Monday with Pessoa (and Stevens and Rilke)

No matter how much we take off what we wear, we’ll never reach nakedness, which is a phenomenon of the soul and not of removing clothes.
—Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, p 221

It has always been my particular madness to see similarities in and make comparisons between unlikely things, even if I’m not in the habit of admitting it. I’m a collagist, a bricoleur and a mockingbird. After reading Wallace Stevens’ poem Cuisine Bourgeoise it occurred to me that I could write a Monday With Pessoa entry around it, not in place of something Pessoa himself has written but as a secondary springhead. And then, in preparing to write it, I found myself sitting with Rilke’s Duino Elegies.

The line from Stevens’ poem that grabbed me is the last one, and it is a question: “Are they men eating reflections of themselves?” Although it is clear that Stevens is referring to a kind of zombie cuisine, a mode of consumption leaning more toward corrosion than ingestion and based on an ossified way of life, I wondered if Pessoa might be said to eat reflections of himself, albeit in a somewhat different sense?

What is the “I” when its primary mode of operation is its deployment in elaborating others—one other after another? Is the “I” consumed or enriched—that is, nourished? Does the self create its own food this way, or is it an illusory food, intellectual carbs that fill one up but choke rather than maintain life? Or does Pessoa escape the prison of self in this way, in an apogee of empathy, merge thus with the world and affirm it?

Since I’m unsettled about Pessoa I turn to Stevens whose position at least with regard to these matters seems more determined.

Throughout the poems of Parts of a World (the book that contains the poem Cuisine Bourgeoise), Stevens seems to set up a dialogue between the human mind and the world at large. The poem is a mediation between the two, some kind of conduit through which the human being establishes a bond of being with the cosmos. There are repetitions of words, “flawed words and stubborn sounds” (The Poems of Our Climate) that Stevens seems to show himself arranging like chess pieces in search of a perfect game. “Everywhere spruce trees bury spruce trees” from Variations on a Summer Day, as well as “The merely revolving wheel/Returns and returns” of The Woman That Had More Babies Than That, to name but two examples, remind me of a peculiar phrase by Heidegger: The world worlds, in which the word “world” is both verb and noun, at once.* Since there’s no way to show this condition (of what we might call Being in/with/of the World) in language other than in more or less circuitous operations of rhetoric or poetic artifice, we have odd phrases such as Heidegger’s and probing poem-machines like Stevens’.

And we have the Duino Elegies, in which reflections of ourselves, whether they be angels or puppets, can only inform us of our aspirations and failures, or, together, the drama that is our life as we attempt to play it out as literature, but cannot tell us what in fact we are, even when (especially when) we want to define ourselves as that which is forever in search of a definition.

I find Rilke most compelling and most true when he evokes failure, with its underlying despair. He is less compelling, for me, when he swells with passion or aspiration toward transcendence. So my favorite Elegies are the eighth and especially the fourth, which evoke Kleist’s puppet essay and Bataille: “The animal is in the world like water in water” (Theory of Religion, p 23, Zone Books, 1989). Here Rilke sums us up: “Flowering and fading come to us both at once.” As soon as a person, even in middle age, begins to feel a certain security the bottom falls out somewhere else. As soon as one begins to feel a sense of self-knowing, Fortuna intercedes to show that the depths of the heart are unfathomable. And the longer one lives the more death accumulates. Perhaps the highest form of wisdom one can attempt is suggested at the end of the Fourth Elegy:

…. that one can contain
death, the whole of death, even before
life has begun, can hold it to one’s heart
gently, and not refuse to go on living

But who needs a reminder? Haven’t we been here before, rolled the same stone up the same hill, read the hollow, ancient admonition etched in the stone itself: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Fuck Sisyphus. And stop worrying about being happy. John Berryman called Rilke a jerk. Sometimes I know what he means.

In the essay Building Dwelling Thinking Heidegger writes:

It is language that tells us about the nature of a thing, provided that we respect language’s own nature. In the meantime, to be sure, there rages round the earth an unbridled yet clever talking, writing, and broadcasting of spoken words. Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.**

If we want a poetry separate from the pack we might do well to heed Heidegger’s words. And so I return to Stevens. Cuisine Bourgeoise describes how, or at least who, not to be: the calcified ones, the zombies who, whether they know it or not, merely reflect each other’s speech, manners and maneuvers. The abrupt switch from the first person plural to the third at the end (“Who, then, are they….”) is jarring. One of the surprisingly potent effects of Stevens’ concise use of language here is that he takes you into the intimacy of the poem with the switch to third person: it is they it is us. We are stuck in the reflection, or in the act of reflecting.

But in the end Stevens’ position, like Rilke’s, remains fixed in another sense: “The words are written, though not yet said.” A poem written from this point of view of the human’s relation to the cosmos cannot be anything other than a limbo, a summer that is and is not. Like the Rilke of the Eighth Duino Elegy, Stevens has made his own bed. The poem is the bed.

I don’t know if Pessoa has it any better. He may just represent the successive sleepwalkers that venture out into the “cosmos” that remains, of logical and structural necessity, an abstraction.

If I were to choose though, I would say Pessoa’s position, not despite its disquieting character but because of it, offers more to the possibility of thought. Stevens seems to suggest that something has been resolved by the poem. Take for example Life on a Battleship, by the end of which Stevens imagines taking control of the ship. It’s an important trope, to become the master of one’s speech and not its puppet. When he writes that the hand that takes control “must be the hand/Of a man” I choose to take that in a Nietzschean sense, that it must be done on our own power, and not with the help of a transcendent being. But when he imagines in the final two lines, “the centre of a circle, spread/To the final full, an end without rhetoric” he loses me. Poetry resolves nothing, and never escapes rhetoric. The nature of language tells us this.

Going back to the beginning quote from The Book of Disquiet—if we take the “removing of clothes” to be an act of writing that attempts to strip away masks, the masks being all of the artifices (including our angels, our puppets and yes our heteronyms) we employ in our interactions with others, we will never by this route reach nakedness—the true and essential being of ourselves—because the nature of writing and the nature of the soul are not the same thing. Thinking, as Heidegger said, may be unavoidable, but it “refuses to be a path to salvation.”***

Pessoa tirelessly repeats that transcendent rest does not exist for the living, and maybe not even for the dead, since no one who has died has reported back to confirm or deny anything. We can believe whatever we want, but beliefs don’t amount to anything substantial. They are the floating branches we grasp in a fast-flowing stream. And such are poems. They only, as Pessoa tells us, serve to pass the time while we’re here. To be sure, we’d rather pass the time this way than in many others, but it doesn’t mean more or less than an hour spent gazing at the passing clouds.

The orientation one takes toward the poem is exactly equivalent to the orientation one takes to the cosmos: it occurs outside the poem. The poem can point, sure, but it cannot be. Only the world, the objects and beings in it (including ourselves) can do that.

* The world worlds, and is more fully in being than the tangible and perceptible realm in which we believe ourselves to be at home. —Martin Heidegger, The Origins of the Work of Art, from Poetry, Language, Thought, p 44, Harper Colophon, 1975

** Ibid, p 146

*** Ibid, p 185

Other books consulted: Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose, Library of America; The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Vintage International.

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15 Responses to Monday with Pessoa (and Stevens and Rilke)

  1. Well done. So many thoughts to ponder, including, “It is language that tells us about the nature of a thing, provided that we respect language’s own nature. “

  2. Susan Scheid says:

    This is an extraordinarily rich post, one I must come back to once our house has quieted down a bit, but for now, what comes to mind immediately in response to what you’ve written are these lines from Stevens’ An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, and particularly a line I’d not focused on before: “The statues will have gone back to be things about.”

    The poem is the cry of its occasion,
    Part of the res itself and not about it.
    The poet speaks the poem as it is,

    Not as it was: part of the reverberation
    Of a windy night as it is, when the marble statues
    Are like newspapers blown by the wind. He speaks

    By sight and insight as they are. There is no
    Tomorrow for him. The wind will have passed by,
    The statues will have gone back to be things about.

    The mobile and immobile flickering
    In the area between is and was are leaves,
    Leaves burnished in autumnal burnished trees

    And leaves in whirlings in the gutters, whirlings
    Around and away, resembiling the presence of thought
    Resembling the presences of thoughts, as if,

    In the end, in the whole psychology, the self,
    the town, the weather, in a casual litter,
    Together, said words of the world are the life of the world.

    I suspect this is not altogether on point, but what struck me and made me think of these lines from Stevens is that the poem, once written, becomes another piece of the real. It exists, it is corporeal, it is, while at one and the same time, as you note, it points.

    And now, instead of doing what I’m most inspire to do on reading this sumptuous post, which is to pull out Rilke and Stevens (and Pessoa, if I had the book, which I see I must get) and think about what you’ve written, I must go to the refrigerator and see what space can be made for the holiday ham about to arrive.

    • Your comment, in turn, has brought a number of things to my mind. First, thanks so much for taking time out of your Holiday to read it. I love engaging with your mind.

      The poem as “part of the res itself and not about it” and your clear reformulation, “the poem, once written, becomes another piece of the real” are a neat statement of one of the tenets of Modernist aesthetics (let’s not even get started on deconstructionist theory). I often think of a statement the poet John Berryman quoted from R.P. Blackmur: the poem “adds to the stock of available reality.” And then there’s Donald Barthelmes’s unforgettable comparison of the literary object to any other object in the world, such as a refrigerator.

      If only the rest of ‘An Ordinary Evening in New Haven’ were so neat! That poem is by turns lucid, beautiful and often abstruse, but it is anything but ordinary. I can’t help but notice he uses a manmade object – the statue – to make his point, and a statue, of all things, is always going to be “about” this or that. Somehow all of these discourses become so many newspaper reports blowing hither and thither in the night wind of the poem. But it’s not clear to me exactly how or even why his poem is doing this, unless he wants the poem to become a mirror to the world that perpetually “is” beyond all of the “abouts” of conversations, reports, analyses and, perhaps, other kinds of poems. Part IX begins:

      We keep coming back and coming back
      To the real: to the hotel instead of the hymns
      That fall upon it out of the wind. We seek

      The poem of pure reality, untouched
      By trope or deviation

      I don’t know who the “we” is here, but I can’t include myself in it, because this is an impossible project. Language can evoke, can, in short, be parallel to the world in many ways, but it can never be the equal of the world (cannot provide the word that is the equal of an object in the world). At least that is how I think and no one has been able to convince me otherwise.

      I can come closer to Stevens’ way of thinking as he puts it in part XXVIII:

      If it should be true that reality exists
      In the mind….

      …. it follows that
      Real and unreal are two in one….

      This endlessly elaborating poem
      Displays the theory of poetry,
      As the life of poetry. A more severe,

      More harassing master would extemporize
      Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory
      Of poetry is the theory of life….

      I like that he stops short of declaring himself such a master. I think that the nature of language requires such modesty.

      • Susan Scheid says:

        Mark: So wonderful to have a quiet moment in all the hubbub to come back here and find this rich discussion. Among other things, what Angela has observed about Ashbery is wonderful. I do think Stevens also is in continuing conversation with the world, though perhaps more filled with tension and argument, whereas my experience of Ashbery is that he flows into the world and out again with ease. (Rather than worrying, as Stevens seems to, about coming back to the real, Ashbery just does it . . . ). To your quotation:

        We keep coming back and coming back
        To the real: to the hotel instead of the hymns
        That fall upon it out of the wind. We seek

        The poem of pure reality, untouched
        By trope or deviation

        I see the “we” as the poet struggling in language and struggling in his/her relationship to the world. When Stevens writes “We seek/The poem of pure reality,” I feel he is in the midst of his ongoing argument with Williams, countering Williams’ ostensible contention that there can be such a thing as a “poem of pure reality.” But I haven’t read “Ordinary” in quite a while, nor have I ever grasped it, other than in parts, so these are only speculations on my part.

        • I don’t know that I recognize such a contention on Williams’ part, and Stevens doesn’t seem to be countering a contention in this section but affirming a goal. I can’t find a reference to Williams.

          But I do think Stevens and Williams have a lot in common. They both (and Ashbery too, come to think of it) keep that “endlessly elaborating poem” going. I said above that Stevens sets up a dialogue between the human mind and the world at large, and I think Williams does that too. For both of them poetry was the result of using language as a medium and their body/mind/imagination as an instrument to see and say the world. They differ in how (and maybe somewhat in why) they did it, but they probably had more in common than not.

          • Susan Scheid says:

            Affirming a goal v countering a contention. That’s interesting. When it comes to Stevens, I’m not sure–could both be true? There is some historical context material I can’t lay my hands on right now that supports an ongoing argument of sorts between Stevens and Williams, but I think you’ve got to be right that they had more in common than not. As for keeping that “endlessly elaborating poem” going, I certainly see that in Stevens, if, that is, I understand what’s meant by the phrase, which I take as an ongoing preoccupation with and expression of certain aesthetic/poetic ideas. That makes sense to me for Ashbery, too (Williams’s work I don’t know well enough even to risk a thought on it).

            • Susan Scheid says:

              But, I thought to myself on waking this morning, my replies are narrowing down terribly from your magnificent opening out. Once the last guest has left, I hope to print this out and go through it. Meantime, starting “from the top,” or nearly, I love this question you pose: “Or does Pessoa escape the prison of self in this way, in an apogee of empathy, merge thus with the world and affirm it?”

              When I read your question in relation to Cuisine Bourgeoise, what strikes me is the possibility that Stevens is bemoaning the separation from nature (“It is what used to be,/As they used to lie in the grass”), of being trapped in the mind (“we feast on human heads” and “on these we live,/No longer on the ancient cake of seed,/The almond and deep fruit. This bitter meat/Sustains us . . .). Is he perhaps writing of the crisis of poetry in the era of Modernism (though here I am certainly out on a twig attached to a tiny limb)? And it all leads back to your opening quote: “No matter how much we take off what we wear, we’ll never reach nakedness, which is a phenomenon of the soul . . .”.

              This is a brilliant, brilliant post. There really is nothing better, or so it seems to me, than a post of intelligent bricolage, like this one. The range and depth of references you draw in here, associating without closing anything down, just opening up and out (so like an Ashbery poem) is remarkable.

              • Stevens doesn’t make it easy. Yes I’m sure he’s saying a lot of things, some of which are apparently contradictory, all at once or from stanza to stanza (or poem to poem). I find him more complex than a lot of poets. I also find myself in accord with Stevens about 90% of the way, then certain lines (like the “end without rhetoric” one) throw me off and I can’t go all the way with him. But Lord knows his is the kind of poetry one can study for years and still learn from.

                I think we could say that Stevens sees poetry as addressing a crisis, just as many modern poets did. A crisis of Poetry? Maybe, but perhaps more importantly epistemological crises relating to language and being. Poetry was the means of addressing the modern crises – but of course that inevitably problematizes poetry too!

                • Susan Scheid says:

                  Mark: Your last para is astounding, pulling back to take in the larger perspective the way you do. I remembered the source of my thoughts about Williams and Stevens, by the way: https://jacket2.org/podcasts/it%E2%80%99s-new-reality-man-poemtalk-14 (likely, at my end, another instance of a little knowledge is a dangerous thing). Ellen Dillon, with whom I shared your incredible post, also pointed out Kora in Hell (Prologues 16 and 17, I think it was) on that subject, which you probably know very well, whereas I know of it, but have not read it. Yet another resolution for 2014, which is just about upon us now–and this is only WCW and Stevens, not even touching Rilke or Pessoa. What a post!!!

                  • Thanks for sharing the podcast – great listening. But if this is an argument, then may we all argue forever. I’m going to mull these things over as I continue to read both Stevens and Williams.

  3. angela says:

    What a wonderful rumination, Mark, on so many levels. (You always make me use my brain when it is least available) I shall post my simple brain’s response with hopes that more may come as I dwell on your words (and collage them with the words I am currently reading)… It seems that all concede, as wordsmiths of a creative art, it is poetry/prose which is their tool to try and broach what we seem hardwired to determine – our place upon this world. Albeit, language remains ruler for it too is a gift in which we are not quite master for we do not know the answers, so, it seems we continue to live a life not quite real. Do we try to make it real through our words, or do we try to uncover the reality as we let the words weave their own story? Pessoa does say it best – that we shall never quite go naked… or is it that we are afraid to uncover our own death, which as you have written is already written on our heart before we are born. It seems rather interesting, the thought on Pessoa verses the others – does his imagining of many selves open his possibilities – I would say yes for he dares to dream those lives not given to him (those deaths not written on his heart)….Yet, his imagination, again, cannot be more than what was written within his grey matter or can it? Interesting note, an Islamic mystic book I’m reading currently on purification of the heart intros with a dialogue on how the heart is really a brain. I cannot quite remember the scientific jargon (cells,etc.) off the top of my head, but it is fascinating to think of matters in this way – if we are able to tap into two minds – brain and heart – would there be a difference when we ‘look’ in the mirror and the words that would fall upon this page… ~

    • Your comment is like a seedpod of ideas. I do think we have to attempt to be the master of our speech, even though (or because) language promises more than it offers in the sense that there are always other ways of saying what has been said and because of all the discursive grafting we are prone to do (collaging one discourse onto another, to paraphrase you). As I suggested in my reply to Susan, no one has ever convinced me that language and the world (if that is what you mean by “reality”) can merge or be a perfect mirror of one another, although some writers seem to come a lot closer to it than others (I say “seem” because we should be suspicious of these appearances, which could only be apparitions). Language is always parallel to the world. So I feel that I have “reality” (I prefer the word “world”) on the one hand, and literature on the other. Literature, at best, facilitates a conversation with the world, but I think we make a lot of mistakes when we think of language as equivalent to the world, a mirror reflection of it, definition of it, explanation of it, etc. We will never be masters of the world, but it’s theoretically possible, at least, to be masters of our speech. Whether we can be masters of ourselves is another question, since it is possible to get lost in the wilds of our own hearts. We can use all of our brainpower and our mastery of language to go to the limits of our own knowable, and if we’re really good, we can find a way of articulating the experience of tottering before our own unknowable.

      • angela says:

        Oh my…i do believe your reply leaves me a bit reeling – though, there is a semi-sense of understanding when you write that lit is facilitating a convo with the world. What, however, does it mean to be masters of our speech? (not trying to debate – truly a bit flummoxed..) Reading your last few lines, however, makes me realize why PoMo (think KG) bothers me for where is the tottering edge when it is just recycling?
        On a different note – went hunting for Stevens in my collection only to find it was Williams (which just would not do) so grabbed my selected vol. of Ashbery – there were many gems, including, “Some Words” and bits of “The Skaters” and what donned on me was Ashbery (for me) DOES have a convo with the world (esp nature) and brings it inside ( body/mind) making what Frost writes remain Nature while Ashbery reveals Nature’s nature to me…(if that makes any sense) – Thanks for inspiring me to crack that book open again – he is a wonderful winter read ~ a

        • I use the word “mastery” in two ways: writers should attempt to master language from a technical standpoint the way anyone should master the techniques in their field. Secondly I think one should exercise constant vigilance to be sure one is choosing one’s own words and not parroting others. Being bewitched by other people’s discourses is one of the most pernicious diseases in society. A lot of folks don’t even realize they’re not speaking their own words, hence not thinking their own thoughts. If it takes constant vigilance and work, then “mastery” is not too strong a word. In the first place it’s mastering techniques, in the second it’s self-discipline. It’s very important to me because as a child I was 1) verbally abused and 2) bewitched by religious dogma.

          Everyone has their own edge, their own limit in terms of what they are capable of knowing, and anyone interested in thinking and writing, it seems to me, is naturally interested in finding it, at least I am. And when you reach the limit of what you can know you come to an abyss, like teetering on the edge of a cliff. Articulating the experience of hovering on that edge can result in amazing poetry or philosophy. I think Bataille, mostly as a philosopher but also as a poet, has articulated this experience more thoroughly than anyone. And then there’s a clown like KG. There are so many reasons why I can’t stand KG, I could go on and on. All you have to do is pick up a book on Andy Warhol and see that Warhol already did all of that stuff. There’s no need to do it again – and again and again. It’s so lame. Honestly, I think people find his socks more interesting than his art.

          Yes, on Ashbery. It seems I’ve said it a thousand times now: he’s the supreme example of an artist, for me. Art is above all a conversation with the world, and this is exactly what his poetry inspires.

  4. ManicDdaily says:

    Hi Mark–you have drawn such wonderful comparisons here and pulled out such great parallels–I find I am much more drawn to poetry than philosophy because I can understand context better than paradigm! I don’t know if that is the right way to put it–I keep thinking in reading your post of the Buddhist phrase about the cup you are drinking from is already broken–those lines from the Duino Elegies are so very beautiful. Thanks much. k.

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