My toddler daughter Leila now chooses what books I read; she simply goes over to my shelf and begins pulling them out, one by one. A couple days ago, it was Wallace Stevens' The Necessary Angel, his prose. One of the essays that I've gone back to many times, ever since my college course "Frost, Stevens, Williams" taught by Bob Cording, is "The Noble Rider and the Sounds of Words," written in 1941--just prior to U.S. involvement in World War II.
In it, Stevens meditates on poetry and the role of the imagination given the immensity of violence in the world. Though he does call poetry a fundamentally "escapist" mode, it is an escapism that, for Stevens, is grounded in a humane resistance to what he calls "the pressure of reality." What he fears is what all the modernists feared, to a greater or lesser degree--the ever-diminishing space for the human, amidst what Harvey calls the "space/time compression" that modern technologies provided.
On the one hand, Stevens' lament could be read as nothing but a kind of reflex disgust with globalization--that our lives are ever more proximate to those distant lives in, say, Cairo (one of his examples). So, Stevens as John Bircher.
On the other hand, Stevens' lament is suggestive of the ways in which "fact" has paralyzed imagination, and the claims of the political can so quickly ossify the possibilities of the poetic. It is this Stevens that remains interesting to me, the same Stevens that would write:
Yes: the all-commanding subject-matter of poetry is life, the never-ceasing source. But it is not a social obligation....One goes back out of a suasion not to be denied. Unquestionably if a social movement moved one deeply enough, its moving poems would follow. No politician can command the imagination, directing it to do this or that. (28).
The question then becomes: is our connection to a social movement deep enough, deeply moving enough, to produce the kinds of poems that are beyond the politicians' control, and most truly poems?
Here's another Stevens selection from Opus Posthumous:
Poetry and War
The immense poetry of war and the poetry of a work of the imagination are two different things. In the presence of the violent reality of war, consciousness takes the place of imagination. And consciousness of an immense war is a consciousness of a fact. If that is true, it follows that the poetry of war as a consciousness of the victories and defeats of nations, is a consciousness of fact. If that is true, it follows that the poetry of war as a consciousness of fact, but of heroic fact, of fact on such a scale that the mere consciousness of it affects the scale of one's thinking and constitutes a participating in the heroic.
It has been easy to say in recent times that everything tends to become real, or, rather, that everything moves in the direction of reality, that is to say, in the direction of fact. We leave fact and come back to it, come back to what we wanted fact to be, not to what it was, not to what it has too often remained. The poetry of a work of the imagination constantly illuminates the fundamental and endless struggle with fact. It goes on everywhere, even in the periods that we call peace. But in war, the desire to move in the direction of fact as we want it to be and to move quickly is overwhelming.
Nothing will ever appease this desire except a consciousness of fact as everyone is at least satisfied to have it be.
Check out also Kenneth Sherman's meditation on Stevens in a post-9/11 context.