they adore his work, and have a better idea why.

However, lest readers get the wrong idea, some careful qualifications about the dialectic between Stevens's summer and winter poems are in order. For one thing, the poems of supreme fictions always leave phenomena with their particularity, their ordinariness, their concreteness. To cite one such poem, "Anecdote of the Jar," although the poet imaginatively places "a jar in Tennessee" that makes "the lovely wilderness / Surround that hill," the wilderness' birds and bushes, even the jar itself, remain birds and bushes and jars ("gray and bare"). Here Critchley reinterprets Samuel Taylor Coleridge's distinction between "fancy" and "imagination." Fancy dreams of what does not exist, while imagination transfigures what does. Stevens's poems of supreme fiction are always imaginative, never fanciful.

A second qualification: Critchley argues that for Stevens (as well as for a number of philosophers) human ways of knowing are always informed, sooner or later, by the conceptual imagination. In that sense a rose is never just a rose, although we need not become overly fanciful about what a cigar might be. And this leads us to a third one: When readers get to the wintry, antipodean poems—the poems of "anti-poetry"—they will find Stevens suggesting that the only way to view objects without imagination is to imagine what that would be like. Even earlier in his career Stevens became interested in this paradox, as in "The Snow Man" where he muses:

One must have a mind of winter To regard the frost and boughs Of the pine-trees crusted with snow; And have been cold a long time To behold the junipers shagged with ice, The spruces rough in the distant glitter [End Page 504] Of the January sun; and not...


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