Wallace Stevens and the Cognitive Value of Form

There’s a tendency to find the cognitive value of art in its content rather than its form. This can focus the discussion on theme, which is one reason for skepticism about the cognitive value of art. When we paraphrase the theme of a poem, for example, it often looks rather thin. It may be cognitive, but it’s of little value.

Wallace Stevens’s poetry has cognitive content, but the cognitive value of his poetry is not only a matter of content. Stevens is interested, you might say, in the form of thinking.

Stevens is often accused of being emotionally cold, as if his attention to thinking came at the expense of feeling. But there’s a way of understanding what can seem like coldness as a device for encouraging us to reflect on an important mode of cognition, namely the experience of imaginative identification.

Much poetry solicits imaginative identification by means of empathy and sympathy. In empathy the reader is invited to share the point of view of the speaker, and in sympathy the reader is invited to share the goals of the speaker. Consider a classic of Romantic poetry: Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.”

The poem provides many details about the speaker, which individuate him and invite us to imagine his point of view. We know that it’s been five years since he was at the river Wye, we know the impression the region made on him (“steep and lofty cliffs”), what it meant to him (“thoughts of deep seclusion”), and that it sustained him (“in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din/Of towns and cities”) over years of suffering. Having aroused our concern about what caused the speaker to suffer, we are led through the rest of the poem and finally see his point of view, that of a widower addressing his lost beloved.

Contrast this with Stevens’s poetry. In it, we typically learn virtually nothing of the speaker’s personal history, there is little effort to arouse our curiosity about him, and the feelings aroused or named are harder to get at compared with the drama of love, grief, and healing. The effect is to de-emphasize sympathy, empathy, and identification.

To understand the point of view of a poem’s speaker, the reader must imagine it. The reader is the agent of this imaginative project. Having imagined it, the reader then separates himself from it and assigns it to the speaker. But when so little is known about the speaker, it is difficult to do so.

Consider Stevens’s “So-And-So Reclining on her Couch.” The speaker is engaged in the project of imagining a painting of a young woman, based on a real or fictional woman. He considers three possible “projections”: representational and without embellishment, as an artistic gesture in which the artist’s attitude predominates, and as the difference between the two: direct acquaintance (“thing as idea”) versus expressive gesture (“idea as thing”).

The speaker wants neither; he desires the thing itself. So he names her – the actual woman who inspired his reflections, “Mrs. Pappadopoulos” – and makes her “real,” but of course we know that she too is an artifice and that the same applies to the poem.

By providing no personal information about the speaker, Stevens presents the reader with the project of imagining a point of view (the speaker’s) that resists assignment and which therefore remains with the reader. The reader’s position is such that she finds her way to a point of view that belongs to her but is not about her.

For Heidegger, “dwelling poetically” is possible when the field of intelligibility that is our world of meaningful engagements grips and gathers us as strongly as our language. The kind of at-homeness he has in mind, however, is powerfully charged with the uncanny. In “So-and-So,” the speaker cannot settle down either. He wants a projection that is neither objectively representational nor subjectively expressive, for neither can get at the thing “as it is.” Nor can the reader, but she becomes acutely aware of the desire to do so.

This creates a distinctive feeling of intimacy that is something like a fantasy or, if you like, a poem. The reader is both connected to the speaker and estranged from him. By blocking the assigning function and causing an external point of view to remain with us – and why not, we originated it – the poem invites us to reflect on the project of imaginative identification itself, not only in poetry but also in our relations with others. Therein lies the poem’s cognitive value – a value dependent on the poem’s form (the device of withholding of information about the speaker) and not only on its content.

Wallace Stevens, 1948.

I learned about the cognitive value of imaginative projection and indefinitely targeted point of view from Alessandro Giovanelli’s “Cognitive Value and Imaginative Identification: The Case of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut” (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 68:4). The application to Stevens immediately suggested itself.

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