For years, it seems, I've been fascinated with something Wallace Stevens' wrote in an essay about poet Marianne Moore in The Necessary Angel:
"To confront fact in its total bleakness," Stevens states, "is for any poet a completely baffling experience."
It's hard not to identify with this sentiment. There's something about the idea of a "fact" that seems settled, lifeless, and often threatening. To "face the facts", whatever the facts may be, is rarely pleasant.
And you can see why a poet like Stevens would write a sentence like this. One of the major moves of his poetry is to embellish the everyday facts of life -- its customary sights, sounds and perceptions -- until they're almost unrecognizable. He's a little like a jazz improviser who takes off on a corny, traditional melody and dances ecstatically around it.
Stevens' statement also reflects something innate about our thought processes. Cognitively speaking, we enjoy much less freedom (or control) over our basic perceptions of the objects that make up our world than the objects of our thoughts. Philosopher of mind, Jerry Fodor, in his classic book The Modularity of Mind, puts it this way:
"We have only the narrowest options about how the objects of perception shall be represented, but we have all the leeway in the world as to how we shall represent the objects of thought; outside perception, the way that one deploys one's cognitive resources, is, in general, rationally subservient to one's utilities."
In addition to this feature of our mental architecture, though, Stevens' statement brought to mind another critique of the "fact," this time, not from the viewpoint of a poetic idealist like himself, but rather, a historical materialist (the very type of thinker you'd assume would be in love with facts).
A few decades before Stevens' essay of the 40s, social critic Georg Lukacs wrote this about the oppression of facts, in his renowned work on reification:
"...in the 'facts' we find the crystallization of the essence of capitalist development into an ossified, impenetrable thing alienated from man...When confronted by the rigidity of these 'facts' every movement seems like a movement impinging on them, while every tendency to change them appears to be a merely subjective principle (a wish, a value judgement, an ought)."
One of the realities Lukacs alludes to here is that much of what appears as the "solid", "factual", and "objective" elements of our world, are actually malleable parts of a larger process. The objects of Lukacs' era, and our own, gain much of their sense of objectivity through their utility -- for the sciences, industry, or especially, for their economic value. To thinkers like Lukacs, what makes the facts of the world seem alienating is that they are expressions of a largely inhuman machine-like system, interested more in calculation and profit than the pleasures of creative play or meaning (elements often relegated, like poetry itself, to the realm of the trivial, subjective whim).
The Weird Facts of Marianne Moore's Poetry
What fascinates Stevens about Marianne Moore's poetry is that, though it is loaded with facts, it rarely succumbs -- or even complains about -- alienation or boredom. Rather, Moore's "facts" are as animated as her poems.
How is this possible? The answer might be: there are facts, and then there are facts. The facts Moore uses in her poems are sometimes arcane, and she uses them in eccentric ways. Rather than the practical facts of calculation, or perhaps an encyclopedia, her facts are useless outside of a poem.
To illustrate, Stevens focuses on her poem, "He 'Digesteth Harde Yron,'" about the ostrich. Stevens comments on the atypical quality of her description:
"Somehow there is a difference between Miss Moore's bird and the bird of the Encyclopaedia. The difference grows when she describes her bird as
of hippotigers and wild
asses, it is as
though schooled by them he was
the best of the unflying
The difference signalizes a transition from one reality to another. It is the reality of Miss Moore that is the individual reality. The of the Encyclopaedia is the reality of isolated fact. Miss Moore's reality is significant. An aesthetic of integration is a reality."
What Stevens is saying, basically, is that Moore makes the fact of the ostrich her own. And how she does this is by employing "useless" (arcane, antiquarian) facts in an act of playful, non-economic labor (how much money can you make by writing a poem?). Moore works hard at the intelligent waste of of time.
This is why Stevens reads the title of this poem as a key to Moore's writing: her own work "Digesteth" the "Harde Yron" of facts -- and turns them, through her own alchemical processes, into something that lives: a poem.