Wallace Stevens: Poetry, Philosophy, and Figurative Language

by Kacper Bartczak (Volume editor) Jakub Mácha (Volume editor)
©2018 Edited Collection 192 Pages


This book is devoted to investigating the relationships and correspondences that hold between the poetry of Wallace Stevens and philosophy. Stevens used the aesthetically enhanced language of his poems to create inquiries into the nature of reality that parallel those conducted by philosophers. He also maintained poetry’s independence from philosophy. The first part of the book contains contributions that pursue various aspects of these parallels. Here, the authors explore the relations between Stevens’ poems and specific philosophical concepts or the thought of individual philosophers. The contributions in the second part narrow down the scope to the issues within the philosophy of language. This section concentrates on the role of metaphor and figurativeness in Stevens’ poetry.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Abbreviations of Stevens’ Works
  • Contributors
  • Introduction: Wallace Stevens: Poetry, Philosophy and Figurative Language
  • One Reason the Poetry of Wallace Stevens Matters Today
  • “They Will Get it Straight One Day at the Sorbonne”: Wallace Stevens’s Intimidating Thesis
  • The Kinship of Poetry and Philosophy. Reflections on W. Stevens and P. Weiss
  • I Vicious music and transparent accords or the ideas of man, mankind, and humanity
  • II The central poem and the eccentric propositions of our race or cosmology and the human stance
  • Reality Is Not a Solid. Poetic Transfigurations of Stevens’ Fluid Concept of Reality
  • Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism
  • Stevens’ poetry of nature
  • The necessary angel – initial realityI
  • Order of things – final realityF
  • The grammar of “as” and “of”
  • Central poem – final realityF
  • Central mind – total realityT
  • Au Pays de la Métaphore: Wallace Stevens and Interaction Theory
  • Introduction
  • The motive for interactionism
  • Stevens and metaphor
  • A philosophical digression
  • The motive: stanza by stanza
  • Conclusion
  • Resemblance and Identity in Wallace Stevens’ Conception of Metaphor
  • Metaphor as resemblance
  • A challenge to resemblance as the foundation of metaphor
  • Objections and responses to the challenge
  • Metamorphosis as metaphorical identity
  • Conclusion
  • Metaphor as That Which Makes Us See
  • Wallace Stevens’s Spirituality of the Metaphorical Inhabitation of the World
  • Davidson’s metaphor and Stevens’s poem-as-metaphor
  • Poetry and reality in The Rock
  • Stevens’s metaphor of metaphor in “Prologues to What Is Possible”
  • The “irrationality” of the metaphor: Stevens’s modification of Davidson
  • Conclusions: Stevens’s metaphor and the spirituality of non-dualistic habitation of the world
  • List of Figures
  • Index of Names


Charles Altieri

University of California, Berkeley


Kacper Bartczak

University of Łódź, Poland


Ondřej Beran

University of Pardubice, Czech Republic


Chris Genovesi

Carleton University, Canada


Karl-Friedrich Kiesow

Leibniz University of Hanover, Germany


Richmond Kwesi

University of Ghana


Jakub Mácha

Masaryk University, Czech Republic


Wit Pietrzak

University of Łódź, Poland


Kacper Bartczak and Jakub Mácha


Wallace Stevens: Poetry, Philosophy and Figurative Language

One of the key figures of the modernist revolution in literature, Wallace Stevens proves to be a poet of amazingly contemporary and wide significance, as his oeuvre – both poems and essays – continues to inspire new generations of poets, critics, literary scholars, philosophers and intellectuals. This generosity of influence certainly owes a lot to the original cultural and intellectual contexts that Stevens witnessed, and participated in, as a young man: his aesthetic, artistic and intellectual preferences were shaped by momentous changes taking place in both the arts and philosophy at the turn of the century and in the first decades of the 20th century.

Stevens was part of the modernist aesthetic paradigm shift overtaking the world of Western arts since the early 1910s. The vast changes affecting the visual arts through the work of Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, Gris and many other painters; the imagist revolution of Pound and others; the work of avant-garde prophets, such as Duchamp; the emergence of new styles in prose; and the soon to follow mature poetic achievements of Eliot and Pound – all these modernist processes have constituted one primary field of reference for Stevens’ readers for decades.

However, Stevens, whose first poetic endeavors occurred when he was a special (non-degree oriented) student at Harvard, was also strongly affected by the rich philosophical discussion that shaped the intellectual atmosphere at this university at the turn of the century. This was the time when American philosophy was undergoing a process of professionalization, as it was also striving toward independence from European influence. One of the key Harvard figures at the time was William James, whose influence on philosophy, arts, aesthetics, psychology, even religious studies, cannot be contained by the narrow label of “pragmatism”, much as James was instrumental in propagating this brand-new American philosophical product. Even more important than James’ presence at Harvard, in the context of Stevens’ development, was that of George Santayana, whose variety of Platonic idealism and religious thought had a lasting impact on the poet.1

Such environments left a lasting mark: if the early Stevens was an erudite aesthete, he had also imbibed an intuitive sense of how the being of the poem as a beautiful aesthetic object corresponds with and thrives in close proximity to the movement of thought. Stevens’ poetry is a fascinating body of text, in which the lasting poetic and aesthetic merit remains in a nourishing relationship with efforts customarily undertook by philosophers. His vast and flexible lexicons which couch his adherence to flexible passages of thought, in connection with his interest in how the aesthetic power of the poetically modulated phrase affects the concept of truth, have made Stevens a poetic inquirer into fields that have perhaps been more customarily reserved for philosophers: the mechanisms of cognition; the role of language in the shaping of concepts; the interaction between language, truth, representation, and the material world; and the role of aesthetically enhanced language in our ethical and spiritual life. This is perhaps why Stevens has been read over decades by philosophically minded critics, who have discussed his poetry in an impressively wide philosophical context that has included Kant, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida, as well as William James or George Santayana. The poetic-philosophical reciprocities that are active in Stevens’ idiom have helped both poetry and philosophy. Simon Critchley has named Stevens “the philosophically most interesting poet to have written in English in the twentieth century” (2005: 15), while Charles Altieri, who carefully shows how Stevens poetry is a counterpart, not an illustration, to philosophical thought on the phenomenology of value, says that “Stevens gives a pulse to philosophical thinking” (2013: 7).

In pursuing these connections, we have divided this volume into two parts. The first half of our volume, the chapters by Altieri, Pietrzak, Kiesow and Mácha, focuses more explicitly on the topic of the relationship of poetry and philosophy. Charles Altieri shows how Stevens’ poem, “Of Modern Poetry”, can be employed as a critique of New Materialism. The following chapters address the poetry-philosophy relationship even more explicitly: Wit Pietrzak argues that philosophical concepts are, in the end, poetic. Karl-Friedrich Kiesow’s chapter can be taken as an historical illustration of Pietrzak’s point, as Kiesow provides an analysis of the philosophical work of Paul Weiss who was Stevens’ friend through correspondence and who was strongly influenced by Stevens. In accord with Pietrzak’s central claim, Jakub Mácha’s chapter uses Stevens’ poetical works to illuminate some deep philosophical insights made by philosophers, especially by Schelling.

Charles Altieri’s chapter, “One Reason the Poetry of Wallace Stevens Matters Today”, provides a close reading of Stevens’ early poem “Of Modern Poetry” which is developed as a polemic response to so-called New Materialism, especially to its account of mental energy as a kind of natural energy. Altieri admits that New Materialism has proven to be useful in explaining how Impressionism and Imagism can challenge the traditional subjective construction in works of art. Yet, New Materialism maintains that a work of art affects the receptive mind “from the outside”, so to speak. In order to dispute this view, Altieri develops Hegel’s account of “inner consciousness” which addresses “how states of self-consciousness implicate conditions of feeling rooted in one’s sense of one’s own subjective relations to an object world” This concept thus brings together the subjective side (self-consciousness) as well as the objective side (impersonality) of art in distinctive modes of feeling. In the present context, this impersonal objective side of inner consciousness is, of course, a work of art. For Stevens, in “Of Modern Poetry”, this focus on the objective is more directed to grammar. The poem begins and closes with invoking the subjective side, “the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice” and “The poem of the act of the mind.” Our participating in the (life of the) poem links this individual self-reflective performativity with the objective side, that is, with grammar. This framework for expressions of one’s self-consciousness is historically determined and constantly modified (like constructing new stages in a theatre as we read in the poem). Yet the peculiarity of grammar is that in it we feel a sense of necessity. The necessity of living, of lived feeling, is transformed into an atemporal grammatical necessity. Emotions and feelings are placed into a shared space of grammatical intricacies. This opens a distinctively transpersonal dimension of the mind. The closing clause invokes “the act of the mind”, that is, Altieri maintains, “something that generates all acts of mind”. The final part of the chapter pays attention to the operator “of” from the closing clause. Altieri claims that Stevens’ intricate use of “of” crosses the distinction between subjective and objective genitive of classical rhetoric: “The poem is categorized as act of the mind. But is also capable of creating what constitutes an act that mind keeps performing.” Altieri’s chapter, however, closes with a series of questions that Stevens addressed in subsequent poems: Can the subjective be so easily transfigured in grammar? Why at all do we demand seeking what can be transpersonal?

Wit Pietrzak, in his contribution entitled “ ‘They Will Get it Straight One Day at the Sorbonne’: Wallace Stevens’ Intimidating Thesis”, addresses the topic of the uneasy relationship of poetry and philosophy. Pietrzak embarks on a critique of a seminal account of Simon Critchley who, according to Pietrzak, “misses the point that, for Stevens, poetry is not just a way of uttering the perception of reality but of shaping ever new perceptions that derive not so much from a hard reality but from prior poetic utterances”. In developing his “Intimidating Thesis”, Pietrzak focusses on pragmatism, especially on Rorty’s elaboration of James’ and ←13 | 14→ Dewey’s early pragmatist views which seems to capture Stevens’ notion of poetry. Poetry is a way of communicating with the creations of past thinkers that are deposited in language, especially in poetic utterances. Such acts of communication, then, form new integrations of poetical pieces that can be subsequently communicated. The intimidating thesis then reads: “there is no finality to poetry, all that matters is to play up new figural revisions of reality that would neither press towards assumed completion nor give up on the nobility of their style in favor of reducing all to a language game.” Yet a kind of finality (in the form of a bare clarity) is present in Stevens’ perception of philosophy. This would be, however, too simplistic a statement of the relationship between philosophy and poetry. There is a kind of finality in poetry that Stevens terms as “the last fiction”, “a supreme fiction” or “the fiction of an absolute”. Pietrzak stresses that it is an absolute rather than the absolute. Poetry shows a dialectic between endless creativity and irreducible nobility. Pietrzak concludes in a Heideggerian fashion that philosophers then must – inevitably – turn to poetry that, as we already know, communicates past integrations. The philosopher will get it straight one day at the Sorbonne.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (December)
Metaphor Reality Imagination Resemblance
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien. 2018. 192 p., 1 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Kacper Bartczak (Volume editor) Jakub Mácha (Volume editor)

Kacper Bartczak is Associate Professor of American Literature and Head of the Department of American Literature at the University of Lodz, Poland. He is author of a monograph on John Ashbery and a collection of essays in Polish on pragmatism and literary theory. Jakub Mácha is Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy at the Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. He published a monograph on Ludwig Wittgenstein and edited a collection of essays on creativity of language.


Title: Wallace Stevens: Poetry, Philosophy, and Figurative Language
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191 pages