For reasons I can't explain, I found myself, at morning coffee, thinking about Wallace Stevens' line from "Man Carrying Thing" which goes "The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully."
Stevens is one of my very favourite poets, for many reasons. His language is simple, but beautiful. It is clipped, but rhythmic and lilting. Most of all, the thinking is incredibly abstruse, obsessed with the differences between surfaces and substance, reality and imagination. It is almost phenomenological. I enjoy the feeling I get when I read a poem which satisfies my visceral desire for words, but challenges me with ideas.
For years, I thought I disagreed with his line, and re-quoted it as "The poem must resist the intelligence / Only just successfully."
This morning, I realized, in one of those moments of understanding, that I was confusing poetry with music. Or more exactly, I was thinking about poetry, particularly Stevens', at the boundary between words and music. Great poetry becomes music at some instant.and great poems flicker back and forth between poetry and music.
Music must resist the intelligence only just successfully. Even works in which the primary goal is not visceral, like Boulez' Structures or Cage's 4'33", should provoke a "pleasure" response which we do not fully understand. I am not speaking here about pop music, most of which is designed to be almost totally visceral, although I think an argument could be made with pop music as well.
Is there a limit on how far away from the intelligence art can get before it becomes gibberish? Are Ezra Pound's Cantos brilliant poetry or indecipherable, solipsistic ramblings? I really don't know. If I read one in which he references his own past without explaining it, quotes some ancient Greek, and flings out disconnected and unexplained imagery, is it possible for me to enjoy it? Are the moments of completely opaque reference truly out of reach, or do they somehow suggest, in a non-conscious way, the experience Pound was trying to convey?
Poetry can do this. Film, occasionally, can do this. Music and architecture, it seems to me, depend on this.
Perhaps the coffee was too strong.
Man Carrying Thing
The poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully. Illustration:
A brune figure in winter evening resists
Identity. The thing he carries resists
The most necessitous sense. Accept them, then,
As secondary (parts not quite perceived
Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles
Of the certain solid, the primary free from doubt,
Things floating like the first hundred flakes of snow
Out of a storm we must endure all night,
Out of a storm of secondary things),
A horror of thoughts that suddenly are real.
We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.