”Reality and the Nature of Perception in Wallace Stevens’ ‘An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,’”

Wallace Stevens’ An Ordinary Evening in New Haven as a poem for Sculptors

Artist’s talks about their own work, mine included, are often less than satisfying both for the artist and for the audience. What seems to happen is that we take our points of reference our motivations and our interests in the work and discuss them, as if that discussion was primary to the work. Of course, what we would all prefer is for the work to open itself to the viewer in such complete lucidity that a talk like this would be superfluous. What I acknowledge, in the end, is that my own words on my work are outside of the work and your response to it.

My talks about my own work in other circumstances center around the following issues: the investment of form with identity and character, a fascination with edge as both opening and closing form, the meanings inherent in posture and gesture, the inter-relationship of forms in groups, and the conversation between sculpture and two dimensional work. But what I want to do today is to talk about this last issue, the interaction of sculpture and drawing, and in that conversation hopefully the other subjects will come to light. Like many sculptors, I spend a roughly equal amount of time in my studio working in two and three dimensions. As a consequence I think I have come to an understanding for myself of strengths of these two apparently different activities and the worlds that they represent. This work has been sustaining.
The way I want to approach this subject is somewhat indirect and perhaps a bit risky. I have known for a month that I would be coming here today and in concocting a new way to talk about my work I may have overworked.

My first art form was poetry. I was a passionate, romantic, and ridiculous poet whose sudden self-awareness in college sent me thankfully, straight into the studio. I have not been tempted to return to writing poetry except privately in the writing of short poems in search of titles for my work. The reason I mention this here is that my experience as a poet has left me with an abiding love of reading poetry. Two years ago I began a conversation with one my close friends that is ongoing today; a conversation about the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Our talks have concentrated on a subject prominent in many of Stevens’ poems, that of the nature of reality, the nature of perception, and in particular the nature of the perception of artists. Stevens was interested in art, American Modernism especially. Though some of his comments on art were dismissive he attended carefully to the art of his time and many have remarked on his relationship with the development of abstraction in both poetry and painting. He saw in abstraction an opportunity to represent fleeting glimpses of wholeness in a world of parts and flux. His means were what he called a “pure rhetoric of a language without words.” His words were often used in ways that were non-linear. His work focuses on the problem facing all artists: how to reconcile the separation between imagination and reality. Stevens places great emphasis on the power of the imagination to fix and define what we call real and in this I have found resonance, even courage.

I want to use a certain poem today to help me find a way into my own work. Written in 1949 An Ordinary Evening in New Haven is an extended meditation that evolves as Stevens walks through a series of uneventful rainy evenings in autumn. Stevens wrote a great deal of his poetry in his head while walking.

What I want to remind you of as I read is that this is a talk about sculpture and drawing. Sculpture, in traditional forms at least, is solid, separate, and definite – real, practical and actual. Drawing, in contrast, is often light, ephemeral, open – imaginary, weightless, and mutable.
What I hope to show today is how these two very different forms are attached, how, at least in my work, they collude.

I’m going to read the first two of thirty-one stanzas from An Ordinary Evening in New Haven but I will refer to and later quote from the whole work.

As Stevens looks at and listens to the town of New Haven, he assesses the objects, the houses, the sounds, the stuff of the world – and its difference from and attachment to our internal world. In this Stevens wonderfully expresses a central divide with which every artist, particularly a sculptor, must come to terms.

On one side of that divide he places the

“vulgate of experience…”,
“the plainness of plain things…”,
“The poem of pure reality untouched by trope or deviation…”,
the world as “Dark things without a double after all..”,
“… the object at the exactest point at which it is itself..”.

He calls this ,”A great giant”, that defies knowing, unless –

“Unless a second giant kills the first-
A recent imagining of reality…”

So on the other side Stevens implies that there is

“A larger poem for a larger audience”
“A mythological form…. composed of ourselves.”
“Not that which is, but that which is apprehended,”

This problem is as familiar to the philosopher as it is to the beginning drawing student – Platonic in heritage but shifted to privilege the poet, for my purposes the artist, something, of course, Plato would never have done. The problem as one makes images, or objects is one of measurement. Measurement of the distance between our subjects and ourselves. Stevens states the problem in many ways throughout the poem.

“Reality is the beginning not the end,
Naked Alpha, not the hierophant Omega
Of dense investiture…”
( Hierophant is an interpreter of sacred mysteries or arcane knowledge. I certainly had to look it up)
” The poem is the cry of its own occasion”
The work of art becomes inseparable from its sources. It becomes its own subject. The act of the artist contains and transmutes its object to becomes its own subject. This is not to say that that the subject is lost, as perhaps it was during the height of formalist abstraction.

“The poet speaks the poem as it is
Not as it was… when the marble statues
Are like newspapers blown by the wind….”

The language begins to reveal why I am using this poem today, for as sculptors know their art must be as solid and plain as things can be. The “plainness of plain things” , “ the object at the exactest point at which it is itself” — This has been taken to be sculpture’s central strength. But in Stevens poem and I hope in my work things must be more open than that – as changeable to the mind as a newspaper blown across a road. As Stevens states it, reality is far more a synthesis of the actual and the made. It is not enough to simply observe, to capture a moment or idea and hold it. Reality is too changeable for that to suffice. We must invest things with desire and enter the flux. This is something that drawing perhaps allows for with greater ease. Yet it also must rival and be the equal of its more physical counterparts in art.

“The point of vision and desire are the same…
… it is desire, set deep in the eye,
Behind all actual seeing, in the actual scene,…
… that would be fulfilled.

It is more important to see into and even through the world to find something real. The only way to make something real is to take it in and make it over again through desire and the imagination and by doing so to change and remake the world. This is as touching a description of the act of art making that I know.

But interestingly he warns the reader that we should beware of the pretension inherent in the high minded search for truth.
“the search for reality is as monotonous as the search for God.”
It is the philosopher’s search for an interior made exterior and the poets search for the same exterior made interior.”

The play between the outer and the inner is as much the subject of Steven’s poem as it is, I hope the subject my work. Not that this is special to my work. My combination of observation and transformation of form is familiar enough. Rather, the work here, sculpture and drawing, presents itself as existing in both of Stevens’ spheres.

In its mute physical presence sculpture might be seen as belonging to “the vulgate of experience”. I have worked hard to make, “these difficult objects” more like Steven’s second giant than his first – more like “A new resemblance of the sun”. But the difficulty of apprehending sculpture is a problem, even for the sculptor.

The dimensions of the divide between object and its conception are hard to measure. Drawing helps me to understand and bridge the distances. I, like many sculptors, draw for different ends. Plan, structure, re-appraisal, close observation. I am at various distances from my objects, making other kinds of objects in the bargain. *** If the sculptures (even when they exist in groups) are singular boundered wholes and the drawings are multiple, overlapping and indistinct what holds them together. In my most recent forms I’m after a kind of openness, as if perhaps their very skeletons might at any moment change. And in the drawings, by most often refusing to describe in definite terms individual forms, I am after the same thing.

Another writer who has seen clearly into the dual nature of sculpture and it relation to drawing is German Rainer Maria Rilke . In his monograph on Rodin he wrote,

“Sculpture was a thing separate, as was the easel picture, but it did not require a wall like the picture. It did not even need a roof. It was an object that could exist for itself alone, and it was well to give it entirely the character of a thing about which one could walk, and which could be seen from all sides. — And yet, it had to distinguish itself somehow from other things, the ordinary things which everyone could touch. It had to become unimpeachable, sacrosanct, separate from chance and time through which it rose, isolated and miraculous like the face of a seer. It had to be given its own place, in which no arbitrariness had placed it, and it must be intercalated in the silent continuance of space and its great laws.”

. William Tucker writes that “Rilke, in his vision of sculpture as the necessary art for this moment in history, with its concreteness both as object and as process, its compound existence in every day reality and in the inner world of the imagination, belonged himself to the younger generation of artists who were searching for a way past the figure of Rodin.”

The way past Rodin for sculptors was indicated by Rodin himself. The way was marked by drawings. Rilke saw clearly and wrote about the different nature of Rodin’s drawing and its role in his work. “The drawings of Rodin prepare the way for the sculptural work by transforming and changing the suggestions…. But, more importantly in relation to the subject at hand, Rilke refers to Rodin’s gestural drawings, calling them,

“The strange documents of the momentary …. of the unnoticeable,, of the unnoticeable passing.”

What Wallace Stevens calls
“ the spirit of visible and invisible change”,
” the mobile and the immobile flickering”,
“the marble statues like newspapers blown by the wind.”

The interaction between drawings and sculpture is a play divided. They are engaged in the inter-penetration of Stevens’ notion of “the idea and the bearer/being of the idea”…

“one part
held tenaciously in common earth,
and one from central earth to central sky

Stevens admits that his worlds overlap and conspire. Remember he says “The point of vision and desire are the same”…
In an essay on his own work Stevens rightly identifies the mutable position of poetry and the importance of the reader in the completion of the work. “It is always an inner position never certain, never fixed. It is to be found beneath the poets word and deep within the readers eye in those chambers in which the genius of poetry sits alone with her candle in a moving solitude.”

I understand that I have, perhaps considerably, bent this poem to fit my purposes here. I certainly don’t feel that I have I done it justice on its own terms. Its range is far broader than my attempts to use it. Still I have found great resonance in it and in Rilke’s essay. They have helped me see the ground over which I walk.

Stevens ends An Ordinary Evening in New Haven with a re-iteration of his image of the real. In this closing section he affirms the mind’s freedom to live wholly within its own perception of reality or more specifically within the imaginations fictive ideas of the physical world. I will use it again to say the in these drawings, even in these sculptures –

“It is not the premise that reality
is a solid. It may be a shade that traverses
a dust, a force that traverses a shade.”

This thinking simply frames my work. Individual pieces have specific origin and subject matter. I want now to retrace my way through some of these slides and talk about them in more concrete terms.