[The recording of the deformance described in this commentary is here.] When Jed Rasula and Steve McCaffrey assembled an anthology of historical avant-gardism called Imagining Language (1998), their goal was to find, “along the canonical spectrum, within the regulated normality of literature,” the various “occasional protuberances of another submerged order.” Wallace Stevens is nowhere to be found here, perhaps not surprisingly, among selections from the writings of Stein, Joyce, Whitman, Madeline Gins, Hugo Ball, Max Ernst, Lupino Lane, Armand Schwerner, Zora Neale Hurston, Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Mac Low, bp Nichol, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and others. Was Stevens not in the vocabulary of McCaffrey, that pioneering member of Canadian sound-poetry performance group The Four Horsemen, or that of Rasula, the poet-scholar/network TV advisor who brought ABC’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not together with the same avant-garde Four Horsemen?The impression given that Stevens is not involved in Imagining Language as a project — similar to the assumption (incorrect, as it turns out) that Stevens’s effect would need to be somewhat repressed in order for Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Pink Guitar to reclaim modernism’s radical tendencies — implies mistakenly that McCaffrey, for one, has not deeply pondered Stevens’s relevance to his own poetic project.
Click here to watch me lead a collaborative close reading of Wallace Stevens's "The Snow Man" at the annual "Mind of Winter" event at the Kelly Writers House. An audio recording of the session is available here.
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. About, as Harryette Mullen puts it, “the secret acrostic of a lover’s name” — a name you will discover as you read the very poem encoding that secret in its alphabetical existence — what Wallace Stevens in “Large Red Man Reading” calls “the literal characters.”
1. listen to a brief audio introduction 2. read Emily Dickinson’s “We learned the Whole of Love” 3. watch video discussion of Dickinson's “We learned the Whole of Love” 4. read Wallace Stevens’s “Large Red Man Reading” 5. watch video discussion of Stevens’s “Large Red Man Reading” 6. read two pieces from Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary 7. watch video discussion of two pieces from Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary
Here are some discussion prompts.
Audio introduction: After listening to this introduction, are you able to define what meta-poetry is? The implication in this presentation is that meta-poems are especially interesting and provocative. Do you agree? Ponder for yourself what a meta-poem can do that a poem that is not self-referential—does not refer to itself as a poem—cannot do. What are the advantages of such self-reflexiveness?
Video on Dickinson’s “We learned the Whole of Love”: How might a meta-poem about love differ from a love poem otherwise? What does Dickinson point to in a person’s life experience when she says that we learn “the Whole of Love” through alphabet and words? Isn’t love conventionally deemed something beyond language or prior to language—an emotional knowledge rather than a lexical one? What does love have to do with wisdom and, alternatively, with ignorance?
Video on Stevens’s “Large Red Man Reading”: Insofar as we realize that the reader in the poem (presented in the third person) is the speaker, what evidence do we find in the poem itself of this identification? The reader in the poem seems also to be a writer. Whose phrases are “his phrases”? Are these the phrases in the book he reads? Is it possible that he is reading a poem he himself had written? Because the speaker longs for reality (would himself have “wept to step barefoot into reality”), is reading a limitation? Is the reader doing something the poem contends is not as good as living in reality? Does reading offer any consolation to the reader who feels shut off from the world? What is the tone of this poem?
Video on two passages from Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary: As you read “Any Lit” ask yourself how the word “beyond” functions in each line. The word prior to “beyond” in each line sounds like “you”—one half of a relationship. The word after “beyond” sounds like “my”—the other half. Each line seems to claim that the object of love is better or greater than the subject (the one doing the loving). So we are left thinking about the two random-seeming sound-words in each line. Try working with some of these pairs. What is the relationship between “Yukon” and “Micronesia”? Is the implication there that the subject is boreal and the object of love is tropical? Practice the experimental logic of each pair. Try to work with each one. It’s difficult. Does a pattern emerge? What is Mullen saying about relationships—about relation generally? Are they always multiple? Are they inherently improvised? The terms are driven by sound. What does that do to semantic sense?
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