- The Poetics of Relational Place-Making and Autonomy in Stevens
There is a total building and there isA total dream. There are words of this, Words, in a storm, that beat around the shapes.—Wallace Stevens, “Sketch of the Ultimate Politician”
OVER THE LAST FEW decades, a wide range of critical approaches has forcefully demonstrated the active engagement of Wallace Stevens’ poetry with its literary-political and cultural surroundings. Critics such as Alan Filreis, James Longenbach, and, more recently, Bonnie Costello and Milton A. Cohen have effectively challenged long-established views of Stevens as an isolated aesthete. By tracing Stevens’ growth as a poet against the backdrop of his historical milieu, these critics have documented and explored how, especially in his Depression-era poetry, Stevens developed a dialogic relationship to the cultural and political events of his time.1 My contribution to this body of scholarship brings into a new and different focus the issue of autonomy, which has figured only marginally or negatively in literary debates that set out to explore Stevens’ poetry historically. While previous criticism has highlighted several aspects of Stevens’ development of a socially responsive poetics—especially in the 1930s—I will argue that the poet during this period developed an elaborate conception of aesthetic autonomy as a necessary condition for poetic engagement. Beyond epitomizing a privileged retreat into the protected space of the aesthetic—as it is often understood—autonomy, in Stevens’ poetry, is imagined in distinctly relational terms; and by “relational” I mean specifically the lines of interconnection between his poetry and its wider material conditions. [End Page 143]
One of the striking ways in which Stevens’ vision of aesthetic autonomy manifests itself in his poems, and one that I want to explore here, is through the use of spatial images and architectural spaces. Stevens’ poetry of the 1930s wrestles with questions of poetry’s autonomy, its cultural status and social function by means of architectural imagery that often incorporates the demolition and restoration of buildings. To put it differently, Stevens examines the question of the place of poetry in society by making up places for poetry. Architectural archetypes become figures for aesthetic independence and sovereignty, posing a question for criticism: what does it mean to treat the issue of poetry’s autonomy and social function in terms of making up places and architectural images? The focus on the spatial sensibility that inhabits Stevens’ work provides an effective angle for discerning the relational dynamics offered by his version of aesthetic autonomy. His spatial formations of architectural environments display an impulse to project a separate aesthetic terrain that communicates with, and resists, influential cultural discourses regarding art’s political efficacy in the 1930s. Far from assuming a position of disregard for art’s societal relevance, the impulse to demarcate a separate space is motivated by a desire to envisage new forms of engagement with the unsettling sociopolitical circumstances of the Depression. Contrary to commonly established notions of autonomy as the art object’s immunity from the world, the ideal of autonomy in Stevens’ poetry turns on the effort to form an independent relation to social crises and political urgency.
Modernist claims to autonomy are often said to rest upon an ideological assertion of art’s detachment from sociopolitical and historical frames of reference.2 This perception has begun to change in recent times, as several commentators have embarked on analyzing previously overlooked interactions between aesthetic autonomy and sociopolitical signification in the arts and literature. In Modernism’s Other Work (2012), Lisa Siraganian, for example, explicates the concept of modernist autonomy as the art object’s freedom from external ascriptions of meaning, rather than its withdrawal from the world. In so doing, she draws out the political implications of what she calls “meaning’s autonomy” in modernism’s deeper commitment to classical liberal ideals and to questions of artistic agency and freedom (11). Michael Kelly, in A Hunger for Aesthetics (2012), on the other hand, sees in modernist and contemporary artistic configurations of autonomy the potential of art’s political recalibration to enact public engagement in ways free from subject-oriented notions of intentionality. Andrew Goldstone’s Fictions...