APRIL 17, 2019
CAN POEMS TEACH US how to live? What does it mean to approach poetry as a source of self-help? It’s not hard to call to mind examples of poetry that rouse or soothe or refocus a reader, lifting or quieting the mind like a deep breath. Yet much of the poetry encountered in literature classrooms and canonical anthologies may not readily reflect the self that is reading it, and therefore may not readily become a tool of self-improvement. The work of many modernist poets in particular is placed under the banner of “art for art’s sake,” a motto meant to explicitly free such poetry from the responsibility of serving a didactic or utilitarian function. The poems of Wallace Stevens, for instance, are frequently taken to epitomize the kind of high modernist difficulty that in its slippery symbology and ambiguous affect would seemingly resist being reliably employed for any useful purpose.
But Joan Richardson’s How to Live, What to Do: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Wallace Stevens emphatically asserts the practical use-value of poetic difficulty. As is suggested by Richardson’s title (which borrows from a Stevens poem), Stevens is in fact concerned above all with improving the daily lives of his readers. However, unlike the literature of self-help, these poems seem to offer very little by way of straightforward advice or therapeutic instruction. In place of directives, Stevens’s poetry offers a kind of training ground wherein, for Richardson, the hallmarks of a well-lived life might be discovered and practiced. This is to say that in learning to read a Stevens poems, we are actually learning a new way to live, a mental makeover that can only proceed when, through poetry, we begin to feel ourselves think.
But what exactly does thinking feel like? And what is improved by the capacity to feel one’s thoughts? How to Live describes an extended history of American thinkers who are deeply concerned with such questions, from the Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards — who first observed that “the mind feels when it thinks” — to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in turn would demonstrate for William James (his godson) how reading might produce the best conditions for feeling oneself thinking. Richardson’s new book situates Stevens in this introspective lineage by arguing that his poetry presents a privileged means of attuning oneself to “the difficult wonder of thinking.”
In tracking this persistent American interest in the feeling of thought, Richardson’s genealogy also seems to register the gradual secularization of this contemplative practice: the heightened state of attention that characterizes prayer in Edwards becomes in Stevens an “exercise in meditation” on what it means to live in a world without God — to live, that is, in a state of radical uncertainty regarding the universe’s origin and one’s place within it. The secular and the sacrosanct are, however, not so easily disentangled in Richardson’s telling. When the texts and ministers of the religion in which one was reared have surrendered authority, Stevens sees it as the poet’s job to write a new kind of scripture, poems that are sacred to the extent that they both demand and cultivate the intensive attention previously reserved for acts of prayer. Just as Emerson’s prose activated this quality of heightened focus for Stevens, so Richardson describes the decades she has spent studying Stevens as a long instructive practice in devotional attention, a practice equally available to all Stevens’s readers: “By reading Stevens we learn to pray.”
In contending that praying is a learned activity, Richardson signals a new elision of poetry’s pedagogical and pastoral functions. In the literary lineage she draws from Emerson to Stevens, the poet-teacher cannot be separated from the poet-minister. Thus, when Richardson describes Stevens’s body of work as a “primer” for practices of meditative attention, she is recalling the earliest sense of the word, where a primer was explicitly designated as a prayer book or devotional manual. This etymology recalls that education and religion were once inseparable, a pairing that has long since grown uneasy for many. Yet it is precisely this tension between spiritual and educational commitment that defines the American pragmatist tradition to which Richardson has devoted her intellectual career. In her previous books, A Natural History of Pragmatism (2006) and Pragmatism and American Experience (2014), she describes how pragmatists answered Emerson’s call for a “new Teacher” that might offer post-religious instruction in spiritual living — no longer focused on ensuring the everlasting fitness of the soul, but instead, on improving the daily experience of the self.
For Emerson, this secular-spiritual approach to self-help could be cultivated in two ways: first, by learning how to pay attention to the workings of one’s own mind; and, second, by learning how to redeem atrophied habits of thought such that one’s mind can again be receptive to “the miraculous in the common.” Newly invigorated, such a receptive mind discovers what is extraordinary in ordinary perception. According to Richardson, these Emersonian practices would later form the basis of William James’s philosophy of pragmatism. Stevens would then internalize these same principles during his time at Harvard (where he studied from 1897 to 1900 while James was a beloved philosophy professor whose presence — in Stevens’s own words — “permeated the atmosphere”).
The first principle of James’s pragmatist pedagogy is the eschewing of didactic directives; propagating the methods of pragmatism therefore requires learning to teach without being traditionally instructive. Devoted to this nonprescriptive pedagogical principle, Richardson models her approach to reading Stevens pragmatically, without ever explicitly defining her method. To this end, she proffers her own reading experience as evidence of the poet’s transformative tutelage: “Stevens has educated and continues to educate me,” she writes, in ways that have “helped me to live my life.” As the book proceeds, she increasingly replaces her first-person testimonial with an inclusive “we,” imbuing even her grammar with the conviction that readers might also receive powerful lessons for living from Stevens. The challenge Richardson sets for herself with How to Live is to offer “everything a reader new to Stevens would need to know.” But How to Live is also a pragmatist project — where transmitting didactic knowledge about Stevens is less important than preparing a new reader to encounter Stevens on the reader’s own terms. This apparent contradiction prompts Richardson to develop an unusual critical method and approach to her material.
We can understand this approach by considering how James differentiates between two forms of knowing — what he calls knowledge-about and what he calls knowledge of acquaintance. To know–about is to engage a subject cognitively via a perspective that might be shared with others, using terms and methods that might be held in common. In contrast, acquaintance describes an instructive experience with a subject that is felt but not so readily defined or expressed. James thus partitions a thinking domain of knowledge from a feeling domain of knowledge on the grounds that the former invites an articulation that the latter eludes. Crucially, he also tests this distinction by proposing that an especially introspective novelist or poet may in fact be capable of conveying what thinking feels like for the thinker. If James describes in general the exemplary writer who might bridge these two distinct spheres of knowing — variously paired as the intelligible and the intuitive, the introspective and the empathetic, thinking and feeling — then for Richardson this figure is exemplified in Stevens. As such, How to Live presents a compelling test case for Stevens’s work and for the use of poetry more broadly, as a form particularly suited to communicating the ineffable feeling of thinking.
How then does the work of Richardson — or any similar pragmatist critic — illuminate and facilitate this elusive type of communication? Her opening assertion, that over decades of reading the poet she has “learned to speak Stevens,” offers a clue for understanding her unorthodox approach in “priming her readers” to read Stevens’s poetry as their own means of feeling themselves thinking. In place of critical biography or how-to heuristics, Richardson works to transmit a life of lessons gleaned from Stevens by channeling his influence — in both the structure and style of her study. In recounting her longer history with the poet, she describes the years spent expanding her dissertation into a two-volume biography of Stevens as an extended process of imitation that verged on inhabitation. She worked to see the world through Stevens’s eyes by engrossing herself with everything he wrote as well as everything he read — even emulating such daily habits as drinking a martini over lunch. As Richardson observes, this immersion in all-things-Stevens resulted in many of his locutions becoming essential elements of her own patterns of thought and speech. She began, in short, to write sentences that sound like Stevens, her thinking so acquainted with Stevens’s introspective signature that (as James had hoped) the poet’s paradigm was felt nearly as intimately as her own.
How to Live’s subtitle, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Wallace Stevens,” refers to Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” a poem characterized by its haiku-like compression and its recursive iterations. The 13 chapters of Richardson’s book are similarly committed to concision, and their nonlinear organization can seem equally enigmatic; she patterns her book in a structural affinity with a “practitioner of haiku” who knows “that every word must indeed count.” Though Richardson’s critical constraints are of a different order than the poet’s, whose verses are formally restricted to 17 syllables, her condensed style unfolds in similarly redolent sentences that require and reward rereading. Indeed, Richardson’s prose often demands the same concentration of readerly attention as the poems that are her subject. Most readers, I would wager, are willing to accept that it takes time and careful effort to grapple with a haiku-like stanza of Stevens; some may be startled, however, to encounter an introduction to Stevens that strategically partakes of his poetic density rather than merely presuming to unpack it.
Indeed, despite its slim weight and sparse word count, How to Live is not a quick read: it requires time to feel oneself think, and Richardson is not pretending there are any short-cuts. As she attests: “in our accelerated climate,” reading someone like Stevens helpfully warrants a slowing down, fostering “an acute attention to and distillation of thinking”; such an exercise in deceleration serves as an “ideal corrective to life in our moment, when for most of us it seems as if there is no time left to think.” To read slowly is to press pause on the pace of modern life, to claim the quietude in which we might actually feel ourselves thinking. In writing prose that demands the same careful attention as poetry, Richardson situates herself in a tradition of poetic pragmatism that follows Emerson in bridging the apparent divide between scholars and poets. For Richard Poirier, the first critic to bring pragmatism to literary studies, Emerson offers a powerful model for conjoining creative and critical writing by tasking both with defamiliarizing the way we inhabit language. Poirier coins the phrase “reading in slow motion” to describe a practice of reading necessitated by such defamiliarization — a practice that remains highly attuned to the multiple ways that a set of words might mean, never letting those multiple resonances settle into certainties. Richardson’s commitment to defamiliarizing — and thus slowing down — the reading process means that readers seeking a book that will accelerate the path to understanding and living through Stevens may find themselves frustrated.
Working to allay this frustration, Richardson borrows from Stevens a stylistic technique she calls “recursive amplification.” Each time Richardson revisits a striking phrase or stanza, it acquires new resonances but also new familiarity. In her efforts to alloy Stevens’s strangeness with moments of recognition, Richardson activates another key principle of Jamesian pedagogy: teachers, he argued, must strike a delicate balance between the novel and the known. Anything that is wholly unfamiliar risks alienating and derailing the learning process. By contrast, Richardson hopes her readers will “begin to feel at home” in stanzas that recur throughout the book. With these recursions, Richardson suggests that learning to read Stevens in slow motion means learning to reread him — to return again and again to lines that remain surprising even as they become increasingly ingrained.
Richardson concludes: “By reading through Stevens’s body of work, we learn to become pragmatists,” which is to say, we learn to meditate on the workings of the mind. This claim underlines the power but also the potential impediments to Richardson’s pedagogical project. Recalling that the pragmatist method was originally designed to show “how to make our ideas clear,” she argues that true clarity is achieved by attending “to the many possible shades of meaning in the words we use.” To be “clear,” according to this counterintuitive definition, is to hold open a variety of interpretive possibilities; it is to suspend rather than to establish certainty. Any perplexity generated by the multiplication of meanings is precisely the point: from the pragmatist’s perspective, the experience of disorientation is far more valuable than easy glosses or directives. In short, thinking pragmatically sounds a lot like thinking poetically, with pragmatic criticism venturing to loosen and multiply rather than fix and authorize the many personalized paths this thinking might travel.
If, as Richardson argues, we learn to become pragmatists by reading Stevens, what do we become by reading a book about the poet? As I’ve reiterated, How to Live is only a book about Stevens to the extent that the tangible philosophical and cultural contexts it builds around Stevens serve to deepen our intimate and potentially ineffable engagement with his poetry. To recall James’s terms, How to Live models a mode of pragmatist literary criticism that sacrifices common knowledge-about Stevens in service to our specialized acquaintance with him — the question of what Stevens means is less interesting than the question of how it feels to read him. As this enriching book ultimately teaches, learning how to live requires becoming newly alive to one’s own thinking, feeling mind, an enlivening made irrepressible for Richardson by Stevens, and possibly, through Richardson, for you.