We’ve created a three-part mini-course/sampler of metapoems — one proto-modern, one modern, one postmodern. Listen to a brief audio introduction and then watch three video recordings of several of us working through close readings. The readings are meant to be suggestive rather than complete or definitive. Our concern was to teach ourselves something about the metapoem. The metapoem of course is a poem about poetry, a poem that is somehow aware of itself as a thing made of letters and words. We wanted to choose three poems — otherwise different in so many ways — that are each about reading and/or writing. Poems about the reading of poems. Poems about poets reading. Poems about their own inscribing. Poems that use reading as an allegory for loving, and loving as an allegory of understanding. Poems that cannot be understood topically (thematically) unless first one understands the ways in which they are about themselves — about the words they deploy, about the love or loving of words felt as they are being written.
Among the last things Wallace Stevens wrote was a metapoem, a poem in which a man — a reader and presumably a poet too — does not write a poem but picks his way among the aspects of an old poem, the poem that had once helped him by standing in for a mountain. He composes (or rather “recompos[s]”) the objects and perspectives of the way or path up the mountain. It had been a “direction.” Was it now again?
A book of letters I co-edited with Beverly Coyle in 1986, Secretaries of the Moon (Duke University Press), found its way into the New York Times Book Review twice after publication. First was Heberto Padilla’s positive review; next was its mention in “Noted with Pleasure”:
In the newest issue of The Wallace Stevens Journal, a special issue (volume 38, number 2, dated Fall 2014) devoted to Helen Vendler’s career-long interest in Stevens’s poetry, an essay by me appears. Here is a link to a PDF copy of the piece.
I recently re-read Helen Vendler’s 1986 review of Milton Bates’s A Mythology of Self (1985) and Albert Gelpi’s collection of essays (The Poetics of Modernism, 1985) which included Marjorie Perloff on Stevens experience (or inexperience) during World War 2, Michael Davidson’s critique of Stevens as not a prosodic innovator, and Alan Golding on Stevens and Zukofsky. (I have insufficient space here to deal with Vendler’s complex reaction to Perloff’s piece – a topic that should surely occasion another foray into the matter.)
Vendler was in general not fond of the essays collected by Gelpi, but she did admire Milton Bates — whose meticulous book was the first full-length biographical/intellectual/historical reading of Stevens.
The ModPo TAs and I led a 90-minute close reading of two late poems by Wallace Stevens, “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain” and “The Plain Sense of Things.” Several participants (who drove up from Washington DC) joined us in the Arts Cafe of the Kelly Writers House, while hundreds joined by webcast. Several people phoned in their comments and questions, while a number tweeted and still others emailed us. We were also thrilled to welcome into the Writers House — by chance — Professor Elisa New of Harvard, a brilliant reader of Stevens and creator of a MOOC on early American poetry (up to Whitman and Dickinson). Lisa’s MOOC, sponsored by EdX, is not available yet, but, we expect, will nicely complement ModPo. The video recording of the session is available above (just click on the image atop) and is also viewable here at YouTube. Please note: the program begins at around 2 minutes into the video file here.
On April 18, 2013, at 12 noon (eastern time), I hosted a live webcast — an open discussion of two poems by Wallace Stevens: “The Plain Sense of Things” & “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain.” I was joined by the ModPo TAs. Participants in this session joined a collaborative close reading of the two poems, and had a chance to email questions and/or phone us to ask questions or make comments. Here is a link to the video recor
In August 1971, Philip Whalen performed “Scenes of Life at the Capital,” a 45-minute reading recorded by Robert Creeley who’d brought his tape recorder to the event. In a passage of “Scenes” — it comes to around two minutes of the reading — Whalen responds to Wallace Stevens. Here is that 2-minute passage: MP3.