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  • Response to a Roundtable
  • Charles Altieri

WHAT AN HONOR—not only to have my book on Wallace Stevens singled out for attention, but also to have it be the provocation to these fantastic essays. This is the greatest professional recognition I have ever had, since the seriousness of the essays seems to me to be continuous with the ambitions of my book. Those ambitions are such that almost any essays would have been much appreciated; that I must respond to these superb arguments raises the honor to an entirely different level. And I get the pleasure of having to figure out how to respond without too naked a display of self-defensiveness.

The essays fall into two groups: Edward Alexander and Jeffrey Blevins seem relatively content to accept my basic arguments so that they can extend them into other philosophically charged grammatical inquiries, while Allen Dunn and Barrett Watten focus on challenging fundamental features of the central arguments in the book. But Alexander and Blevins also provide very useful clarifications of my efforts to use philosophy in order to characterize powers distinctive to poetry, only to supplement this sympathy by severe reservations about how I go about finessing both empiricism and idealism. So they give me an opportunity to elaborate aspects of the conceptual and imaginative force of Stevens’ poetry.

Alexander develops better than I did the ways that criticism can put philosophy in the service of poetry by developing what are distinctive displays of poetic agency that make a difference in our understanding of how the sensual world can be continuous with acts of mind. He accomplishes this in part by showing how the tendency in epistemic approaches to Stevens concerned with the relation between truth and fictionality also sustain a crippling divorce in modern culture between fact and value. But he wants to impose the same binary opposition on whether we make or find values. However, this line of reasoning ignores the possibility that a phenomenological approach allows us to treat valuing as an elemental aspect of our sense of the world, even in self-reflexive experience. And this is the [End Page 102] approach I try to take when I distinguish the grammar of “as” from the grammar of “is.” “I am I” is a total identity claim that presents an epistemic description to be assessed in terms of truth and falsity. “I am and as I am, I am” (CPP 350) is a relational claim that can be elaborated simply by establishing what the “as” relation brings about as modifying the field of actions that language establishes.

Alexander’s specific arguments allow me to clarify my position in several ways. First, I do not quite believe that “elementary grammatical functions” are “the primary building blocks of imaginative activity” (65). A focus on elementary grammatical functions seems to me one important way that the imagination in poetry can foreground its powers and situate those powers as inherently transpersonal, since the capacity to manipulate grammar is a common feature of agency among speakers of the same language. There are other, more important forms of imaginative activity that involve capacities to direct attention, to foster complex modes of articulation, and to produce intricate relational structures giving form to composed objects. But these grammatical functions matter, as Alexander in fact beautifully demonstrates, because they give substantial help in addressing what he calls “the ambiguity of making and finding” (67).

Alexander’s observations about that ambiguity afford a second way to sharpen my claims. Rather than see this ambiguity as a problem haunting modernist art, I think we can see it as a primary impetus for innovations in aesthetic theorizing, beginning perhaps with Cézanne’s efforts to treat “realization” as the means by which making anchors itself in finding. This legacy matters for Stevens, and for me, because the constitutive subject can be correlated with the possibilities in the world that subject engages. Relying on “as” has a similar effect, since it changes the art work from the labor of a subject finding an anchor in an object to the stimulation of a Whiteheadian awareness that for some uses of language the subject-object distinction imposes “premature generalization” on the...