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  • Aesthetics and Impossible Embodiment:Stevens, Imagery, and Disorientation
  • G. Gabrielle Starr

WHAT MIGHT READERS do with the imagery of Wallace Stevens’ poetry? What kind of imaginative and aesthetic experiences might his poems enable? Such questions have wide implications, not just because they may influence our understanding of the ways readers encounter the poems, but because of the role Stevens has played in the story of lyric poetry and the role concepts of aesthetic experience have played in that story, too. His nearly constant foregrounding of imagery, sensation, and imagination, and their relation to a special kind of aesthetic experience, make questions about enacting imagery—that is, about one’s own creation of representations of sensation and movement in the mind as one reads—central. The canonical criticism of Stevens’ poetry has thus emphasized not just the importance of imagery, but also that Stevens orchestrates a delicate play with the felt experience of art, insisting that “the naked poem” is “the imagination manifesting itself in its domination of words” (CPP 639).1 If the domination of the imagination produces particular aesthetic ends, however, what are they, and how might they come to be?

In this essay, I argue that Stevens gives readers the opportunity, as they engage imagery of sight, sound, and motion, to experience a form of otherwise impossible embodiment: an alteration or disruption of physical experience that carries a distinct aesthetic signature of felt disorientation. As I will explain in detail below, one key way in which we actively engage with the arts is by way of physical changes that are mediated both by the artwork itself and by our own sensory architectures. Poems come to be embodied as we read them, and they affect our bodily experience in real time: they tend to disrupt the status quo, altering it in ways that are otherwise generally unavailable in conscious life. Such manipulations or disruptions might come in the form of a palimpsest of impressions from multiple viewpoints (e.g., “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”); the seeming slowing down or speeding up of time (as with the moment of light’s vanishing in “The Idea of Order at Key West”); access to imagined bodies and minds radically different from our own (as with “The Snow Man,” the “watery back” of the “Paltry Nude” [CPP 5], or the air of “The [End Page 157] Wind Shifts”); or simply the change that is moving body and breath in accord with a poem’s changing beat. Stevens is master of all of these kinds of manipulations, but he also does something more rare, setting the stage for another kind of otherwise impossible embodiment by evoking sudden moments of disorientation. Such moments are intriguing in their own right, and are one basis for our recognition of contact between text and world; importantly, they serve to establish a minimum standard for the way the body may come to life in reading poetry.

Stevens experiments with moments in which the faintest touch can jolt us into a new frame of bodily experience, and in exploring these experiments we may learn more not just about Stevens but about aesthetic life itself. We learn, at base, that disorientation and disruption matter because Stevens is concerned with creating the conditions under which poetry can be experienced as poetry—the reordering of experience that is poiesis, the work that “composes.” To make this case, I will need to spend some time describing in detail the ways imagery may influence our bodily experience, and why it matters to aesthetics, before moving to explore distinct phenomena of disorientation in Stevens.

Aesthetic Experience, Poetry, and Imagery

In engaging aesthetic embodiment and disorientation, I take an approach to aesthetics that is capacious on principle, combining tools from the humanities and cognitive neuroscience, which together enable us better both to question and understand readers’ engagement with texts.2 A multidisciplinary approach is well suited to modeling and understanding the breadth of aesthetic experience, because aesthetic experience is a complex engagement with an object, involving sensation and imagined sensation; emotional responses; the integration of new objects with old ones and with past experiences brought to life by memory; semantic and...