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Wallace Stevens on Reality, Creativity, and Our Greatest Self-Protection from the Pressure of the News

“[The artist’s] function is to make his imagination … become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people to live their lives.”

Wallace Stevens on Reality, Creativity, and Our Greatest Self-Protection from the Pressure of the News

“A society must assume that it is stable,” James Baldwin wrote in his timeless treatise on the creative process, “but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.” And yet, paradoxically, in the very act of exposing the abiding instability of existence, art moors us to a sense of the eternal and becalms our momentary tumults against the raging ocean that has always washed, and will always wash, the shoreline of the human spirit. The poet Robert Penn Warren captured this beautifully in his meditation on the vital role of art in a thriving democracy, in which he asserted that art “is the process by which, in imagining itself and the relation of individuals to one another and to it, a society comes to understand itself, and by understanding, discover its possibilities of growth.”

A generation earlier, Wallace Stevens (October 2, 1879–August 2, 1955), another Pulitzer-winning poet, examined a complementary aspect of the relationship between culture and creativity in his astonishingly timely 1951 book The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (public library | free ebook), originally delivered as a lecture at Princeton in 1942 and titled after a line from one of Stevens’s most beloved poems: “I am the necessary angel of earth, / Since, in my sight, you see the earth again, / Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set…”

Wallace Stevens

Stevens controverts the notion that the imagination is a counterpoint to reality and instead insists that the two are in essential interplay:

The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real… There are degrees of the imagination, as, for example, degrees of vitality and, therefore, of intensity. It is an implication that there are degrees of reality.

He points to nobility as a defining characteristic of the imagination — the means by which the creative spirit protects its interior integrity from what he calls “the pressure of reality,” a pressure of immense and almost unbearable intensity today. In a passage of astounding prescience, Stevens writes in the midst of WWII and more than half a century before the present tyranny of the 24/7 news cycle:

By the pressure of reality, I mean the pressure of an external event or events on the consciousness to the exclusion of any power of contemplation.


For more than ten years now, there has been an extraordinary pressure of news — let us say, news incomparably more pretentious than any description of it, news, at first, of the collapse of our system, or, call it, of life; then of news of a new world, but of a new world so uncertain that one did not know anything whatever of its nature, and does not know now, and could not tell whether it was to be all-English, all-German, all-Russian, all-Japanese, or all-American, and cannot tell now; and finally news of a war, which was a renewal of what, if it was not the greatest war, became such by this continuation. And for more than ten years, the consciousness of the world has concentrated on events which have made the ordinary movement of life seem to be the movement of people in the intervals of a storm. The disclosures of the impermanence of the past suggested, and suggest, an impermanence of the future. Little of what we have believed has been true… It is a question of pressure, and pressure is incalculable and eludes the historian. The Napoleonic era is regarded as having had little or no effect on the poets and the novelists who lived in it. But Coleridge and Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen did not have to put up with Napoleon and Marx and Europe, Asia and Africa all at one time. It seems possible to say that they knew of the events of their day much as we know of the bombings in the interior of China and not at all as we know of the bombings of London, or, rather, as we should know of the bombings of Toronto or Montreal.

Photograph by Maria Popova

With an eye to the disorientation of the transitional era in which he is writing — an era perhaps as transitional and disorienting as our own — Stevens examines the familiar helplessness of witnessing reality crumble:

Rightly or wrongly, we feel that the fate of a society is involved in the orderly disorders of the present time. We are confronting, therefore, a set of events, not only beyond our power to tranquillize them in the mind, beyond our power to reduce them and metamorphose them, but events that stir the emotions to violence, that engage us in what is direct and immediate and real, and events that involve the concepts and sanctions that are the order of our lives and may involve our very lives; and these events are occurring persistently with increasing omen, in what may be called our presence. These are the things that I had in mind when I spoke of the pressure of reality, a pressure great enough and prolonged enough to bring about the end of one era in the history of the imagination and, if so, then great enough to bring about the beginning of another.

The imagination, Stevens argues, is our mightiest survival mechanism in such tumultuous times — those endowed with a great magnitude of it are better able to withstand these crushing pressures of reality:

It is one of the peculiarities of the imagination that it is always at the end of an era. What happens is that it is always attaching itself to a new reality, and adhering to it. It is not that there is a new imagination but that there is a new reality. The pressure of reality may, of course, be less than the general pressure that I have described. It exists for individuals according to the circumstances of their lives or according to the characteristics of their minds. To sum it up, the pressure of reality is, I think, the determining factor in the artistic character of an era and, as well, the determining factor in the artistic character of an individual. The resistance to this pressure or its evasion in the case of individuals of extraordinary imagination cancels the pressure so far as those individuals are concerned.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings and his creative bravery

From this vantage point of the imagination as an antidote to the pressure of reality, he considers the essential existential task of the creative person:

[The artist] must be able to abstract himself and also to abstract reality, which he does by placing it in his imagination… It imperative for him to make a choice, to come to a decision regarding the imagination and reality; and he will find that it is not a choice of one over the other and not a decision that divides them, but something subtler, a recognition that here, too, as between these poles, the universal interdependence exists, and hence his choice and his decision must be that they are equal and inseparable.

A century and a half after John Keats contemplated the three levels of reality, Stevens offers his own taxonomy of reality’s three stages across modern history:

First … there is the reality that is taken for granted, that is latent and, on the whole, ignored. It is the comfortable American state of life of the [eighteen] eighties, the nineties and the first ten years of the [twentieth] century. Next, there is the reality that has ceased to be indifferent, the years when the Victorians had been disposed of and intellectual minorities and social minorities began to take their place and to convert our state of life to something that might not be final. This much more vital reality made the life that had preceded it look like a volume of Ackermann’s colored plates or one of Töpfer’s books of sketches in Switzerland… Reality then became violent and so remains. This much ought to be said to make it a little clearer that in speaking of the pressure of reality, I am thinking of life in a state of violence, not physically violent, as yet, for us in America, but physically violent for millions of our friends and for still more millions of our enemies and spiritually violent, it may be said, for everyone alive.

While Stevens focuses on poetry, he uses the word “poet” much like James Baldwin did, to connote all artists. But he counters Baldwin’s notion of the artist as “a sort of emotional or spiritual historian” with his own vision of the artist as a sort of emotional or spiritual futurist. Stevens writes:

A possible poet must be a poet capable of resisting or evading the pressure of the reality of this last degree, with the knowledge that the degree of today may become a deadlier degree tomorrow.

And yet, he argues, the artist must not create out of a mere sense of social duty — any political dimension of art should be a consequence but not a cause:

Reality is life and life is society and the imagination and reality; that is to say, the imagination and society are inseparable… Yes: the all-commanding subject-matter of poetry is life, the never-ceasing source. But it is not a social obligation. One does not love and go back to one’s ancient mother as a social obligation. One goes back out of a suasion not to be denied. Unquestionably if a social movement moved one deeply enough, its moving poems would follow. No politician can command the imagination, directing it to do this or that.

Shortly after William Faulkner proclaimed in his spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech that “the poet’s, the writer’s, duty is… to help man endure by lifting his heart,” Stevens considers the ultimate function of the artist:

Certainly it is not to lead people out of the confusion in which they find themselves. Nor is it, I think, to comfort them while they follow their readers to and fro. I think that [the artist’s] function is to make his imagination theirs and that he fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people to live their lives.

Photograph by Maria Popova

But alongside this necessary fidelity to reality is also the supreme function of the artist’s imagination — the ability to transcend what is and to envision a different, better version of what could be. (Ursula K. Le Guin would speak to this splendidly in her essay on how our imaginative storytelling enlarges our scope of the possible.) Once again speaking to poetry with insight that applies equally to all creative endeavors, Stevens offers:

The poetic process is psychologically an escapist process… Since what makes the poet the potent figure that he is, or was, or ought to be, is that he creates the world to which we turn incessantly and without knowing it and that he gives to life the supreme fictions without which we are unable to conceive of it.

He returns to the notion of nobility as the central animating force of the imagination. In another passage of acute and almost tragic pertinence to our own time, in which the destructively cynical is routinely replacing the ennobling, Stevens writes:

I cannot be sure that the decline, not to say the disappearance of nobility is anything more than a maladjustment between the imagination and reality… It is not only that the imagination adheres to reality, but, also, that reality adheres to the imagination and that the interdependence is essential.


The imagination gives to everything that it touches a peculiarity, and it seems to me that the peculiarity of the imagination is nobility, of which there are many degrees. This inherent nobility is the natural source of another, which our extremely headstrong generation regards as false and decadent. I mean that nobility which is our spiritual height and depth… But there it is. The fact that it is there is what makes it possible to invite to the reading and writing of poetry men of intelligence and desire for life.

Stevens concludes with a luminous lens on the supreme duty of creative work, be it poetry or any other form of art:

For the sensitive poet, conscious of negations, nothing is more difficult than the affirmations of nobility and yet there is nothing that he requires of himself more persistently, since in them and in their kind, alone, are to be found those sanctions that are the reasons for his being and for that occasional ecstasy, or ecstatic freedom of the mind, which is his special privilege.


As a wave is a force and not the water of which it is composed, which is never the same, so nobility is a force and not the manifestations of which it is composed, which are never the same… It is not an artifice that the mind has added to human nature. The mind has added nothing to human nature. It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.

The Necessary Angel is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement it with this mobilizing modern manifesto for making art in difficult times and poet Elizabeth Alexander on what sets great artists apart, then revisit Baldwin’s timeless meditation on the artist’s responsibility to society.


Beloved Poet Thom Gunn’s Reading List of 10 Essential Books to Enchant Teenagers with Poetry

“Poetry is of many sorts and is all around us… a rhymed political slogan is poetry of a kind, for example, and the lyrics of a song by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or Bob Dylan may be poetry of a very high order.”

Beloved Poet Thom Gunn’s Reading List of 10 Essential Books to Enchant Teenagers with Poetry

“Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire,” wrote Adrienne Rich in her beautiful meditation on what poetry does. Few of her peers and contemporaries have embodied this poetic potentiality more vigorously than the prolific English-born poet and LGBT icon Thom Gunn (August 29, 1929–April 25, 2004) — one of those artists who never reached a mainstream mass but who elicited, and continue to elicit, a fervent, almost cultish adoration from their circle of loyal admirers. Oliver Sacks worshipped him, titled his own memoir after a line from one of Gunn’s poems, and learned about the nature of creativity from him.

On a recent visit to the unmined archives of the Academy of American Poets — which gave us such gold as that supreme defense of the artist’s right to challenge the status quo and the acutely timely story of the creative community’s courageous solidarity against racial violence in 1968 — I came upon a wonderful Gunn treasure.


In the fall of 1969, Elizabeth Kray — the Academy’s first executive director and one of the most spirited champions of poetry our civilization has ever had — reached out to Gunn, asking him what books he would insist his students read if he were a high school English teacher.

Three years earlier, Kray had piloted the Poets-in-the-Schools program, under which prominent poets visited New York City public schools in a quest to enchant young minds with poetry. She hoped the effort would engender “a permanent hook-up between the literary community and the persons involved in teaching the young: the teachers and the parents.” The program was an immediate success, and Kray now endeavored to use the book recommendations of the era’s greatest poets as the backbone of a reading list for a city-wide, and eventually nation-wide, reading program.

Letter from Elizabeth Kray to Thom Gunn, 1969
Letter from Elizabeth Kray to Thom Gunn, 1969

Forty-year-old Gunn complied gladly, if with delay. His largehearted response came handwritten, like most of his correspondence, and offered the ten most essential books to inspire a young mind for a lifetime of reading, alongside a beautiful meditation on the many-guised life of poetry beyond its traditional literary form.

Letter from Thom Gunn to Elizabeth Kray
Letter from Thom Gunn to Elizabeth Kray

Dear Betty Kray,

I am sorry to have been so long in answering your letter, in which you ask me for a list of books. I have not listed fiction, as my own reading of contemporary fiction is too random for me to be much help. And my list of poetry is a short one, as I think it will be more useful this way. It would be tempting to list all the twentieth century poets I myself like, but it strikes me that a poet like Wallace Stevens would be difficult to teach well to teenagers, so I have stuck with books about which I am certain.

I think the first aim of someone teaching poetry in a high school should be to continuously demonstrate that poetry is of many sorts and is all around us; that a rhymed political slogan is poetry of a kind, for example, and the lyrics of a song by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or Bob Dylan may be poetry of a very high order; that inevitably most people have commerce with poetry in some part of their lives. The book that fist demonstrated this to me was

  1. The Poet’s Tongue (public library), edited by W.H. Auden and John Garrett.

    It is thirty years old, and I believe it is not published over here [in America], but it is in print in England, and is a book I think any high school teacher should get hold of. It is an anthology of all kinds of poetry, from all times, and successfully demonstrates the range and possibilities of poetry.

    The teacher should also get copies of:

  2. The Bob Dylan Song Book (public library), and
  3. The Beatles Song Book (public library) (to be published this month). “Sir Patrick Spens” is a poem not immediately available to most teenagers. But many of them already know and like the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” which is a ballad right in the same tradition.

    I think the following could be successfully taught:

  4. Wilfred Owen: Collected Poems (public library)
  5. D.H. Lawrence: Selected Poems (public library) (ed. Rexroth), (Compass Books)

    and even

  6. Ezra Pound: Selected Poems (public library) (New Directions)
  7. The Pound would be less easy to teach than the other two, but there are plenty of poems in it (“The Ballad of the Goodly Fere,” the Cathay poems) that could be much enjoyed by teenage students.

    Of really contemporary poets, I would include the following:

  8. Gary Snyder: The Back Country (public library) (New Directions) and any of his other books the teacher could get hold of.
  9. Allen Ginsberg: Howl and Other Poems (public library) (City Lights) and Planet News (public library)

    These are two poets who can most successfully speak to teenagers (and to a good many others of us). True, there are references to sex and drugs, and I don’t know what school policies may be about these. I think poems about sex and drugs are particularly good for teenagers to read, and if these two poets have to be bowdlerized out of the suggested program then I doubt if the program can be much good.

  10. Sylvia Plath: Ariel (public library)
  11. Ted Hughes: Lupercal (public library) or Selected Poems (public library)

I would hesitate to suggest Robert Bly or James Wright. They are fine poets but I think people under eighteen would have a good deal of difficulty with them.

As I say, sorry to have been so long. Don’t bother to answer this. I am sure you have plenty on your hands.


Thom Gunn

It might be self-evident to point out, and yet point out I must, that Gunn’s own Collected Poems (public library) belong on any such contemporary list.

Complement with Hemingway’s list of sixteen essential books every aspiring writer should read, Gabriel García Márquez on the twenty-four books that shaped him as a writer, and other notable reading lists by Oliver Sacks, Patti Smith, Carl Sagan, David Byrne, Joan Didion, Leo Tolstoy, Susan Sontag, Werner Herzog, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Stewart Brand, Sam Harris, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Join me in supporting the Academy of American Poets with a donation to ensure the survival of their remarkable archive and their ongoing advocacy of poetry in public schools and public life.


A Love Letter to Winter: Adam Gopnik’s Ardent Case for the Cold Season’s Splendor and Significance

“If we didn’t remember winter in spring, it wouldn’t be as lovely… half of the keyboard of life would be missing. We would be playing life with no flats or sharps, on a piano with no black keys.”

A Love Letter to Winter: Adam Gopnik’s Ardent Case for the Cold Season’s Splendor and Significance

“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer,” Albert Camus wrote in what remains one of the most beautiful and enlivening thoughts ever committed to words. But it’s also a thought emblematic of the cultural baggage that burdens our seasonal metaphors, in which winter is invariably a season symbolic of spiritual barrenness, a psychoemotional tundra of chilling discomfort and anguishing longing for warmth.

In 2011, beloved essayist and longtime New Yorker contributor Adam Gopnik set out to reclaim the singular splendors and satisfactions of winter in his lectures celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s reliably rewarding Massey Lecture Series, published as Winter: Five Windows on the Season (public library). Part lyrical love letter to winter, part rigorous cultural history of the season’s image in the popular imagination, Gopnik’s inquiry ranges from the works of Schubert, Pushkin, Hans Christian Anderson, and Goethe to the role of engineers, architects, and polar explorers in shaping our sensibility of the season.

Art by Isabelle Arsenault from Once Upon a Northern Night by Jean E. Pendziwol

Gopnik writes:

Human beings make metaphors as naturally as bees make honey, and one of the most natural metaphors we make is of winter as a time of abandonment and retreat. The oldest metaphors for winter are all metaphors of loss.

Reflecting on the “rare feeling of perfect equanimity” that winter has awakened in him since a young age, he offers a delightfully defiant counterpoint to our cultural mythology of the white season:

My heart jumps when I hear a storm predicted, even in the perpetual grisaille of Paris; my smile rises when cold weather is promised, even in forever-forty-something-Fahrenheit New York. Gray skies and December lights are my idea of secret joy, and if there were a heaven, I would expect it to have a lowering violet-gray sky (and I would expect them to spell gray g-r-e-y) and white lights on all the trees and the first flakes just falling, and it would always be December 19 — the best day of the year, school out, stores open late, Christmas a week away.

But such a disposition, he argues, is a luxury unique to our time:

A taste for winter, a love for winter vistas — a belief that they are as beautiful and seductive in their own way, and as essential to the human spirit and the human soul as any summer scene — is part of the modern condition. Wallace Stevens, in his poem “The Snow Man,” called this new feeling “a mind of winter,” and he identified it with our new acceptance of a world without illusions, our readiness to live in a world that might have meaning but that doesn’t have God. A mind of winter, a mind for winter, not sensing the season as a loss of warmth and light, and with them hope of life and divinity, but ready to respond to it as a positive, and even purifying, presence of something else — the beautiful and peaceful, yes, but also the mysterious, the strange, the sublime — is a modern taste.


A master of intensely gratifying asides, Gopnik substantiates this with the finest, richest, most beautifully worded definition of modernity I’ve ever encountered:

By modern I mean in the sense that the loftier kinds of historians of ideas like to use the term, to mean not just right here and now but also the longer historical period that begins sometime around the end of the eighteenth century, breathes fire from the twin dragons of the French and Industrial Revolutions, and then still blows cinder-breath into at least the end of the twentieth century, drawing deep with the twin lungs of applied science and mass culture. An age of growth and an age of doubt, the age in which, for the first time in both Europe and America, more people were warmer than they had been before, and in which fewer people had faith in God — a period when, at last, the nays had it.

Much as the most spirited defense of darkness was penned only after the proliferation of artificial light, Gopnik reminds us that the allure of winter was made possible by the conquest of artificial warmth:

The romance of winter is possible only when we have a warm, secure indoors to retreat to, and winter becomes a season to look at as much as one to live through.


In a sentiment that calls to mind Robin Wall Kimmerer’s exquisite meditation on how naming confers dignity upon life and gives meaning to existence, Gopnik writes:

There is a humane purpose to watching winter that is found simply in the acts of naming and describing… The first thing that the earliest polar explorers did was to name the ice shelves and coasts — naming them after their patrons and their patrons’ moms — and then the very next thing the very next group of explorers did was to change the names, naming those same things after kaisers and their daughters. Names are the footholds, the spikes the imagination hammers in to get a hold on an ice wall of mere existence.

[The act of naming] is the thing that makes the world humane. It gives structure and meaning to natural events that in themselves contain none… In the past two hundred years we have turned winter from something to survive to something to survey, from a thing to be afraid of to a thing to be aware of. It’s through the slow crawl of distinctions, differentiations, and explanations that the world becomes … well, never manageable, but recognizable, this place we know. The conquest of winter, as both a physical fact and an imaginative act, is one of the great chapters in the modern renegotiation of the world’s boundaries, the way we draw lines between what nature is and what we feel about it.

Shackleton expedition photographer Frank Hurley working under the bows of the Endurance, 1915, found in The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning

Nearly a century after Rilke’s magnificent letter on what winter teaches us about the richness of life and the tenacity of the human spirit, Gopnik writes:

Ice wine, as every drinker knows, is sweetness made from stress. That’s not news, or not exactly. All good wine takes its essential sugar from the stress of its circumstances: pinot noir, the grape of the cold country of Champagne, gets flabby and soupy as the climate warms. But ice wine is extreme sweetness made from extraordinary stress. Every winter the grapes on the Niagara Peninsula are left not merely to chill but to actually freeze — the worst thing that normally can happen to fruit — and then the brutal cold forces all the natural sugar into the core of the grape, where it waits to be pressed out.

And in that simple paradox — the hardest weather makes the nicest wine — lies a secret that gives shape to the winter season, and to our feelings about it. Without the stress of cold in a temperate climate, without the cycle of the seasons experienced not as a gentle swell up and down but as an extreme lurch, bang! from one quadrant of the year to the next, a compensatory pleasure would vanish from the world. There is a lovely term in botany — vernalization — referring to seeds that can only thrive in spring if they have been through the severity of winter. Well, many aspects of our life have become, in the past several hundred years, “vernalized.” (Even those who live in warmth recognize the need for at least the symbols of the cold, as in all that sprayed-on snow in Los Angeles in December.) If we didn’t remember winter in spring, it wouldn’t be as lovely; if we didn’t think of spring in winter, or search winter to find some new emotion of its own to make up for the absent ones, half of the keyboard of life would be missing. We would be playing life with no flats or sharps, on a piano with no black keys.

Complement Gopnik’s altogether bewitching Winter with Annie Dillard on winter and the wonder of life and Tove Jansson’s marvelous wintry allegory of the paradox of control and surrender, then revisit Gopnik on Darwin’s clever strategy for preempting criticism.

For more of Gopnik’s enchanting genius, treat yourself to his wonderful On Being conversation with Krista Tippett:


Grandmother’s Glass Eye: Elizabeth Bishop on How Poetry Pretends Life into Reality

On the glorious “difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly un-real.”

Grandmother’s Glass Eye: Elizabeth Bishop on How Poetry Pretends Life into Reality

Long before poet Elizabeth Bishop (February 8, 1911–October 6, 1979) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, long before she served as Poet Laureate of the United States, she peered forward into the path that would become her calling and contemplated why poetry — that manifestation of the “wild, silky part of ourselves,” the product of a mind “miraculously attuned and illuminated” — exists in the first place.

In a short, penetrating essay on the poetry of W.H. Auden titled “Mechanics of Pretense,” penned when Bishop was barely twenty-three and found in the altogether fantastic Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments (public library), she writes:

Much can be done by means of pretense. Children pretend to speak a foreign language or inscribe its imitation alphabet in their school books, and inspired by the same motives, grow up to become linguists, grammarians, and travelers. Lord Byron, looking in the mirror, pretended to be the Byronic man, and the Byronic man, with his curls and collars, came into existence by the hundred. The growth of the small nation into the empire contains infinities of such pretense, gradually turning to the infinite realities of empire.

This necessary transmutation of pretense into reality, Bishop argues, is a chief purpose of poetry:

One of the causes of poetry must be … the feeling that the contemporary language is not equivalent to the contemporary fact; there is something out of proportion between them, and what is being said in words is not at all what is being said in “things.” To connect this disproportion a pretense is at first necessary. By “pretending” the existence of a language appropriate and comparable to the “things” it must deal with, the language is forced into being. It is learned by one person, by a few, by all who can become interested in that poet’s poetry.

But as this imaginary language is elaborated and is understood by more people, it begins to work two ways at once. “Things” gave rise to the language; now the language arouses an independent life in the “things,” first dimly perceived in them only by the poet.

This interplay between poetry and “things” is something 25-year-old Bishop touches on a year later, in a 1936 letter to Marianne Moore, in which she reflects on Wallace Stevens’s newly released book of poetry, Owl’s Clover:

What strikes me as so wonderful about the whole book … is that it is such a display of ideas at work — making poetry, the poetry making them, etc. That, it seems to me, is the way a poet should think.

And yet this way of thinking is not one that comes naturally to the human mind. Many years later, in a lecture on poetry prepared in Rio in the 1960s but never presented, the draft of which is also included in this volume, Bishop writes:

Writing poetry is an unnatural act. It takes great skill to make it seem natural. Most of the poet’s energies are really directed towards this goal: to convince himself (perhaps, with luck, eventually some readers) that what he’s up to and what he’s saying is really an inevitable, only natural way of behaving under the circumstances.

She then offers the most exquisite metaphor for poetry’s lifeline of a tightrope between pretense and reality, between natural and unnatural:

My maternal grandmother had a glass eye. It fascinated me as a child, and the idea of it has fascinated me all my life. She was religious, in the Puritanical Protestant sense and didn’t believe in looking into mirrors very much. Quite often the glass eye looked heaven-ward, or off at an angle, while the real eye looked at you.


Off and on I have written out a poem called “Grandmother’s Glass Eye” which should be about the problem of writing poetry. The situation of my grandmother strikes me as rather like the situation of the poet: the difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly un-real; the natural with the unnatural; the curious effect a poem produces of being as normal as sight and yet as synthetic, as artificial, as a glass eye.

Complement the wholly wonderful Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box with Mary Oliver on the secret of great poetry and Muriel Rukeyser on why we fear it, then treat yourself to Amanda Palmer’s bewitching reading of Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Possibilities.”


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