Description without any sense of place — which (thus) conveys a keen sense of it
Wallace Stevens' "Description without Place" was a very odd choice of poem to compose for and deliver at the Phi Beta Kappa ceremony at Harvard in 1946. Wallace Stevens' "Description without Place" was a very odd choice of poem to compose for and deliver at the Phi Beta Kappa ceremony at Harvard in 1946. Another speaker at the same gathering, the State Department's Sumner Welles, spoke rather obviously about the urgent, chaotic world situation — spoke, in other words, about place in a rather specific manner. To say the least, Stevens did not speak about place in such a way. I'd always loved this poem nevertheless, and when I wrote my book about the second half of Stevens' life as a poet (Stevens and the Actual World) I sought to account for its seemingly deliberate nonrelation to actuality, contemporaneity and history. As elsewhere in this book, my idea was to recover a sense of the political for Stevens' wartime and postwar writings. Here's a paragraph that comes toward the beginning of the chapter devoted in part to my reading of this poem (chapter 3):
If a postwar context can even be partially recovered for Stevens's Harvard appearance, it will perhaps no longer seem so strange that a poem whose "rhetorical aim is a queerly hypnotic one . . . enclosed in a kind of baby talk" (as Helen Vendler has put it), "one of the most private of Stevens's poems" and "not likely to earn for [him] many admirers" for its "dangerous aridity" (Joseph Riddel), and one showing the poet "at his most arid" (Harold Bloom), should be indeed the poem Stevens chose to write for an occasion so dramatically public. One recent critic, Michael Beehler, in an essay devoted to "Description without Place," examines a tendency even among Stevens's historicist critics to view a poem as "not refer[ring] to any system of meaning outside of itself" and as having "no referent beyond its own 'closed systems.'" Beehler demonstrates that "Description without Place" continually plays on a double sense of referentiality, but in this instance the critic, when pointing out the poem's resistance to external reference, merely assures us of the poem's own deconstructive work; that is,
Beehler's words for Stevens's project best describe the critic's main operational assumption: "description, and language in general, 'cannot coincide' with its object." Although convincing in its own terms, this sort of reading will not recognize that if there is a particular historical situation inscribed in Stevens's very resistance to referentiality, it is what promoted that resistance in the first place; I shall argue here, in other words, that that situation is the emerging postwar moment, characterized by a new-found imaginative power in which American intellectuals, emerging from a period of partisanship, were presented with the apparently liberating idea that ideologies had exhausted themselves and that political writing was to be outmoded. Vendler is right, then, to suggest of the manner of "Description without Place" that with its mere "appearance of logic" and "baby talk" it glances at the thirties. In its "lapsing back to the old dazzle of 'Owl's Clover'" and its "Blue Guitar"-like "hum of reiterated syllables" it does entail a kind of total collapse of reference and apparent plain sense while at the same time it was also very shrewdly marked by the politics of 1945 and beyond, with a special, post-political reversion to outmoded styles of a bygone era of social realism in which Stevens tried to play the role of the poet as reliable commentator on events. In my reading, he was attempting to play such a role again, though the role had radically changed since the thirties and had been undergoing further change in recent wartime months.
And here are a few lines from this remarkably abstract but in fact quite engaged poem:
Lenin on a bench beside a lake disturbed
The swans. He was not the man for swans.
The slouch of his body and his look were not
In suavest keeping. The shoes, the clothes, the hat
Suited the decadence of those silences,
In which he sat. All chariots were drowned. The swans
Moved on the buried water where they lay.
Lenin took bread from his pocket, scattered it —
The swans fled outward to remoter reaches,
As if they knew of distant beaches; and were
Dissolved. The distances of space and time
Were one and swans far off were swans to come.
The eye of Lenin kept the far-off shapes.
His mind raised up, down-drowned, the chariots.
And reaches, beaches, tomorrow's regions became
One thinking of apocalyptic legions.
Here's a link to all of chapter 3 of that book.