“Watery Words Awash”: The Sounds of Water in Wallace Stevens

Part of the Analecta Husserliana book series (ANHU, volume 65)


“Above everything else”, Wallace Stevens mused in one of his most celebrated essays, “The Noble Rider and the Sounds of Words,” “Poetry is words; and ... words, above everything else, are, in poetry, sounds.”1 In the absence of religious faith, Stevens conjectures, words and their sounds take on greater significance in our lives: “The deepening need for words to express our thoughts and feelings which, we are sure are all the truth that we shall ever experience, having no illusions, makes us listen to words when we hear them, loving them and feeling them, makes us search the sound of them, for a finality, a perfection, and unalterable vibration, which it is only within the power of the acutest poet to give them.”2 The attention Stevens pays to sound in his poetry ensures that we enjoy his poems even though we may have no idea what they mean. The aesthetic appreciation for a Stevens poem involves more than enjoyment, however. Stevens’ rhythms, sound repetitions, and word plays have profound psychological effects on our unconscious as we endeavor to interpret his idiosyncratic and seemingly cryptic syntax. They return us to a childlike awareness of the sensuousness of words. Sound in a Stevens poem, when they wash over us, give life to an idea or an experience that through time or familiarity has become deadened.


Order Word Musical Piece Human Voice Natural Sound Aesthetic Appreciation 
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  1. 1.
    Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination ( New York: Vintage Books, 1951 ), p. 32.Google Scholar
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    Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel,p. 32.Google Scholar
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    Helen Vendler, Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire ( Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1984 ), p. 72.Google Scholar
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    Helen Vendler, Interview on Voices and Visions, Vol 11, “Wallace Stevens” ( New York: New York Center for Visual History/The Annenberg/CPB Collection, 1988 ).Google Scholar
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    Robert Magliola, Phenomenology and Literature: An Introduction (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1977), p. 17. I am referring here to Magliola’s distinction between neoKantians, for whom “knowledge is not the grasp but the construction of an object” and phenomenologist,, for whom knowledge is the grasp of an object that is simultaneously gripping us.“Google Scholar
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    Robert Magliola, Phenomenology and Literature: An Introduction,p. 174, Magliola summarizes Heidegger’s hermeneutics: “In the first stage of hermeneutical activity, the critic is at one with the text.”Google Scholar
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    Helen Vendler, Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire,p. 64.Google Scholar
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    Frank Dogget, Wallace Stevens: The Making of the Poem ( Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980 ), p. 92.Google Scholar
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    John Hollander, “The Sound of the Music” in Wallace Stevens: A Celebration, ed. Frank Doggett and Robert Buttel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980 ), p. 252.Google Scholar
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    John Hollander, “The Sound of the Music”, p. 236.Google Scholar
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    Harold Bloom, p. 98.Google Scholar
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    David Walker, The Transparent Lyric: Reading and Meaning in the Poetry of Stevens and Williams ( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984 ), p. 24.Google Scholar
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    Helen Vendler, Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire,p. 69.Google Scholar
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    Frank Doggett, Wallace Stevens: The Making of the Poem,pp. 63–64.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Western Kentucky UniversityUSA

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