Wallace Stevens

(October 2, 1879 – August 2, 1955 / Pennsylvania / United States)

Of Modern Poetry

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one. The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.

Submitted: Friday, January 03, 2003

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  • Rookie Gary Witt (3/6/2010 12:14:00 PM)

    On a literal level, this poem can be very confusing. It speaks about a poem “of a mind in the act of finding/ What will suffice.” IMHO, Stevens is not talking about a poem in the act of finding, he is addressing a mind in the act of finding. Of course, the ambiguity is deliberate. Grammatically, one could follow down, substituting either “poem” or “mind” for “it, ” and one would be correct using either. Still, how good could a poem be if it is only looking for what will “suffice? ” Shouldn’t a poem reach for excellence instead of something that will merely suffice? Similarly, shouldn’t a mind stretch toward excellence?

    The answer of course is yes, we should—we must—strive toward excellence. But along the way, we must first find and accept what will “suffice.”

    It appears to me the “mind in the act of finding” is searching for truth, solidity, comfort, freedom, certainty—all the things that philosophy and theology have sought since the time of Socrates. In our relativistic time, what will suffice for truth? What will grant us comfort and yet allow us freedom?

    In previous eras, the “finding” was not necessary. The church, the government, society, or some other institution, provided what would suffice. One didn’t need to think about such things. One accepted the prevailing doctrine, the faith of our fathers. Now, however, that has changed. We must construct a new stage, we must be on that stage, and we must “speak words that in the ear, /In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat, /Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound /Of which, an invisible audience listens, /Not to the play, but to itself…”

    The philosophy, the code we find for ourselves, must fit. It must appeal to that “delicatest ear of the mind.” This is the measure of what will “suffice.” It must resonate with us, and produce “Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses…”

    In short, “It must /Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may /Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman /Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.”

    What will suffice may come in the simplicity of life itself; in the emotions of daily living. (Report) Reply

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