Wallace Stevens: Theōria and Technic

Instructor: Adam Staley Groves

Prerecorded module

Ver. 1.1 (9 July, 2022)

4 months access: € 18


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Wallace Stevens’s novelty remains obscured by certain critics and philosophers who themselves oppose one another. The former desire Stevens a national figure of Americana; others emphasize their own aesthetic theory. Most shun philosophical implications which place the poetry in service of philosophy. Stevens’s ‘theōria’ holds implications beyond conventional truth disputes. This seminar explores theōria as contra-criticism which views technological determinism as a most potent critic of the imagination. Thus Stevens’s “poetry itself” and “a poetry of thought” offer ethical considerations for humans under the reins of technic.

Literary critics simply “get it wrong” when it comes to Wallace Stevens’ poetry of thought, his “supreme fiction,” even such eminent critics as Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler. They get it wrong because they have not carefully considered and accounted for Stevens’ prose, especially his The Irrational Element in Poetry. Thus, with this claim, we begin the journey with Dr. Groves, who shares with us, in his lectures, the fruits of his ten-year study of Wallace Stevens. That claim may seem audacious to those who have a penchant for deferring to literary critics before fully understanding the subject matter at hand. Even so eminent a critic as Hugh Kenner dismisses Stevens’ poetry as a high form of nonsense verse. With Stevens’ poetry, however, we are dealing with, as Northrop Frye puts it, “the processes of poetic thought at work.” Dr. Groves, who is a philosopher, poet, and artist himself, insists throughout his lectures that poetry, especially Stevens’, is not the handmaid of philosophy. Dr. Groves is well-equipped to help us view Stevens’ verse through the lens of Continental philosophy. He views Stevens as a transcontinental poet with his links to western Europe, not limited to the bounds of the United States, as Vendler claims. Stevens’ poetry is wholly different from what the literary critics in the halls of academe claim it to be. Dr. Groves’ lectures have opened my eyes to view Wallace Stevens in the right way.Matthew Keenan

With this course you will be able to

  • Consider written poetry an object which represents but does not wholly define “poetry itself”;
  • Consider poetry in relation to philosophy, science, and technology;
  • Evaluate poems as discrete objects and equally parts of a thinking apparatus;
  • Consider theōria in distinction to philosophical or critical positions regarding poetry;
  • Demonstrate an understanding of Stevens’s theōria;
  • Ponder an ethics of the imagination in terms of artificial general intelligence.

Students who register for this course get:

  • 9 video-taped lectures, with a total running time of more than 7 hours and 30 minutes;
  • Comprehensive lecture notes;
  • An indicative reading list;
  • A set of optional tasks to check your learning;
  • Course diploma (beta version).

  • Desire to learn: participants should be familiar with basic philosophical concepts, art, and have a general understanding of artificial intelligence.

  • This course is designed for graduate and post graduate level work. Advanced undergraduates are equally welcome;
  • Literature, Philosophy, STEM.



Day One: Overview

Wallace Stevens never aspired to be a philosopher however he contributes several concepts to “the theory of poetry” through his prose and verse. Thus Stevens develops a theory from, within, and for “poetry itself” which he differentiates from philosophy over a span of twenty years. This session introduces a general concept for understanding Stevens’s oeuvre, his “poetry of thought,” and what we will call “contra criticism.” (33 mins.)

Day Two: Reading Harmonium

In this lesson we apply our general concepts to some of Stevens’s early poems. This helps us understand how concepts are developed from Stevens’s work. Among the poems discussed are “Of Heaven Considered as a Tomb” and “Of the Surface of Things.” (70 mins.)

Day Three: The Irrational Element in Poetry I-IV

While Wallace Stevens was aware of the importance of his lecture “The Irrational Element in Poetry” he decided not to publish it with other prose found in The Necessary Angel in 1951. However, “The Irrational Element in Poetry” lays the foundation for his entire prose theory. This lesson discusses sections I—IV of the lecture. (39 mins.)

Day Four: Contra Critic, Part One

This lesson discusses Stevens’s theōria and its basic operation, the relationship between theōria and technic, as well as Stevens’s critics. We shall discuss Helen Vendler and “patriotic education,” alla Donald Trump, Stevens as a transcontinental thinker of poetry, and his juxtaposition of poets of despair with poets of fulfilment. (60 mins.)

Day Five: Contra Critic, Part Two

This lessons discusses Stevens’s concept of the “romantic,” and continue with the Contra Critic. We consider how Stevens draws lessons from William Carlos Williams, and how his framework connects to I. A. Richards’s readings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Other critics discussed in this lesson include Harold Bloom and Simon Critchley. (74 mins.)

Day Six: Contra Critic — Rumination

Here we delve deeper into the difference between philosophy and poetry in terms of its shared approach to the concept of the absolute. We examine Samuel Coleridge’s notion of “fancy” and its proximity to Stevens’s theōria. (49 mins.)

Day Six — part two: The Irrational Element in Poetry, pt2

This lessons continues our reading of Stevens’s lecture “The Irrational Element.” From a review of sections I—IV we move to discuss sections V—VI. Central to our discussion is the proposition that writing is a type of technology. (42 mins.)

Day Seven: Contra Critic + The Irrational Element in Poetry V – IX

This lesson completes the reading of “The Irrational Element in Poetry.” Key to our understanding is how technic appears to be the systematic use of the irrational. What follows is a need to consider an ethics of the imagination in order to resist its reins or, alternatively, to resist its reign. (56 mins.)

Day Eight: The Absolute Object

This final lesson engages “the absolute object” in a close reading of Stevens’s poem XVIII of “The Man With The Blue Guitar.” We investigate how Jean André Wahl had developed a sense of the “absolute object” from Søren Kierkegaard’s “doctrine of how” in The Philosopher’s Way and Philosophies of Existence. We conclude with a discussion of Stevens’s “Poetic Fragments” of 1948 from Adagia, where he explicitly considers “the absolute object.” (33 mins.)

Additional materials

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