Review: Edward Ragg, Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) $135 262 pp

Alex Runchman
Trinity College Dublin

The question of abstraction in Wallace Stevens’ poetry, and the relation that it might have with the wider world, is one that has vexed critics for decades. For some readers, Stevens’ theoretical and abstract tendencies, particularly in his later poetry, render him a cold, inhuman writer, divorced from ‘reality’. More sympathetic critics have, conversely, seen Stevens as responding – albeit elusively – to the politics of the 1940s, very much engaged with his contemporary world. Edward Ragg, in his new study, steers between these two positions, arguing against the association of abstraction with generalisation or removal from the world as experienced, but also resisting the counter-tendency to overstate Stevens’ political and social responses. He contends instead that ‘Stevens sought a poetic idiom adequate to the task of addressing the role of abstract representation in an increasingly violent and pressingly “real” world.’ For Ragg, this is a challenge that begins in the mid-1930s as Stevens seeks to move away from the ‘pure poetry’ that characterises Harmonium, and that gains impetus with a confident turn to abstraction in ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’. In the early-1940s, Stevens devised his own idiom to discuss abstraction, but it is only in his last decade, Ragg contends, when Stevens dispatches that idiom but retains his instinct towards the abstract, that the poet is finally able to reconcile such an interest with the ordinary nature of quotidian life. Although Ragg charts a continual progression in Stevens’ poetry, certain ideas are constant throughout. Stevens own belief, for example, that ‘[i]magination has no source except in reality, and ceases to have any value when it departs from reality’ is reiterated, in different ways, throughout the study and applies to every stage of his writing career.

Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction is tightly argued throughout, drawing upon Stevens’ essays and letters to illustrate the poet’s engagement with modernist art theory and philosophy, and to map his evolving sense of an abstract aesthetic. The study’s most impressive characteristic is in the close readings that Ragg undertakes in the service of his overall argument, particularly of ‘Academic Discourse at Havana’, ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’, ‘Montrechet-Le-Jardin’, and ‘The Pure Good of Theory’. Ragg makes a particularly strong case for considering Stevens’ gustatory imagination. Ever alert to the pleasures of eating and drinking in Stevens’ poetry, Ragg argues that the physical and sensual ‘are often the sites for the catalysis of his abstract imagination’, adding that ‘the tendency to oppose the sensual to the abstract denies readers insight into this aspect of Stevens’ work.’ Ragg is also a wine consultant, and he brings his specialist knowledge in this field fruitfully to bear on his reading of ‘Montrechet-Le-Jardin’, taking the poem’s ‘vinous allusion’ and evocation of the Burgundy region as implicit statements of pro-French sentiment at the time of the Occupation. His analyses of the allusions to Cymbeline and Macbeth in ‘Montrechet-Le-Jardin’ and ‘The Pure Good of Theory’ are also innovative, suggesting the possibility of further work into the importance of Shakespeare for Stevens. 

There are a few points when Ragg’s determination to see Stevens’ progression as steady and chronological seems forced. When discussing the fourth section of ‘The Pure Good of Theory’, ‘Dry Birds Are Fluttering in Blue Leaves—’, for example, Ragg argues that the poem shows how abstraction is involved in every rendering of reality: ‘Every “version” of a thing rests on abstracting some part of an “actual” phenomenon in order to conceive it’. This is a critical point. However, the section title’s apparent allusion back to the pigeon that ‘flutters’ at the end of ‘Le Monocle de Mon Oncle’, and the revelation at the end of that poem that ‘fluttering things have so distinct a shade’, undermines Ragg’s conviction that this sense of abstraction’s relation to reality is characteristic only of later Stevens. It is, at the very least, implicit from the beginning. Ragg is also hesitant in discussing the extent to which the philosophies of Blanchot and Merleau-Ponty might have influenced Stevens’ poems of the early 1940s. Although he argues convincingly enough that ‘their conceptions of the imagination proffer terms that give Stevens’ “abstract” form’, he could be accused of tenuousness. If drawing upon these other thinkers enables Ragg to discuss Stevens’ oeuvre without recourse to Stevens’ own specialist vocabulary, he is never able to make a case for them as anything more than analogues rather than as figures of genuine importance to Stevens. What is admirable, however, is Ragg’s ability to reconcile Stevens’ reading of the Romantics – especially Coleridge – with his more overtly modernist interests. 

Given Ragg’s engagement in Chapter 3 with Henri Focillon’s The Life of Forms as a probable source of inspiration for Stevens, and given the intricacy of his close readings, it is also surprising that he does not have more to say, in general, about Stevens’ choice of poetic form. Although Stevens tends to eschew fixed forms such as the sonnet, he does generally favour stanzas, unrhymed (or freely rhymed) couplets, and especially tercets that give his poems distinct shapes whilst allowing him enough fluidity for free association and rumination. It would be hard to say that Stevens’ form is ever wholly abstract. His lines tend toward the iambic norm; radical variations are few and there are hardly any examples of fracture or significant expansion. In this respect, his poems’ forms remain within an inherited tradition. This corresponds to Ragg’s broader argument that Stevens’ theoretical investigations of abstraction remain situated in a keen sense of the ‘real’ and that this sense in fact enhances his understanding of what the ‘abstract’ is: he never wholly lets go of the familiar, concrete or sensuous means by which we are able to make sense of our lives. Likewise, he never wholly abandons the kind of poetic form that would be familiar to the student schooled in Romantic poetry.

In the end, however, it is possible only to pick small arguments such as these with Ragg. His monograph contains nothing that is superfluous, is sometimes virtuosic in its reading of individual poems, and is, overall, an accomplished investigation into the role that abstraction plays in Stevens’ corpus.