The problem of obscurity in the poetry of Wallace Stevens

Charles Puthota, Marquette University


Although twentieth century literature is by and large difficult to read, Stevens's Poetry stands out as particularly obscure. From the beginning of his poetic output, readers and critics have expressed opinions and vented frustrations about the difficulty in understanding his poetry. Such reactions elicited from Stevens not only a great deal of letter writing but also public lectures and other writings--his reluctant responses to the nagging issue of obscurity. This study locates Stevens's obscurity in the rational-irrational aspect, symbols, titles, vocabulary, and modernism. While Stevens's poetry radiates the brilliance of rational activity, his poetry also embodies irrationality. He packed poetry with ideas, often philosophical ones. At the same time he insisted that poetry stems from inexplicable sources such as the unconscious and personal sensibility. The combination of the rational and irrational elements in his poetry helps to explain part of his obscurity. Stevens's symbols contribute to the density of his poetry. Reality's complexity and the imagination's versatility constantly call for symbolic activity. Weaving webs of intricate symbolic shapes and forms, Stevens left his unique mark on them. Because his symbols are fiercely private, readers have trouble entering them. By analyzing the metonymic and metaphorical aspects of his poetry, one can gain insight into Stevens's symbolism. However, Stevens himself did not believe that his symbols could become fully accessible because, as he said, "a poem of symbols exists for itself. You do not pierce an actor's make-up." Because words are inadequate communicators, Stevens tended to infuse his poetry with painterly and musical qualities. Approximating those qualities, his poetry experiments with atmosphere, mood, and even playfulness. In the process, the referential function of the verbal medium is discounted. Because readers are challenged to go beyond the words of the poem to what the words are struggling, at times failing, to communicate, Stevens's poetry cannot but be experienced as difficult. During the modernist period, not only literature but also such arts as painting, music, dance, sculpture, and architecture featured distinctive characteristics of new styles, concepts, forms, and subject matter. Stevens's obscurity must be viewed against the larger movement of modernist experimentation. By studying Stevens in relation to other modernists such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams, one can appreciate Stevens's unique brand of obscurity as well as modernism's preoccupation with complex ways of capturing multifaceted reality.

Recommended Citation

Puthota, Charles, "The problem of obscurity in the poetry of Wallace Stevens" (1999). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9953497.