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Attack Of The Emotional Soccerball Pooper
How poetry can offer a reprieve from the Culture War
The War On Culture
The Culture War is stupid. It is not silly or careless or impulsive. Its stupidity is profound, a spiteful abnegation of intelligence. It cares nothing for individuals, for integrity, for intellectual probity. Its vendors seek to obtrude their confusions about the world back on the world that confuses them; they clarify only their own self-loathing.
Culture wars, plural, are by no means a phenomenon unique to recent decades. Iconoclasm, the Reformation, the end of slavery in America: all of these historical sequences had elements of culture war, even though they also involved non-stupid ideas and war-war. Culture wars arise naturally in periods of upheaval, perhaps because idiocy in the face of change needs some visible expression.
We live in a moment of social upheaval, and there is a culture war of this moment. It happens to be very American in its complexion, but, by the same token, its American-ness is the very ingredient that makes it relevant everywhere in the industrialized world. Some of its themes go back, possibly, to the founding of the Republic, but we might trace the origins of this current iteration to the turbulence of the late 1960s, while many of the peculiar dynamics of this nascent post-pandemic era can be identified with the rise of social media during the Obama administration.
Wars demand combatants. In this case, there are two gangs often characterized in political terms. We might offer the following reductive description. On one side there is a “leftist” crowd, for which “woke” has become a byword. They are interested in justice for marginalized communities, but their idea of justice entails mere articulations of identity by coded language and by representation in prestigious professional positions. They have an obsession with filtering multi-generational trauma through a contemporary bourgeoise sensibility, while the reality of the present is blurred and the future is blotted out. On the other side, the “rightist” clan is a reactionary movement which declares the modern world fallen and unredeemable; they seek to destroy institutions in service of various grievances and conspiracy theories, and replace them with fantasies that mingle past and future incoherently. Only short-term outcomes are considered, and these, even, have been poorly appraised, soaked as they are with hatred for professionals, black folks, women, gay people—or, really, human decency as a principle.
The differences between the sides are ideological, in that they are associated with certain notions, policies, and preconceptions, and sub-ideological, in that fidelity to specific ideas is less important than identity with the flag of the clan. The conflict, therefore, has less to do with the content of the rhetoric assumed by either side, and more to do with sociological polarization as a matter of style. For this reason, the sociological features of each side, and, indeed, the psychology of culture war fixations, however passing, can be highly salient, and much could be written about them—but this salience has only been achieved in a paradigm of brain-vomit.
We are better served if we instead look at the outcomes that a critical mass of partisans on either side would like to achieve. And here we observe a distinct asymmetry. The “leftist” camp can be obnoxious and blinkered, but they tend to support functioning institutions after exhausting themselves with a lot of verbal nonsense. Reactionaries are happy to set fire to the government, the Constitution, and the virtues of our democratic traditions for the chance to declare subservience to powerful leaders whose functional goal is exploit them.
But let us not commit ourselves as partisans here. The Culture War is a war on culture, and it imagines a landscape denuded of human complexity and the excitements of aesthetic discovery. It insists that there is no world outside this landscape.
It would be well to seek respite from these tribulations. Of course, individuals can do this simply: ignore the media, and take a walk or play with children or do anything, really, not involving a screen. Collectively, we need a break from the stupidity in cultural terms. And it’s the kind of thing that has to be addressed by emotion, imagination, spiritual movement, not mere consumerism, or occasions of comfort, or dry intellectualism, or games of status. Religion would traditionally be the institution to satiate these yearnings of the spirit; religion combines forms of ritual with myths, legends, cosmology, and primitive theories of human behavior and the strange phenomena of the physical world. But modernity has fundamentally ruptured the coherence of these modes among each other, leaving traditional religions to falter or radicalize. The influence of Protestantism has given us this premise that religion is a matter of “belief”; one’s religious identity and experience is a matter of ascribing to one doctrine self-consciously, out of several competing doctrines. The problem is that a “belief” is an idea, a thought, some bit of knowledge whose empirical foundation is not solid. The culture cries out for experience, organized as ritual, not as abstraction, and definitely not according to the reification of doctrine by rote.
I want to propose something different. Instead of looking to religious belief or to some political ideology, the individual can turn to experiences that are poetic, and to the cultural expression of these experiences.
Some definitions are in order. There are many ways to talk about the poetic sensibility. For instance, we could say that it comprises several things: an inward turning of attention, followed by a feeling of resonance with the qualities of a scene—the air, the light, the warmth or chill of a breeze, people as characters, the forms of buildings or landscapes, music, the utterance of any raw emotion; and then an outward turning, a compulsion to express this feeling to some somebody who could likewise partake. Talk like this is vague and easy to pervert. We need a technical definition. We can start by thinking about poetry, or, more precisely, to decide what it means for language to be poetic.
Language is an array of verbal forms that refer to things extrinsic to those forms; the connection between the forms and what they reference, their meaning, is cognitive. Language may be used for communication, but it is composed of and according to its forms, not in their mere transmittal; it may be written, but writing mostly encodes what verbalization structures. These forms are multi-modal. They include rhythmic structures, paralinguistic structures (e.g., syllabification, stress, intonation, etc.), grammatical structures, and high-level discourse structures (e.g., new information v. old information). These different modalities can be analyzed in parallel and across different ranges of text. For example, we can segment the word “Kalamazoo” into four syllables, each consisting of two phonemes, /kæ.lǝ.mǝ.zu/, with typical stress on the first and fourth syllables; depending on the prosodic context, the syllables could be syncopated against a duple meter or they could follow the contours of a waltz meter; “Kalamazoo” is a proper noun, and is likely to be the head of a noun phrase that might function as the subject, object, or complement. This is just skimming the surface: language is rich in form.
The interactions of these forms have several crucial characteristics: they are segregated into modalities that “stack” on top of one another; they operate along different scales (syllables, words, sentences, paragraphs, etc.); finally, the forms in each “layer” of the “stack” are highly integrated with one another. Because of this, it’s best to think of language as a linear series of constituents that can be more or less granular across the flow verbalization, depending on the focus of attention. If we want to analyze a single constituent, it’s possible then to talk about that constituent as being characterized by its formal content, the forms it concretizes from all modalities. The constituency of “Kalamazoo” is an empty vessel: its content in form (phonemes, stress, syntactic function, etc.) is what makes it something linguistic that can bear meaning, among other constituents across multiple levels in a complex matrix of forms.
In a previous essay, “Where Were You When Bobby Kennedy Was Shot?,” I looked at the use of tropes in The Big Lebowski. A technical definition of tropes was proposed there:
A trope is a linguistic technique where the content of some constituent with a specific linguistic form is substituted for some other content in the same form, while the former remains implicit; the constituent takes on a double significance or double meaning, blending or contrasting the substitute and the thing substituted.
The essay offers an example:
In an expression like “the sun smiles”, the predicate “smiles” stands for the sun’s warmth and radiance; the predicate “is warm” (or something to that effect) is replaced by “smiles”. The substituted predicate remains implicit in the choice of “smiles” as the substitute, but, in the trope, the semantic values of the two predicates become intertwined.
We can refine this definition a little. A trope is a specific linguistic constituent that can be identified with a single form; in the case of “the sun smiles,” the form is a predicate. Other forms of the predicate (sounds, intonation, words, register markers, etc.: what make up “smiles” in toto), are the substitutable formal content of the constituent, distinguishable by the single form. The point of fixing one form out of all that come to mind is that it situates the trope with respect to the rest of the text in which it is a part.
So, for tropes, there are five elements attached to the trope-constituent:
(A) A single form identified with the constituent;
(B) The original content, including multiple other forms;
(C) The substitute content, including multiple other forms;
(D) The meaning of the original content;
(E) The meaning of the substitute content.
The trope is a transformational process: the original content disappears, while the two referents become blended into a synthetic meaning now attached to the substitute content. The definition continues:
Significantly, a trope substitutes something known for another thing known; the exchange happens entirely in the domain of consciousness. […] [A trope] contrasts with archetypal representations where something known stands for something unknown or unconscious.
Returning to the example:
In the expression “the sun smiles,” there is no secret that “smiles” refers to the sun’s warmth.
We can call the archetypal counterpart to the trope a symbol. All elements of a trope have to be knowable, even if we don’t always attend to them as they become increasingly conventional. The symbol preserves the same scheme as the trope, but treats the original formal content (B) and the original meaning (D) from our list of the trope’s elements as unknown and possibly unknowable.
At first glance, this is a strange formulation. While the trope has two elements that have vanished, at least they are accessible to a person competent in the idiom, upon reflection. What kind of rhetorical figure relies on components that are not only absent, but potentially unrecoverable? Surely our utterances are meant to be conscious, if anything at all? What can be communicated that is unknowable? It is a mundane fact that most neural activity is not correlated with conscious perceptions. To add a twist: sometimes the salient neural pattern for cognition is what is not happening in some part of a network. If we move up to the psychological level, one of defining insights of the 20th century is that there are a complex set of psychological structures submerged in the “unconscious” that influence behavior, mood, character, perception. So, it’s natural that language would contain instruments for the expression of what in cognition is overtly inexpressible—what presses the mind, but is ineffable. Our definition is not strange if we take the symbol to be a linguistic figure that gives form to this semiotic function.
Now we can define the poetic use of language: it draws upon the full resources of a language’s forms to draft utterances (or texts) that are dense in symbols and whose symbols resonate with one another. This means that all kinds of linguistic structures, rhythmic, paralinguistic, grammatical, semantic, discursive, are fair play. “Poetry,” then, is the employment of poetic language into an aesthetic cultural practice, that regularizes over time into literary genres and traditions.
One way to experience poetic language is to let it wash over you. Simply accept that some aspects of a poem will be plain and others will affect you without understanding why, and some things will be completely missed. Listen and feel and do nothing else. But the mind never stands still, so we also need a mode of interpretation which can intellectualize this link between conscious and unconscious. As a procedure, interpretation should begin with the forms of language as they present themselves: the interpreter should observe the forms present in an utterance or text, starting with rhythms, and make notes about where they occur. Out of this descriptive work, the interpreter can form a picture of where forms co-occur and how they correspond and resonate with one another. Fortunately, languages have enough structure and material for many of these correspondences to be recognizable in general. Next, one can abstract from the meaning of a poem; not just narrow semantic referencing, but cultural allusions, the historical context, details from the life of the speaker or author, etc. The interpretation can be finalized by examining how these abstractions correlate with corresponding forms in terms of their positioning, or, better yet, how the most salient forms are iconic of the most general correlated abstractions.
When we try to make sense of the unknown, this process of description and abstraction allows us to partially attribute conscious form and meaning to elements that were originally in the dark. This has the effect of reversing the original transformation that was made by substitution in the fashioning of the symbol. But this reconstitution occurs retrospectively, and it can never be finished, lest symbol shrivel to trope: the true symbol remains mysterious.
Our ability to interpret can cause confusion about the fundamental nature of symbols. Some Literal-Minded Muck-Wuck might insist that a symbol must be one particular interpretation of it, and only that. Another, who fancies himself a “scientist,” will declare symbols to be mere figments of the mind, mistaken, approximate, derivative, subjective; they are “nothing but,” which is to say they are nothing at all. Anybody who thinks this way either is deficient in certain cognitive capabilities, or has been spiritually stunted somewhere along the way. Symbol-speak is a core component of human language and human cognition, and needs to be respected as such.
There is very little credible research along these lines. Richard Cureton, of the University of Michigan, may be the only critic to sustain systematic empirical work equal to the scope of what language involves. Readers interested in how various forms of language can be deployed as symbols are encouraged to explore his writings. His 1992 book, Rhythmic Phrasing in English Verse, explains how representations of rhythm drawn from music theory can be applied to language. He has produced a long string of articles that demonstrate how rhythm, paralanguage, grammar, images, etc., have been employed symbolically in some of the best poems in the English language—and that, in fact, the arrangements of these symbolic materials themselves are rhythmic. We will rely here on his treatment in discussions involving rhythmic analysis.
For the purposes of our theme, we will take a brief look at a bad “poem.” Contemporary poetry is a resplendent feast of horribles, so we’ll pick something obnoxiously popular: a short piece by Rupi Kaur. This was published in her 2015 collection, Milk And Honey, without a title:
you are in the habit of co-depending on people to make up for what you think you lack who tricked you into believing another person was meant to complete you when the most they can do is complement
We can start with rhythm. There’s not an obvious metrical reading that jumps out from the text, but, fortunately, her publisher put out a clip of Kaur reciting this piece. We scan six measures in a shallow 4-beat meter, with lots of syllables but no beating below the level of the tactus. There is a nice run of cadences where the voice spills over a measure to a downbeat – “lack” in the third measure, “complete” in the fifth, and “complement” in the sixth. This is a rare pattern in “art” verse, but extremely common in song and music. The grouping also shows some development. There is a rising movement throughout the text below the level of the intonational units. This morphs to a chiastic rise-fall movement across the stanza break in the written text, with a falling movement at the highest level. The vocal emphasis on “you lack” and “complement” are consistent with her theme.
There are some notable sound correspondences. In “people” and “co-depending”, the [p] is alliterative, and is followed in both cases by high front vowels with a stop/resonant syllable-final cluster. “Think” and “tricked” are roughly rhyming, and share a syllable-final [k] with “make” and “lack.” There is a run of feminine rhymes with a stop and/or nasal syllable-final consonant sound followed by a [u] vowel: “think you,” “tricked you,” “into,” “meant to,” “complete you,” “can do.” Finally, “complete” and “complement” have both a rhyme, “com-” followed by a sort-of pararhyme “-plete/-plement”; this last correspondence not only embodies a prominent thematic contrast, but is given emphasis by the meter and grouping.
This little bit of rhythmic structure is not complemented by much development in other areas. The piece does have an interesting conceit of addressing a “you” that is clearly meant to be “me”—perhaps the reader, perhaps Kaur herself. This creates an identity between first and second person points of view. But, like its rhythms, this is not connected to much else in the poem. The text is a series of clauses and phrases embedded in the complement of a single copular sentence. Its content is an abstract statement: no questions or exclamations; no images or descriptions; no characters or speeches. Her “argument,” as an abstraction, isn’t surprising or counter-intuitive. The rhythmic amplifications of “lack,” “complete,” and “complement” are appropriate, but not supported by other linguistic textures.
Worse than this, two important words violate our grammatical expectations for no particular reason. “Co-depending” is used as a verb, which is not lexically standard. “Complement” is probably best read as an infinitive clause with both an elided object and infinitive marker (“[to] complement [you]”); it has has been included as the complement to a copular clause (“the most […] is complement”), whose subject has a distracting relative clause (“they can do [the most]”) as a noun phrase complement. So much awkward complementation of “complement”! Both of these words would seem to belong to a more technical register; “codependency” is a concept out of psychology and “complement” is a concept used in a number of fields, including geometry and linguistics. This clashes with the generic, singular use of “they,” which tends to be informal. “People” and the relative clause relating to “people” (“who tricked you […] complement”) is separated by an infinitive clause complement of the non-finite verb “co-depending on” (“to make up for […] lack”); this kind of clotted construction is more characteristic of improvised, spoken language, not a polished literary text. It’s not that non-standard uses of words are verboten, nor that poets must avoid jargon or syntactic complication; no, Kaur is trying to spiff up her banal argument with pseudo-technical terminology, and doing it badly.
To sum up: although there is some development in rhythm and sound, the flatness or awkwardness of every other aspect of the text gives the piece little energy or interest. It is barren of symbols, and beyond this, it’s hard to ascribe a register, here or to Kaur’s work generally. Is it inspirational-poster copy? Fragment of a negative political ad? Abortive attempt at soliloquy? In a recent article, Clare Coffey called Kaur’s form the “heroic zinger.” All of which is to say: this is not poetry.
The Emotional Soccerball Pooper Attacks
We can generalize from this definition of poetic language a definition of poetic experience: the forms of symbols may not only be linguistic, but forms of experience in any medium of representation. The whole matter of the mind, of cognition, in its multiplicity, can perform this operation of substitution of a known form for an unknown form, with the same mingling of experience’s object. In the moment I see, say, swans on a winter lake, there are both the forms of my sensations and the things in them: the ripples on the water organized as wave-forms in perspective; the whiteness of the swans and the snow of the shore, wavelengths of light arranged around some object they’ve bounced off; the chill in the air, its temperature; and so forth—the experiential moment contains all of those things, in the form of the perceptions in which they’re presented, and in their separate reality. In a poetic mode, the poetic faculty may connect these items clear to consciousness with what is not, and so, the conscious person becomes acquainted with the vast landscape of unconscious life, if not in a crystallized shape, then by feeling.. This connection can bring forward what is actually valuable for the individual as he makes his way through a natural world bigger than he can ever know, as opposed to what, in its obviousness, merely garners attention in the hum and thrum of social life.
The unpopularity of poetry in this moment is striking. It’s not so much that the potential for poetic experience has diminished, nor that great artwork is not being produced or can’t be popular—particularly in other media like music or cinema. Rather, our collective sensibility has turned away from the poetic potential of language, and we can conclude from this that the role language occupies in society, to provide a shared, distributed orientation of attention, resists our normal compulsion for symbol-making. This development tracks the Culture War described at the beginning of the essay. The Modernist movement, particularly in America, produced an efflorescence of poetry starting in the years before World War I and lasting through mid-century. This energy carried into song during the 1960s and 1970s, with artists like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell producing not just masterful music, but masterful poetic literature. In the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, creative poetic energy migrated to rap, but since then, even this has dissipated.
The final depletion of popular interest in poetic language seems to correlate with the rise of social media. Rather than assume a causal link, we find a kind of cultural exhaustion in poetic language, which memes serve to alleviate by replacing poetry as a common format. Unfortunately, memes are tropes, not symbols, and this leaves us with a void. However, the format may be less important than the agents who really drive social media engagement. They are not the meme-makers themselves, usually anonymous; instead, they are narcissists who, in saying and doing outrageous, performative, self-aggrandizing things, seek to monopolize public attention. Indeed, much of the meme-osphere is devoted to their exploits. Their goal may be money, but, alternatively, they may be driven to expose themselves publicly because it makes their inner turmoil less frighteningly private and personal, and they happen to have the connections and flamboyance to pull it off. Interestingly, their subjects and themes revolve around recognizable fictions—ideas, premises, statements that are untrue or out-of-context, but which gain the veneer of plausibility when presented as recognizable tropes or memes. This dynamic could explain, for instance, the re-emergence of antisemitism in certain reactionary internet purlieux. The fictions propagated by these people are what, in a state of culture war, take the place of culture’s symbol-making functions.
Recently, my three-year-old son had a meltdown over god-knows-what; having calmed down, he became philosophical and called himself an “emotional soccerball pooper.” He meant to evoke how the tantrum-behavior dominates every other concern in our family’s collective experience while it’s happening. This encapsulates, perfectly, the narcissists who, by their performative excesses, dominate public discourse and public consciousness. The Emotional Soccerball Pooper becomes an immediately identifiable type for anyone who pays attention to the news. Donald Trump is an emotional soccerball pooper. Elon Musk. Kanye West. Meghan Markle.
This behavior has to be understood as a personality disorder, but one which gains broad appeal for the public. Why? We are fascinated by car crashes, explosions, natural disasters—the spectacle. But a lot of what sustains interest in people like Trump or Musk is the parasocial relationship their followers develop with them, and the long-term emotional investment they sustain in that relationship. As acolytes are swept up, their behavior becomes ritualistic. They attend to the many posts, statements, appearances, actions of their hero; they buy his or her paraphernalia; they swarm comments sections to attack others who tussle with the hero publicly, or who espouse or represent ideas contrary to his or her fixations; they struggle to form alternate opinions or assimilate confounding information. The Emotional Soccerball Pooper is the icon of their aspirations, and its most radiant expression.
Here again we have a diminished version of something that ought to be marshaled by the poetic instinct. It is the vocation of the artist to push the edges of his or her chosen medium for its poetic potential. The artist seeks what is new, elaborate, strange, wonderful, what is most difficult to comprehend and yet most universal. Yet the artist alone is just an individual. For the purposes of society, the artist’s discoveries must be made accessible to or replicable for the public, and assimilated into rituals that transmute this material and its meaning, conscious and unconscious, for the spiritual needs of the culture more generally. The things that last, cathedrals, paintings in museums, ancient liturgies, national epics, songs anyone could hum from memory—they have all followed this path, and this is what keeps us together, in spirit.
The Culture War gives us memes in the place of poems; entertainment pretending to be art; calculation instead of contemplation; ritual without meaning; meaning without form; religion as politics; a portrait of the Emotional Soccerball Pooper as an old man. We fall apart. This is the spiritual vacuity of our times.
Digressions From An Antepenultimate Non-Fiction
One asks: how do we escape?
Or, more confidently, one merely asserts: because traditional religion and its syndicates are not adequate to the demands of the modern condition, we must therefore find a new way of orienting and manifesting the spirit, even as the afflictions of the Culture War distract us.
In Asides On The Oboe, Wallace Stevens begins with the tercet:
The prologues are over. It is a question, now, Of final belief. So, say that final belief Must be in a fiction. It is time to choose.
Stevens is one of the acutest observers of our problem. Born in 1879, he was in his 40s when he published his first collection of poetry, Harmonium, and past 60 when he produced many of his longest and best-known works. A major theme, which emerges particularly in the later poems, concerns the nature of what might succeed traditional religion.
An early poem, Sunday Morning, grapples with the emotional stasis implied by the Christian afterlife, and this is contrasted with a more pagan cycle of renewal in earthly goings-on; rather than propose a resolution, he puts himself at a remove and intones elegiacally, as if the death in question is of the faith itself, and everything involved in it. In the second canto, he asks, “What is divinity if it can come / Only in silent shadows and in dreams?”
In the first canto of his seminal poem, Notes Towards A Supreme Fiction, he addresses “ephebe”; in ancient Greece, this was the word for a young boy in military training. He rehearses his own Nietschzian formulation for the boy, “The death of one god is the death of all.”
In a late poem, Final Soliloquy Of The Interior Paramour, Stevens reports a scene in a room lit just as evening falls: the poet, ensconced with the “interior paramour,” his muse, but otherwise, singularly alone, lost in quiet thought. He tenders a supposition:
We say God and the imagination are one...
And then witnesses the effect of this supposition on the subject of the scene, the poet, perhaps Stevens himself:
How high that highest candle lights the dark.
Out of this same light, out of the central mind, We make a dwelling in the evening air, In which being there together is enough.
Stevens, ever the aesthete, offers no ultimate answers, but a shifting kaleidoscope of arguments, images, music, in the hopes that this will be enough. However, he does edge into an organizing discipline of the mind, even as he is unable to propose metaphysical certainties. We may no longer have myths and schemes and doctrines to give assurance against life’s exigencies, but the individual can choose a “Supreme Fiction,” an idea not to be taken literally, yet which serves as a guide for living. This fiction is a product of the imagination, and it needn’t be one thing or another; the qualities of the imagination dissipate, and eventually this “supremacy” is revealed as, simply, the fiction’s connection with reality. In the end, only reality, bare, as mere being, remains, but we may recognize it as such by this process of imagination.
His poem Asides On The Oboe is a concise attestation of how he works through this process. After the three-line prologue cited above (irony alert!), the poem is divided into three sections, all in Stevens’ loose, blank pentameter. All three describe a figure whom he calls “the philosophers’ man.” He also calls him “the man who had the time to think enough,” “the central man,” “the human globe,” “the man of glass,” “the glass man,” and “the diamond globe.” This man may be like Stevens’ version of Nietzsche’s übermensch—and we can see how different these two men are by their treatment of this figure.
The first section has 14 lines, but it is arranged with cadences in line 3 and line 6, like a backwards Petrarchan sonnet. It conjures up a series of “obsolete fiction[s]” against which the “philosophers’ man” is presented; these fictions reference images inherited from traditional religion. The notes of an oboe question whether he is able to stand in the place of the old gods, but the poem suggests that we may have no alternatives.
The second section has seven lines—a curtal sonnet—and it is the slight, slow middle section of a sonata. We hear about his transparence and his mode of philosophizing, in poems and in cries from the imagination.
The third section has two stanzas of seven lines, another curtal sonnet, and its geminate as coda. We learn here that:
One year, death and war prevented the jasmine scent And the jasmine islands were bloody martyrdoms.
A catastrophe has happened, and it can be placed at a definite point in history. “Jasmine” would seem to stand for the enchantment of the world that religions purport to guarantee; the “jasmine scent” is gone amidst slaughter and suffering. The “sum of men,” humanity’s collective potential as embodied by the “philosophers’ man,” emerges; this collective includes those found dead in the wake of catastrophe and it includes the reader—“we” suddenly becomes the subject of various descriptions. Stevens ends the poem by observing how, despite the disappearance of the “jasmine,” “the glass man” can be seen alone, “chanting for those buried in their blood,” but now without “external reference,” that is, without the baggage of the old religions.
Instead of Jesus or Buddha or some other cultic persona (the Emotional Soccerball Pooper?), the aspirational figure is a poet or a philosopher, not a specific person, but a “man of glass,” transparent to all, and yet whose idiom can bring humanity together in the aftermath of historical devastation. Stevens distorts the sonnet, the most lyrical of traditional versification schemes, forcing our engagement with the matter to be twisted, truncated, extended. A commitment to some Supreme Fiction was enjoined on the reader at the outset, and by the end he has explained what the commitment entails: the acceptance of this idiom in our conscious minds as the outcome of a strenuous emotional process.
Stevens’ formulations, while glamorous and instructive, have defects as philosophy. The character of the “Supreme Fiction” matters, as does its mode of presentation. We can’t expect the average person to be a paragon of fastidious taste, or to take a conspicuously philosophical interest in matters of the spirit. In the absence of cultural pressure, the popular choice will be a potboiler. A recent TV show called “MILF Manor” features single women in their 40s and 50s who are sequestered in a resort with each other’s twentysomething sons as potential sexual partners—is this our Supreme Fiction? (I hope not!) We need to commit to a specific set of “fictions” that reflect the dearest values of our deepest selves, and, though these could change in the future, they cannot be indeterminate or obscene. Stevens circles the issue and never commits. Nor does he grapple with the depredations of vulgarity.
Second, it doesn’t matter what we believe. The world will go on with or without us. Thus, there is no reason to construct a fiction that clamors for belief. We achieve a poetic purpose through experience, and we can prepare ourselves for this experience by creating works of art and by ritual practices inspired by these works. Whether or not such activities amount to defensible theorization or to mere fancy only matters so far as we might have some technical task at hand. This purpose reveals itself through artworks and through rituals, in their iconicity, for us, we humans who live today, and in no other way. Here Stevens gives himself away. Everywhere in his poems, his abstractions and metaphysical statements are framed as commentary, annotation, hypotheticals: “We say…”; “Notes towards…”; “Asides on…”; “What is [X] if…?”; etc. He can’t say the thing plainly. Because the “reality” he seeks is, in fact, not fictional, even where it is illuminated by the imagination: it is experience fulfilled in the wholeness of its being.
As a cultural proposition, Stevens’ poetic project was a bewitching failure. We can learn from Stevens, and be ravished by his baritone, but we cannot follow him. This world’s hunger is the poem it lacks, the epic poem, newly written with all the images and struggles of an industrial society, an American society, no smaller now than the whole earth laid before humanity as if it were set upon a table. Here we have described a little of how such an epic could be invented and what it is not.