Reading Kevin Killian's wonderful account of the Orono Poetry Conference, I was struck by this passage:
At this point in my notes, which I transcribed from notes I wrote on my jeans, I see that Wallace Stevens somewhere said, "In the face of an overwhelming actuality, consciousness takes the place of the imagination." Was this something J. Hillis Miller shared with me? Or was it someone in the audience at my panel? I wrote the word AIDS next to the quote, thinking, what? That this was the overwhelming actuality that had occurred in my lifetime. Had consciousness then taken the place of the imagination, I can't decide. Sometimes I think yes, sometimes no.
Struck, because only a few hours previously I had coincidentally read the quote Killian kicks around, and it's deucedly different. It appears in Opus Posthumous, a short essay called "Poetry and War":
The immense poetry of war and the poetry of a work of the imagination are two different things. In the presence of the violent reality of war, consciousness takes the place of imagination. And consciousness of an immense war is a consciousness of a fact. If that is true, it follows that the poetry of war as a consciousness of the victories and defeats of nations, is a consciousness of fact. If that is true, it follows that the poetry of war as a consciousness of fact, but of heroic fact, of fact on such a scale that the mere consciousness of it affects the scale of one's thinking and constitutes a participating in the heroic.
It has been easy to say in recent times that everything tends to become real, or, rather, that everything moves in the direction of reality, that is to say, in the direction of fact. We leave fact and come back to it, come back to what we wanted fact to be, not to what it was, not to what it has too often remained. The poetry of a work of the imagination constantly illuminates the fundamental and endless struggle with fact. It goes on everywhere, even in the periods that we call peace. But in war, the desire to move in the direction of fact as we want it to be and to move quickly is overwhelming.
Nothing will ever appease this desire except a consciousness of fact as everyone is at least satisfied to have it be.
Now it may be true that violent reality is an overwhelming actuality, but I find it interesting that Killian would misremember (or mishear, or perhaps it was misreported to him by J. Hillis Miller) the particularity of "the violent reality of war" for the more general (and less threatening sounding) "overwhelming actuality", while "war" goes missing from the quotation altogether, replaced by AIDS, which of course is a different kind of violent reality. But is this the imagination at work?