On "Study of Two Pears"

Charles Altieri

"The title establishes the new space abstraction must explore, a site between art and perception, while also suggesting the basic problem that such exploration must face. I take it that the "study" refers to a painting, which in turn affords us an opportunity to study how we go about seeing in a vital way. Yet the very framework of the study may eventually prove as limiting and self-mocking as the Latin pedagogy that sets the scene. For as we become aware of how our attention becomes vital, we may feel trapped by the frames that reward its visual orientation. … Realization represents, but what is represented is not a world of ordinary objects and conventionalized vision, Indeed, once the process begins it soon exceeds the object eliciting it. So in the central stanzas we move from specific negations and sharpened attention to what must be taken as purposive aspects of appearance. We think of a modeling will. But then the will quickly leads to grounds beyond the subjective maker through Stevens" remarkably inventive use of the clichéd metaphor "flowering." As perception becomes active, and especially as it comes to recognize a dynamic principle at work in eliciting its activity, straightforward names must yield to metaphor if they are to be at all adequate to the situation. Stated this baldly, however, we find ourselves making an observation which would hold true of any intense situation. Stevens" specific metaphor complicates matters considerably. Up to this point the poem had relied on a presentational movement but had not sought an abstract situating – quite the contrary. Now the action shifts from seeing to reflecting upon one’s seeing. As the pear becomes most fully itself before the eye. It must become something else: the fruit must act as a flower does if the mind is to appreciate fully its appearance as a fruit. Then, as flowering seems to capture the particular act of emergence, we recognize that the term applies to a good deal more than the pear. The flowering is also a process of the mind’s own blossoming within a world formerly perceived as only from a distance. The painting brush, the writer’s recasting, and the observer’s attention all here flower, suggesting that when the mind too becomes fully itself it must at the same time become other, must take on an identity that no perception qua perception can register. Perception at its most intense requires our entering the order of metaphor, requires the intensification of art. This indeed is why we need a painting to learn how to see a pear.

From Charles Altieri, "Why Stevens Must be Abstract, or, What Poets Can Learn from Painting," in Wallace Stevens: The Poetics of Modernism, ed. Albert Gelpi (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985), 97-98.

B. J. Leggett

A number of the poems of Parts of a World record the moments in which conventional seeing is destroyed through reduction of the commonsensical to a kind of obscurity. Although "Study of Two Pears" is not usually read in this manner, it is in part an exercise in freeing the world of conventional meaning, reducing the pears to "blobs." The exercise begins by resisting the impulse to see the pears through analogy with familiar objects, which would domesticate them, rob them of their uniqueness: "The pears are not viols, / Nudes or bottles. / They resemble nothing else." The temptation to think of them in terms of paintings of pears is also resisted ("They are not flat surfaces / Having curved outlines"), and the result is to convert them to form and color--"yellow forms / Composed of curves" . . . "touched red" . . . "round / Tapering toward the top." The farther from the conventional descriptions of pears the poem retreats, the more unpearlike the objects become. They reveal uncharacteristic "bits of blue," and the pear-yellow now "glistens with various yellows, / Citrons, oranges and greens." The final stage in this reduction is that of a formlessness in which the object loses its familiar look and resists the mind's attempt to dictate its appearance or meaning:

The shadows of the pears
Are blobs on the green cloth.
The pears are not seen
As the observer wills.

Properly obscure, the pears are now presumably ripe for the "early" or "first" seeing, a result not of the will or intelligence but of what Stevens [in "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction"] calls "candid" seeing, an "ever-early candor" by which "Life's nonsense pierces us with strange relation."

From Wallace Stevens and Poetic Theory: Conceiving the Supreme Fiction. Copyright © 1987 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Bonnie Costello

The problem of Modernism's negations (especially Cubist negations) is again the subject of "Study of Two Pairs," whose title clearly invokes visual arts. The concerns of the body of the poem - shape, color, outline, resemblance - also derive from painting. As does Cubist painting, the poem suggests both a struggle to see reality as it is and to create and imaginative reality. The poem ends ironically, for while the pears are not seen as the observer wills (not as viols, nudes, or bottles), it is only these willed images that are seen. The poem seems to move in this direction toward the last two stanzas where the reality of the pears is entirely elusive - a glistening at bests. Even their shadows are only defined as "blobs on the green cloth." The dull, flat language of "Study of Two Pears" may reflect the dullness of bandage to visual fact. Such objectivism is only an "opusculum paedagogum." But the poem also perhaps testifies to the failure of language to represent adequately the allure of visual fact (it "glistens"). Without metaphor (without viols, nudes, or bottles) language is nothing, and yet metaphor implies an evasion, a removal from positive direct experience. Stevens' ambivalence about the eye centers, then, on his allusions to painting. Here his own stance as observer/describer seems inadequate to capture observation. The poem does not offer an equivalence in language to Cubist concerns and techniques, but rather a description of those concerns and techniques, a substitution rather than an apposition.

from "Effects of an Analogy: Wallace Stevens and Painting. In Albert Gelpi (ed.) Wallace Stevens: The Poetics of Modernism. Cambridge University Press.

Anthony Whiting

Stevens undermines a single, reductive point of view again in a later poem, "Study of Two Pears." . . .

. . . the speaker of the poem is the reductionist. The speaker insists that pears are unique natural forms that have no resemblance to anything else. "The pears are not viols, / Nudes or bottles. / They resemble nothing else" ( CP 196). And the poem ends with the words, "The pears are not seen / As the observer wills" (CP 197), which can be read as a final assertion that the pears resist the observer's will to transform them into something else through resemblance. Stevens writes in "Three Academic Pieces" that ''as to the resemblance between things in nature, it should be observed that resemblance constitutes a relation between them since, in some sense, all things resemble each other" (NA 71). He goes on to discuss resemblances between things in nature and things of the imagination, and he comments that "Poetry is a satisfying of the desire for resemblance" (NA 77). In denying that the pears resemble anything else, then, the speaker of "Study of Two Pears" takes a decidedly antipoetic stance. But it is a stance that the speaker unknowingly subverts. In the process of defining what the pears are not, the speaker creates resemblances between them and other things in nature (viols, nudes, bottles), and between them and artistic representations of them. . . . In trying to define the pears by excluding everything else, the speaker shows us that it is impossible not to relate the pears to things in nature and to things created by the imagination. Ironically, the speaker's attempt to eliminate resemblances results in a "satisfying of the desire for resemblance."

. . . In "Study of Two Pears," the speaker's attempt to describe the pears by denying their resemblance to other things results in showing us how many things they do resemble. The centripetal force of reduction and exclusion becomes the centrifugal force of differentiation and dispersion as, through resemblance, the contexts in which Stevens presents the pear expands.

from The Never-Resting Mind: Wallace Stevens' Romantic Irony. Copyright © 1996 by the University of Michigan.

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