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Reviewed by:
  • Survey Review of a Year’s Essays on Stevens
  • Zachary Finch
Survey Review of a Year’s Essays on Steven.
“And All These Things Together”: On Participating in Stevens’ Art

In my recent excursion through the Stevens criticism published during the past year (though this essay will highlight only work published outside of The Wallace Stevens Journal, since readers are presumably familiar with its recent contents), I found that the most noteworthy contributions often addressed a concept that figures significantly in Charles Altieri’s recent book Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity. The word that Altieri uses to designate this concept is “participation,” and he describes two different orders of participation that are relevant to Stevens. First, there is the process by which “the unreal imagination participate[s] in realization,” that is, the means by which the real is for Stevens continually being reconstituted through the agencies of language, thought, imagination (117). Then there is “a second level of participation where the focus is not on the mind in the world but on possible simultaneity between the two subjective presences of author and audience” (117–18). Many of the past year’s most enlivening essays investigated aspects of one or both of these processes in which the question of “taking part”—in the felt apartness of the real, in the particular otherness of a Stevens poem— underscores the split etymology of the word itself, which Stevens so appreciated and exploited: the cognate “part” derives from both “to divide” and “to share.”

In considering the various ways in which participation and apartness operate in the poetry, recent essays build on an ongoing shift in Stevens criticism that Altieri’s book so clearly emphasizes: the turn from epistemological or ontological questions to ethical questions of value. One of the highest-profile Stevens articles to appear this year, Joshua Kotin’s “Wallace Stevens’s Point of View,” published in last January’s PMLA, depicts Stevens’ career in just this way, arguing that the poems should be read as a series of “attempt[s] to establish a collective response to the fact-value dichotomy” (55). Stevens wants to discover a way whereby judgments and assertions of value can take precedence over relative, partial, fleeting descriptive propositions. He seeks a stable common ground that allows for the emergence of statements more meaningful than propositions about a world comprised merely of “facts, facts, facts, but no Ethics,” as Wittgenstein put it in “A Lecture on Ethics,” which Kotin uses to introduce his essay (54). Stevens’ most pressing desire is to compose a poem whose propositions might bind a community together.

On this basis, Kotin offers a refreshing suite of readings of some of Stevens’ most widely known poems—“Sunday Morning,” “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “Credences of Summer”—illustrating how each poem in this miniature canon adopts a unique strategy toward the problem of community formation. In turn, he explains how each poem fails to satisfy Stevens’ desire for consensual value in a splintered, secular world, a failure that prompts the poet to undertake new attempts, invent new strategies. Kotin’s writing style is lapidary and his claims are often so condensed that they feel like provocations: one continually wants to raise one’s hand to ask questions about major points being adjudicated rather swiftly. [End Page 270]

The limits of Kotin’s hermeneutic are revealed in the final section of the article with his reading of “The Auroras of Autumn.” To begin with, he argues that the poem “solves the problem of value (for Stevens) by abandoning the idea of community altogether” (55). That is, Stevens strategically opts for solipsism, chooses a community of one over a community in which others may participate, dispensing with his desire for absolute value. He does so by describing the aurora borealis in ways that are so radically bewildering that no reader could possibly empathize with the speaker’s perspective, or with the quickly shifting perspectives contained within this perspective. “[I]f the poem makes something happen,” Kotin concludes with a nod to Auden, “it happens for Stevens alone” (65).

This reading of “The Auroras” is significant, because Kotin presents it as the end...