Thursday, December 06, 2007

Condition of the enjoyable

Last week, I spent some time here with the poet Wallace Stevens. Several readers commented on the difficulty of his poems. They are indeed abstruse.

One of Stevens' poems begins: "The poem must resist the intelligence/ Almost successfully." He then offers an illustration: an unidentified man on a winter evening, carrying an unidentified object. There! the poet seems to say; you don't know who the man is or what he is carrying or where he is going. Deal with it. Think about it. Gather your information in bits and scraps, like scattered snowflakes. Toss and turn all night in your uncertainty, until, if you are lucky, the "bright obvious" appears.

Stevens is abstruse by design. He wants the poem to reflect the thing itself -- the world -- which is abstruse. He wants the poem to resist the intellect the way nature resists. Almost successfully. No poem that is crystal clear can adequately represent a world that is deeply mysterious and tantalizingly beyond our grasp. Almost beyond.

The great 19th-century physicist James Clerk Maxwell said something similar: "It is a universal condition of the enjoyable that the mind must believe in the existence of a discoverable law, yet have a mystery to move in." Science, like the poem, finds its highest expression in that qualifying word "almost."

Most people reject the world of "almost." They want unambiguous answers. Clear. Dogmatic, even. They want certainty, even if it requires a suspension of disbelief. Even if it requires a high degree of cognitive dissonance. That man in the winter evening is God, say. The thing that he carries is Truth. Fixed. Infallible.

Poets and scientists live in a rather different sort of world, with (as in the Stevens poem) "parts not quite perceived/ Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles/ Of the certain solid." Confident of the existence of a discoverable law, but content to live with a substantial measure of mystery.

Man Carrying Thing
Wallace Stevens

The poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully. Illustration:

A brune figure in winter evening resists
Identity. The thing he carries resists

The most necessitous sense. Accept them, then,
As secondary (parts not quite perceived

Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles
Of the certain solid, the primary free from doubt,

Things floating like the first hundred flakes of snow
Out of a storm we must endure all night,

Out of a storm of secondary things),
A horror of thoughts that suddenly are real.

We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.