Jen’s Supplementary Long Poem Report: Wallace Stevens’ “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”

Like many of the other modernist poets of his day, Wallace Stevens wrote during a period in American history marked by war, chaos, and religious disillusionment. Published in 1942 during the midst of the Second World War, Stevens’ poem “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” claims its place in the lineage of modernist poems that have strived to create a “poem equivalent to the idea of God” (Carroll). When considering the title of the poem, close attention to Stevens’ word choices is important. According to critic Keith Booker, the poem is a collection of “notes” because the idea is still undeveloped and “toward” a supreme fiction because the goal is ultimately unattainable (1). Thus, although Wallace Stevens strives to offer a criterion for what the “supreme fiction” must be, his “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” does not claim to recognize this fiction. While Stevens shares the modernist fascination with finding definitive answers, he also realizes that the “supreme fiction” can never be attained due to the limitations of personal perception. It seems that in the process of trying to define the “supreme fiction,” Stevens discovers that the long poem, as a genre, cannot provide an ultimate “set of beliefs” or “model for living” for all humanity; instead, the genre must attempt to present the multiplicity of “fictions” that readers perceive (Miller13).

Stevens shares in many of the forms typical of modernist poetry, and it is this form that reinforces the fragmentation and multiplicity of our imagined or fictitious realities. Like Eliot’s “fragments” and Pound’s “Cantos,” “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” is structured as a series of lyrics that Stevens calls mere “notes.” The work is composed of a prologue, thirty lyrics divided into three distinct sections, and a final epilogue. Furthermore, each lyric is composed of seven stanzas of three verses in a meter resembling iambic pentameter. Despite this seemingly regular meter and form, the structure of events is not linear and multiple voices are present. While the primary voice in the poem is that of the master poet addressing the “ephebe,” or lyricist-to-be, other characters like MacCullough and Canon Aspirin drive the narration as well. The narrative streams intersect and have no clear beginning and end. In addition, a shifting “you” throughout the poem allows the speakers’ audience to take on many identities, often making it unclear whether the ephebe, a group of poets, or the reader is being addressed. This emphasis on heteroglosia and shifting identities, consistent with works like “The Wasteland” and Montage of a Dream Deferred, reinforces the realization that the “Supreme Fiction”—the master narrative of reality—is ultimately unattainable.

While form and structure are important to “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” Stevens’ ideas about the power of language and the limitations of personal perception are the poem’s defining elements, as well as the thematic threads that run throughout modernist poetry. In fact, critic James Miller considers Stevens’ poem “a focal point for the discussion of the theory of an American long poem,” for the “supreme fiction” that Stevens strives to define is the very thing that other modernist poets like Whitman and Eliot had tried to create with their poetry (21). Thus, in a very metafiction-like way, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” is a poem about writing poetry—a poem that prescribes that the “supreme fiction” “Be abstract,” “Change,” and “Give Pleasure.” In the first section of the poem, the master poet challenges the ephebe to “[perceive] the idea/ Of this invention, this invented world” (3). Immediately, Stevens reminds us about the fiction of our reality—that reality, as we perceive it, is something the human imagination has invented. This notion of invention is reminiscent of the themes of rewriting and revision that we encountered in H.D.’s Trilogy. Similarly, another moment of parallel comes as the master poet expresses the same hesitations that H.D’s speaker has about naming, saying, “But Phoebus was/ A name for something that never could be named” (16-17). In these lines, in particular, we can see that Stevens was heavily influenced by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” Nietzsche deconstructs language, asking, “What is a word…[but] the copy in sound of a nerve stimulus?” (2). Thus, if Stevens agrees that a word cannot adequately describe the essence of the concept it conveys, then he also comes to realize that a group of words, or even a group of lyrics, can not adequately present a single “truth” about the essence of reality.

Stevens builds upon these ideas in his second and third criteria for “the supreme fiction.” In the section titled “It must change,” the master poet again struggles with the elusive nature of reality. He contemplates how he is to reveal “the uncertain light of a single, certain truth,” and comes to realize the impossibility of the task (2). When reflecting on the inexorable connection between personal perception and reality, the speaker acknowledges, “These external regions, what do we fill them with/ Except reflections” (30). Here, Stevens concedes that poetry, literature, or anything that tries to define reality is limited by individual experience. Like many other modernist poets, Stevens grapples with the role of poet as a “potential configurer of public consciousness” (Schlosser 78). In the final epilogue or coda, he addresses a soldier—symbolically, the ephebe at war with the poetic task at hand—and effectively fuses the public notion of war with the very private and personal process of poetic expression. Thus, although he acknowledges the poet’s power, Stevens also acknowledges the poet’s limitations in using personal perceptions to represent the “supreme” and shared public reality of their time.

Although Steven’s poem abounds with dense philosophical imagery, dissecting some of his themes can help to create a lens through which we can read other modernist works. His form and central arguments reveal that the long poem is a genre obsessed with the dream of providing America with a “Supreme Fiction.” Perhaps the reality is that the “Supreme Fiction” is merely unattainable. This analysis only scratches the surface of all that could be said about Steven’s “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” Although Stevens seems to raise more questions than he answers, his poem can help us to determine both the functions and limitations of the long poem as a genre.

Works Cited

Carroll, Joseph. Wallace Stevens’ Supreme Fiction: A New Romanticism. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State Univ., 1987. Print.

M. Keith Booker. “Notes Toward a Lacanian Reading of Wallace Stevens.” Journal of Modern Literature. JSTOR. 16 March 2013. Web.

Miller, James E, Jr. The American Quest for a Supreme Fiction: Whitman’s Legacy in the Personnal Epic. Chicago: U. of Chicago, 1979. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” Interactive Media Research Library. Utah State University. 16 March 2013. Web.

Stevens, Wallace. Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction. Online Resources. Howard University. 12 March 2013. Web.

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