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Jane Hedley accounts for Plath’s descriptive and interpretive practice of poems that take art as their subject. Plath’s ekphrastic poems can be seen as interventions in a conversation with canonical predecessors from Keats to Auden, and can be traced not just to her deliberate study of art history, but to the studies she made as a visual artist, before she made the decision in young adulthood to concentrate on writing.
Chapter 2 traces the ways in which Stevens explores the autonomy and social function of poetry by constructing built environments and architectural archetypes. It discusses a wide range of poems from Ideas of Order and The Man with the Blue Guitar to highlight how Stevens engages in issues of poetry’s autonomy and its social function by means of making up places for poetry. His spatial formations operate with an impulse to project an independent aesthetic territory. Far from an instance of aesthetic indifference, the impulse to demarcate a separate space is motivated by a desire to envisage new forms of engagement with the period’s unsettling cultural and sociopolitical circumstances. The chapter teases out these forms of engagement in Stevens’ approach to the cultural debates over a “usable past,” his exploration of citizen-state relationship, his treatment of the poet’s fláneuresque connection to the city, and his vision of poetry’s relation to community.
Chapter 4 focuses on Stevens’ conception of autonomy with the purpose of reassessing his poetry’s relation to philosophy. Stevens not only thematizes this relation in his poetry, but also identifies the processes that decouple the reflective operations of poetic thinking from that of philosophy. The chapter explores this aspect of Stevens’ work from the 1930s and 1940s in dialogue with Badiou’s “inaesthetics,” which allows for a consideration of poetry as a site for thinking without the support or guidance of philosophical discourse. The notion of inaesthetics becomes the enabling occasion for a focus on the divergences, rather than the affinities, between Stevens and philosophy, and for a move to a historically contextualized understanding of his poetry’s resistance to the philosophical school of logical positivism. Stevens’ skepticism toward logical positivism must be added to the historical factors behind his increased emphasis on poetic autonomy from philosophy in his writing of this period.
Chapter 3 argues that Stevens’ imaginative compositions of collectivity and audience provide another vantage point from which to highlight the contextual dimensions of his poetics of autonomy. In his longest and most intricate poem, “Owl’s Clover,” Stevens explores both the potentials and limits of aesthetic separation and autonomy for imagining new forms of collective agency, including the working classes. This exploration unfolds in tension with the period’s political-artistic aspirations to the inclusive “rhetoric of the people.” Stevens’ search for an inclusive “common” or “civil fiction” leads to a complex questioning of the imagination’s potential to expand from a local to a global vision of collectivity. The chapter demonstrates how by acknowledging the ideological pressures (fascist war and colonialism) that impede the aesthetic creation of a globally inclusive model of communal presence, Stevens takes the further step of resisting them, to affirm the continual need of poetry for envisaging prospective forms of collective life.
The Coda draws out the book’s main arguments and points out further research avenues opened by its reassessment of aesthetic autonomy both for the study of Stevens and for current debates in new modernist studies. It highlights the relevance of the problem of autonomy to considerations of modernisms’ cultural and spatial expansions worldwide, a development that has come to occupy a center stage in contemporary critical debates in modernist studies. The social and political dimensions of autonomy suggest further lines of inquiry that prove relevant to the new critical and methodological approaches modernist studies have developed in recent decades. The concluding section argues that reexamining the various meanings of modernist autonomy from a culturally and geographically expanded angle might reveal multiple transnational histories of autonomy with a potential to enhance our understanding of global modernisms, including specific reference to Stevens’ poetics.
The introductory chapter provides an overview of the book’s key analytical and theoretical concerns about Wallace Stevens, aesthetic autonomy, and modernism. It introduces the book’s main objective to show how Stevens’ poetic commitment to autonomy does not simply assert a mode of aesthetic enclosure, but serves to model and develop the forms in which the relationship between the poetry and the wider sociohistorical and cultural matrix is expressed. The Introduction positions the book’s main claims in relation to Stevens scholarship and modernist studies, and highlights the significance of the problem of autonomy to Stevens’ poetry of the 1930s and 1940s. It also provides a critical account of the major theoretical frameworks developed around aesthetic autonomy and its current assessments in modernist studies. The account given of aesthetic autonomy and the review of Stevens criticism lay out the foundations for the inquiry and the critical approach the book takes.
Wallace Stevens's poem makes a greater claim: the earth is held as the object of his perfect and compulsory love. His loathing of things as they are points to the future modernist's need to transform them through the projection of his imagination. Notably missing from his list of consolations is religion itself, although he was still taking communion. In the early journal entry already cited, Stevens defined his five consolations namely love, nature, friendship, work and phantasy. Each was posited on the foundation of physical well-being, there being nothing good in the world except it. By the time he wrote Yellow Afternoon, Stevens seemed to possess the consolations only of nature and phantasy. Stevens's renewed romanticism, always followed by its accompanying disavowals and reconstitutions, evolving into his own amassing grand poem and marking his unique testimony to modernism in the last century.
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