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  • Feeling Thinking
  • David Baker (bio)

In the following series of essays, five poet-critics consider Wallace Stevens, with a focus on Stevens as a “philosophical” poet (or not). The first four were presented as a symposium at the AWP Conference in 2014, then gathered by David Baker and edited for print; the final essay, by Carol Frost, came to NER serendipitously, at about the same time. They all look closely at Stevens’s poetry and why it continues to engage us so deeply, more than a hundred years after he published his first poems.

We think by feeling,” writes Roethke, and then adds with a lyric shrug, “what is there to know?” Roethke articulates in “The Waking” a manner of late, purified, and some have said discredited romanticism—more inspiration than intellect, more sense than sanity or reason. So he doesn’t get lost in his unknowing, in a dark time, Roethke finds his way in and back out of the maze by means of form itself, following the step-by-step, syllable-by-syllable guidance of the villanelle. Otherwise, it might all look like, well, disaster.

Wallace Stevens is one of our supreme knowers, one of the profound thinkers of, and inside, the lyric poem. If Roethke thinks by feeling, then how does Stevens think? All that abstract longwinded highbrow stuff, that tink-a-tink and philosophy, what to do with all that?

Philosophy is my first point, or rather the relation of philosophy to the lyric utterance. One of the persisting characterizations of Stevens and his poems—and it seems everyone has written on Stevens—is that he is a philosophical poet, that particular kind of abstractive thinker. Even a quick amble through recent Stevens criticism will show the commentators as likely to position Stevens alongside philosophers as alongside poets. Of course they situate him with Burke and Kermode, James and Santayana and Locke; but also Stevens with Derrida, Gombrich, Adorno, Bachelard, Blanchot, Wittgenstein, Lacan, Pater, Levinas, Hegel, Schlegel, Kant. Entire books appear about Stevens and the philosophical: The Never-Resting Mind, The Act of the Mind, Stevens’ Poetry of Thought, and [End Page 24] A Cure of the Mind. This last title derives from one of those delicious adages from Stevens’s own “Adagia,” those great baffling clarities, those one- and two-sentence zingers of which Americans are so fond. Poetry, he says, is a cure of the mind. He also says there is no wing like meaning. Poetry is a health, he says; but then, poetry must be irrational. He says it is the spirit, but also it is a meteor, it is money, it is a café, it is a daily necessity for “getting things right.” Even while, as he says, “[i]n the end the truth does not matter.” If philosophy is a love of truthful thinking, then is he actually an anti-philosopher?

At some point Stevens says almost everything, includes almost everything. And in the case of criticism, his work can be made to fit, to prove, to substantiate, and to dramatize almost every stance toward Platonism and the Socratic method, but also pre-Socraticism as well as neo-Platonism, Romanticism, Realism, Metaphysics, Phenomenology, and more.

Wallace Stevens is one of the great lyric chameleons. Is he a philosopher?

I have my feelings about that question, but I’m also trained just enough in philosophy to know I’m not well trained in philosophy. So I asked three poetry friends, who by profession are philosophers: Who are the most important philosophical poets, and is Stevens one of them? What is philosophical poetry?

Troy Jollimore, with his specialty in “agent-relative morality,” reports that “I have given this a lot of thought over the last few days [there’s a philosopher playing with you] and come up with very little.” Pope perhaps, he says, as “he does sort of follow a train of argument rather as an analytic philosopher would.” But even here, says Jollimore, “the form overwhelms the inquiry.”

Kascha Semonovich—trained in continental philosophy, where people are “more accommodating to ‘poetic’ philosophy”—says “I personally don’t think philosophy and poetry are terribly similar.” She supposes Oppen is kind...