Wallace Stevens, 1940, Concerning a Chair of Poetry
The first step toward a Chair of Poetry is to try to fix an outline of one’s intentions. One does not intend a literary course, except as the theory of poetry is a part of the theory of literature. The intention is not to read poetry from archaic to contemporary; nor is the intention to teach the writing of poetry. And, by way of a final negation, the intention is not to foster a cult.
What is intended is to study the theory of poetry in relation to what poetry has been and in relation to what it ought to be. Its literature is a part of it, and only a part of it. For this purpose, poetry means not the language of poetry but the thing itself, wherever it may be found. It does not mean verse any more than philosophy means prose. The subject-matter of poetry is the thing to be ascertained. Offhand, the subject-matter is what comes to mind when one says of the month of August . . .
“Thou art not August, unless I make thee so”.
It is the aspects of the world and of men and women that have been added to them by poetry. These aspects are difficult to recognize and to measure.
While aesthetic ideas are commonplaces in this field, its import is not the import of the superficial. The major poetic idea in the world is and always has been the idea of God. One of the visible movements of the modern imagination is the movement away from the idea of God. The poetry that created the idea of God will either adapt it to our different intelligence, or create a substitute for it, or make it unneccessary. These alternatives probably mean the same thing, but the intention is not to foster a cult. The knowledge of poetry is a part of philosophy, and a part of science, the import of poetry is the import of the spirit. The figures of the essential poets should be spiritual figures. The comedy of life or the tragedy of life as the material of an art, and the mold of life as the object of its creation are contemplated.
The delicacy and significance of all this disclose that there is nothing of the sort in existence, and that to establish it would require the collaboration of men themselves acute and significant. The Chair would be either a brilliant center or pretty much nothing at all. It could not be improvised. The founder of such a Chair might well invite the collaboration of a small group to prepare the course. Or if a potent enough man could be found, the course could be developed over a period of years starting under such a man who, as he found his way, would be finding what was needed. The holder of the Chair would necessarily have to be a man of a dynamic mind and, in this field, something of a scholar and very much of an original force. A man like Dr. Santayana illustrates the character, although in him the religious and the philosophic are too dominant. He is merely cited as an illustration. It is possible that a man like T. S. Eliot illustrates the character, except that I regard him as a negative rather than a positive force. I don’t think that it would be difficult to find the really serious man that is required.
If it is objected that any attraction in this scheme of things is that of an academic novelty, the answer must be that it must be an odd civilization in which poetry is not the equal of philosophy, for which many universities largely exist. It would noe be initiating the study of the true nature of poetry; it would merely be initiating its study in a high academic sense, certainly in America.
Again, if it is objected that poetry is, after all, the field of exceptional people, the answer is that it has to be: it has no choice. That is one of the things that deprives it of the prestige that it would have if seen in proper perspective.
Again, if it is objected that this is carrying humanism to a point beyond which it ought to be carried in time of so much socialistic agitation, the answer must be that humanism is one thing and socialism is another, and that the mere act of distinguishing between the two should be helpfel to preserve humanism and possibly to benefit socialism.
The fundamental objection is that this would be a course in illusion. I think that this requires no answer.
- Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose, The Library of America, pp. 805 – 806