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  • Threshold Poetics:Stevens and D. W. Winnicott’s “Not-Communicating”
  • John W. Steen

BY TURNS HIDEBOUND and exuberant, recondite and sententious, Wallace Stevens’ poems invite readers to track the orientation of an ever-changing self. “What counted was mythology of self,” Stevens writes in “The Comedian as the Letter C” (CPP 22). But especially in this poem, whose main character stands apart from and then, suddenly, among human and inhuman others, the self is rarely still enough to locate, much less to become the object of a myth. Two epigrams in the posthumously published collection of Stevens’ aphorisms “Adagia” suggest the tension at work in developing a poetics of the self in transition. The first urges the poet to advance from the individual imagination to a fictive poetics that would address a community outside the poet: “The transition from make believe for one’s self to make believe for others is the beginning, or the end, of poetry in the individual” (CPP 908). Such a mandate is consistent with Stevens’ bold, if critically contested, claims about the ends of poetry in society—that it may “help people to live their lives” (CPP 661). But Stevens checks his own boldness in a second adage, one that suggests the difficult labor of poetry consists of making the opposite movement, from external concerns to a resolutely inward site: “We have to step boldly into man’s interior world or not at all” (CPP 909). What is striking, though, is that neither adage assumes the fixity of an external or internal location. Rather, both speak from the threshold of “man’s interior” and exterior worlds about a necessary “transition” or “step” toward the proper location of poetic experience. These prose fragments suggest that the self imaged and articulated in Stevens’ poems dwells fitfully between solitude and society. In the analysis that follows, I suggest that the poetic strategies in this space, which marshal sounds and speech at the limits of audibility and intelligibility, are consonant with the poetic self’s transient and transitional temperament.

By now, criticism has fully established that Stevens’ investments in the exterior world—history, politics, the news—deserve an important place in our understanding of his work. In the first few decades of Stevens scholarship since the middle of the twentieth century, most assessments of the poet granted pride of place to a world-avoiding interiority that some critics [End Page 15] have scorned as solipsism and others have praised, at times hyperbolically, as American poetry’s closest approximation to the quintessence of the lyric. Yet in the last three decades, led by Milton Bates, Alan Filreis, James Longenbach, and Jacqueline Vaught Brogan, a new perspective that recognizes Stevens’ engagement in the events of his day has emerged as a corrective. While none of these scholars claim that contemporary history was, to use a phrase from “Local Objects,” the “absolute foyer” of Stevens’ work (CPP 474), they do furnish the necessary reminder that his poetry privileges change, variation, and modulation—the desire for a foyer rather than the sense of already inhabiting it.1 To those critics who have argued that Stevens’ poems demonstrate movements in accordance with natural cycles (George Lensing), the mercurial variations of mood and emotion (Helen Vendler), and the instability of language (J. Hillis Miller), I would add that a dual obligation to the challenges of self-knowledge and the conflicts of ethics drives Stevens’ poems. The restless movement that his poems observe and demand also describes the instability characteristic of his writing’s oscillation between internal and external sites of concern.

Writing roughly contemporaneously with the earliest poems of Harmonium, Sigmund Freud claims in his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis of 1915–17 that psychic defenses play a role analogous to flight in the “flight or flight” response.2 Rather than provide a physical escape from danger, however, defenses permit the conscious ego a mental escape from threats by means of denial, splitting, reaction formation, and other unconscious processes of reality distortion. In my own reading, I have no wish to psychologize Stevens as neurotic, or even to apply the analogy. Instead, I propose to undertake a psychoanalytically inflected reading of his poetry because Freud...