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  • Whitman and Stevens: No Supreme Fiction
  • Matt Miller

JOHN ASHBERY BEGINS one of his most important long poems, “The New Spirit,” with the following lines:

I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.

  clean-washed sea

        The flowers were.

These are examples of leaving out. But, forget as we will, something soon comes to stand in their place. Not the truth, perhaps, but—yourself. It is you who made this, therefore you are true. But the truth has passed on

      to divide all.


In this passage, Ashbery portrays a fundamental indecision about how to approach his own writing process. He considers an inclusive approach to experience, to “put it all down,” as one viable way forward, but with characteristic ambivalence he is divided by the notion that to “leave all out” might be a “truer” way. It is important to note that for Ashbery leaving “all out” does not mean limiting his palette of poetic expression; rather, “to leave all out” means leaving out lived experience, even if such experience is of his own wayward thoughts, transcribed with minimal editing.1 Ashbery rejects the idea of leaving “all out,” but to do so he must find a new way to “put it all down.” Three Poems is many things, and this opening frames the poet’s thinking as, critically, a record of his struggle between the attraction of a “pure” poetry of linguistic creation (expression of the potentialities of language itself) and the desire to record his own specific existence, to “put it all down” (applying language to the service of representing a personal expression of one’s life).

Ashbery’s solution is to “put it all down” by redefining lived experience as the texture of the mind in motion, not excluding traditional avenues of [End Page 34] poetic expression vis-à-vis memory or passionate feeling (including his experience of romantic love with his partner, David Kermani, to whom the book is dedicated), but not limiting himself to them either, and to express “it all” in the present tense as a dramatic enactment of experiment, rejection, and discovery. All poets, including Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens, face a similar choice in terms of poetic representation and subject matter, even if few pose the question so explicitly as Ashbery does in “The New Spirit.” For Whitman, it seems to have been hardly a question at all. From the moment he conceived of Leaves of Grass in 1853 or 1854,2 his artistic instinct was to “put it all down,” and, unlike his health, his inclusive spirit never flagged. But is it viable to describe Stevens as a poet who “leave[s] all out” as opposed to Whitman’s maximalist ambitions? If we acknowledge that no poet can leave all out (as Ashbery himself recognizes) and that the difference is inevitably a matter of degrees rather than absolutes, then the answer would seem to be yes. Like Whitman and Ashbery, Stevens evokes a lush profusion of diction and imagery, but unlike either, his frame of signification is remarkably focused. We can almost imagine it is Stevens, and not Ashbery, who at one point in “The New Spirit” argues,

Because life is short We must remember to keep asking it the same question Until the repeated question and the same silence become answer. . . .


This is just one of many similarly authoritative assertions that Ashbery plays with and moves on from, but Stevens’ commitment to asking life “the same question” (or, more accurately, variations of related questions) regarding the relation between imagination and reality is notably persistent. In other words, while Whitman was inclusive both in his poetic tools and the subjects they operated upon, Stevens was committed to a poetics that explores the creative tension between an expansive palette in terms of artistic surface and a restrictive subject matter in terms of ideas and themes.

This difference between Whitman and Stevens is crucial, and we shall return to it. We must also, however, recognize that a similar choice faces critics and scholars attempting to relate the...