Friday, September 28, 2007

Wallace Stevens in Wartime

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.


RazRocks said...

Hey Dr. Metres, here is some of the Armenian poetry you asked for. These are translations mostly done by a man named Daniel Janoyan. Actually, I recited the 2nd poem last year at my church.


Translated from Armenian by Daniel Janoyan
Glendale, August 28, 1997

So you thought there was no love in your heart,
But have you wondered about the nature of that love?
Or on what grounds was that love ever built?
Or whatever have you liked about that very love?

Is that love born from within your heart?
And into your heart goes what you call that "love"?
Do you really believe that, "that" is real love?
Or is it simply you want to live in the dark?

So you thought you were being nourished by love,
Or is it that love is being sought from within "love"?
Do you really believe that you have been loved?
Or is it you loved yourself despite all the confusion?

Don’t you think while expressing all your love affairs
Aren’t you also expressing many other trivial things?

How many types of love are there in this world?
And each one is subdivided into how many other types of love?
How many characters are there in this world?
And how many personalities does each one have?

How many times does a man live up to the expectations of love?
And whence has man experienced a true love?
And what has love offered mankind to this day
And whatever thoughts have been born from within these love affairs?


Translated from Armenian by Daniel Janoyan
Glendale, April 27, 1995

The spirit of the April Genocide,*
Rustling and blustering
In its metallic language and iron words
Crying triumphantly,
"We are still alive …"

Through the depth of Der Zor**
The wells of the Euphrates,
The sandy oceans,
The valleys of the death,
The unquenched horizons of history,
And from thousand corners this will be heard,
"We are still alive … "

Through lost corpses,
Dried bloods,
Forgotten memories,
And broken thorns,
The disturbed April spirit
Whose million bones transformed into earth
Will scream loudly,
"We will be living eternally …. "

Under every planet,
And from one corner to another,
We will be multiplying in tens and thousands
Through all times to come.
Passing from generation to generation
We shall never die.
WE, indeed WE, have been fed and nourished
From the deserts of DER ZOR.
The diaspora today in its stubborn march
Will be marching along with the most prudent,
The happiest and the greatest Armenian battles,
"We shall multiply … "

Increasing in numbers,
We shall multiply,
One Armenian after another,
Not only to fill up,
To hold and to replace
The deserted vacant places of the April Genocide,
But with our new generation
Numbering tens of thousands
We shall increase immensely in numbers,
We shall reconstruct with our own bare arms
A huge garden of "GREATER and MINOR ARMENIA … "

* THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE is the first genocide of the 20th Century perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks in 1915 in which ONE AND A HALF MILLION Armenians were massacred. Armenians throughout the world today commemorate April 24th as a martyrs day paying tribute and homage to all those who were killed during the genocide.

** DER ZOR is the desert into which thousands of innocent Armenian civilians were driven and left without food and water. They were tortured, raped, humiliated and let to die during the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

P.S. Great job in basketball today, you looked like Michael Redd out there.


runnerfrog said...

Beautiful feedback of love is having your child picking your books.

"fact" has paralyzed imagination is analogue to: rationality has paralyzed passion? / statistics has paralyzed good sense? (not quite sure of what I'm saying there).

And about the comment by razrocks: Amazing! May I intrude and ask who is the author of this armenian poetry?

Philip Metres said...

Raz, thanks for the poems. Who is the original author?

I'm going to do a posting about Armenia at some point, and maybe I'll use one of these.

RazRocks said...

Thanks guys! The original author of the first poem was by Victor Krikorian, and the second was done by Jack Hagopian. Some other famous Armenian writers include William Saroyan, Sayat Nova, Daniel Varoujan, and Sylva Gaboudikian. While I attended Armenian School, I studied the author's listed above. Here is a link for some Armenian poetry.

daniel janoyan said...

I just came across the above communication and wish to inform you that the man who translated the above poems is myself, Daniel Janoyan and I can be reached at