The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice.
– Wallace Stevens, On Modern Poetry
I think Stevens’s poetry allows us to recast what is arguably the fundamental concern of philosophy, namely the relation between thought and things or mind and world, the concern that becomes, in the early modern period, the basic problem of epistemology. It will be my general claim that Stevens recasts this concern in a way that lets us cast it away. Stevens’s verse shows us a way of overcoming epistemology. … I am not mining Stevens’s verse for philosophical puzzles and aperçus in pleasing poetic garb. Nothing would be more fatuous. On the contrary, I am trying to show two things: first, that Stevens’s poetry – and by implication much other poetry – contains deep, consequent and instructive philosophical insight, and second that this insight is best expressed poetically.
…Stevens’s late poems stubbornly show how the mind cannot seize hold of the ultimate nature of the reality that faces it. Reality retreats before the imagination that shapes and orders it. Poetry is therefore the experience of failure. As Stevens puts it in a famous late poem, the poet gives us ideas about the thing, not the thing itself. The insight towards which I see Stevens’s verse making its way is an acceptance of both the necessity of poetry and its limitation, the acknowledgement that things merely are and that we are things too, things endowed with imagination. Far from any otherworldly sophism, in a language free from mysticism, Stevens’s poetry can teach a certain disposition of calm, an insight into things that comes from having them in sight. Stevens can teach a thoughtfulness in the face of things and encourage a certain humility and nobility. In the face of overwhelming pressure of a reality defined by the noise of war and ever-enlarging incoherence of information, the cultivation of such a disposition might allow us, in Stevens’s words, to press back against that pressure of reality with the power of poetic imagination and keep open the precious space of reflection.
– Simon Critchley, Things Merely Are