Sunday Science Poem: We live in the casts of our imaginations

Wallace Stevens’ ‘Description Without Place’

779px-William_Blake_-_Isaac_Newton_-_WGA02217Science works by making models of the world. We need models, because the data rarely speak for themselves.

As individuals, we also work by making mental models of of the world, both at the automatic, neurobiological level where the brain assembles representations of the world from the neural impulses transmitted by our sensory organs, and at the conscious, conceptual level, the level where we consciously try, with limited information, to decide what’s going on in the world around us. Models mediate between us and reality.

Wallace Stevens was fascinated by the models we use to represent the external world. In the poem ‘Description Without Place’ (1945), Stevens explores the idea that, internally, we really live not in places themselves but in descriptions of places. When we describe a place, we describe how it seems to us, and Stevens suggests in the opening line that ‘It is possible that to seem – it is to be’. ‘Description is/ Composed of a sight indifferent to the eye// It is an expectation, a desire’ – how a place seems to us reflects our desires.

‘Description Without Place’ has seven sections (we’re reading V and VII below). Each section is made up of two-line stanzas, which sets a slow reading pace that gives you time to let the poem’s arguments sink in. A poem that makes philosophical arguments about perception may seem odd and even cold – is this what poetry is supposed to do? Can it be possibly worth our while to tackle this kind of thing in a poem, or is the poem merely the way of making superficial philosophical musings seem more profound than they are?

Stevens was criticized for writing this type of poetry. But the experience of reading the poem itself is a rebuttal to these criticisms, because, living in the descriptions of places rather than the places themselves (mentally anyway), we can use the richer resources of poetry to produce ‘a cast of the imagination.’

Description Without Place

V

If seeming is description without place,
The spirit’s universe, then a summer’s day,

Even the seeming of a summer’s day,
Is description without place. It is a sense

To which we refer experience, a knowledge
Incognito, the column in the desert,

On which the dove alights. Description is
Composed of a sight indifferent to the eye.

It is an expectation, a desire,
A palm that rises up beyond the sea,

A little different from reality:
The difference that we make in what we see

And our memorials of that difference,
Sprinklings of bright particulars from the sky.

The future is description without place,
The categorical predicate, the arc.

It is a wizened starlight growing young,
In which old stars are planets of morning, fresh

In the brilliantest descriptions of new day,
Before it comes, the just anticipation

Of the appropriate creatures, jubilant,
The forms that are attentive in thin air.

…

VII

Thus the theory of description matters most.
It is the theory of the word for those

For whom the word is the making of the world,
The buzzing world and lisping firmament.

It is a world of words to the end of it,
In which nothing solid is its solid self.

As, men make themselves their speech: the hard hidalgo
Lives in the mountainous character of his speech;

And in that mountainous mirror Spain acquires
The knowledge of Spain and of the hidalgo’s hat - 

A seeming of the Spaniard, a style of life,
The invention of a nation in a phrase,

In a description hollowed out of hollow-bright,
The artificer of subjects still half night.

It matters, because everything we say
Of the past is description without place, a cast

Of the imagination, made in sound;
And because what we say of the future must portend,

Be alive with its own seemings, seeming to be
Like rubies reddened by rubies reddening.

Image: Isaac Newton, William Blake

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8 responses to “Sunday Science Poem: We live in the casts of our imaginations

  1. Jessica Slavin

    This is wonderful! I love Stevens but never could really “get” this poem beyond the intellectual part of it. Your intro led me to slow down, digest…and i loved it. Thanks!

    • Thanks for reading. I sometimes have mixed feelings about Stevens’ more theoretical poems. But as someone whose day-job writing is primarily technical, and who likes to think that technical science writing can have its own beauty, I am inspired by seeing what Stevens can do with the language of argument.

      • Jessica Slavin

        Well, my day job is in legal writing, and I find the same sort of inspiration in Stevens. Even moreso, probably, since he was a lawyer! And an INSURANCE lawyer at that, doesn’t get much more technical in the law….

  2. Jessica Slavin

    Reblogged this on jessicaslavin and commented:
    A terrific discussion of Wallace Stevens’ Description Without Place. Anecdote of the Jar is really about the same ideas (http://wp.me/p2YYvK-jA )

    • Another poem club! Thanks for leaving your link. It’s interesting that Anecdote of the Jar features some similar themes, but the style is very different.

      • Jessica Slavin

        Yes, exactly. I have always loved some of Stevens’ poems, but generally the ones with more concrete images for the taking-off point, with the philosophical/psychological discussion sort of scaffolded by the concrete. Like Anecdote of the Jar, or Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. But it’s really true, your post sort of opened a window to his less accessible ones for me. Thanks!

        And, yay, another poem club!!

        • I’ve been trying to work my way to ‘Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction’ by stumbling through some of the shorter, later philosophical poems first. My success has been limited, but it’s always possible (although a bit unsatisfying) to just sit back and enjoy the language.

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