Some months ago I read Eleanor Cook's Reader’s Guide to Wallace Stevens (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. xiv, 354. $24.95 paperback). New readers of Stevens must own this book, the ideal guide for starting out into the sometimes abstractly allusive, sometimes philosophically argumentative, sometimes indirectly referential verse of this essential American modernist.
Most of the poems are annotated here, presented in order of publication, book by book through Stevens’s career; a readable index of title directs you, alternatively, by the poem. Cook’s succinct summaries and annotations are confidently expert. If you are reading “Prelude to Objects” and come across the reference there to the S. S. Normandie, you will know from Cook that it was a famous French transatlantic passenger liner (136). Of course, even an inexperienced Googler would have that annotation in a quarter of a minute. In the same poem, if coming upon the “Ideas of Order”-like phrase “foamed from the sea” you take “foamed,” as in the idiom “foamed up,” to mean arising sea-like out of the sea, you could proceed through the verse satisfactorily. But having Cook’s guide by your side, you would also learn that this is certainly a reference to Aphrodite, whose name, etymologically, means “born of the foam” (136). You are still left with the problem of reconciling such a mythological idiom with Stevens’s famous “guerilla I,” the poem’s stealthy and aggressive subjectivity, but with Cook’s help you are several steps further along than you would otherwise be.
Long admired for her attention to syntactical word-play, Cook has a fine way here of describing meter as an aspect of form. This one sentence on section 1 of “Peter Quince at the Clavier” does the critical work of many another commentator’s full page: “Tetrameter tercets with occasional rhyme, a clavier interrupted by bass violins playing pizzicati” (74). A masterfully wrought eight-word sentence on the first three stanzas of “The Idea of Order at Key West”—“Their argument is tight, their rhythm is ocean-like” (94)—again precisely describes the rhetoric and form but also presents the poem’s main tension between rationally organized content of human experience and oceanic feelings about the power of the muse.
Years ago I reviewed a book by Charles Berger called Forms of Farewell which argued, in part, that "The Auroras of Autumn" (Wallace Stevens' late poem) was about fears of nuclear annihilation. I re-discovered an offprint of the review recently and here it is (PDF). I'd always thought the poem was about the not-aboutness of the aurora borealis.
Charles Bernstein commissioned me to write a piece that would bring Wallace Stevens' reputation among contemporary poets up to date - from 1975 to the present. The essay I wrote, as has been noted here before, was published in the fall 2009 issue of Boundary 2. Here is a PDF version of the entire article, called "The Stevens Wars."
In it I discuss the varying responsiveness to Stevens in the writings of (in order of appearance) Susan Howe, Ann Lauterbach, Michael Palmer, Charles Bernstein ("Loneliness in Linden" is a rejoinder to "Loneliness in Jersey City"), Lytle Shaw, Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, Peter Gizzi, John Ashbery, John Hollander, and again Susan Howe as a very different sort of response than that of Hollander.
I've made an mp3 recording of a speech avatar reciting the lecture Wallace Stevens gave at MoMa in 1951, "Relations between Poetry and Painting." Stevens himself spoke in a low droning monotone so the avatar, minus the patrician accent, gets it about right. Stevens made more public visits to New York in 1951 than any other year. He read at the Poetry Center/92nd St Y, at MoMA, gave several short talks at various occasions, etc. Some of his letters read like I-do-this-I-do-that accounts of walking and looking along the avenues.
In one of Jack Spicer's now-famous lectures in Vancouver, 1965, he discusses (and commends) the "serial poem." After a while he takes questions, and someone asks him whether Wallace Stevens didn't indeed write serial poems--perhaps "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction" is one? Spicer's response is fascinating. I've taken the long audio recording of the whole lecture, and selected just the discussion about Stevens. The whole lecture can be found on Spicer's PENNsound page and the excerpt (3:27) can be heard here: mp3.
Here's part of a letter Jose Rodriguez-Feo wrote to Wallace Stevens. The two had not met yet at this point. Their relationship, entirely epistolary except for two brief meetings some years after this, was both extraordinarily intimate and formal--both at once. Stevens loved letters from his young exotic friend "Pepe." Rodriguez-Feo was thrilled to be able to get to know this forbidding-seeming poet, the famously icy Stevens. The talk of Hemingway in this letter might have been a signal that the Cuban was interested in Stevens's views of male sexuality, wondering if indeed that was part of Stevens' attraction to corresponding with "a real blood and bone Latino." But Stevens would never, ever nibble on this bait. Now a self-promotion alert: my book, edited by Beverly Coyle, tells this whole story and presents all the letters between the two. Get a copy here. Or ask me for one. I have a few extras at home. If the title of this post is clickable, click on it for a larger view of the letter excerpt above.
A few years ago John Serio was asked to edit the Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens and expressed the hope that I'd summarize what I'd learned over the years about Stevens' response to the radical-left poetics of the 1930s, so I wrote a short paper (10 pages in print) and it appeared in that very good volume. Today I uploaded a PDF copy to my "Selected Works" site: here's the essay.
Edward Ragg is a poet, an expert on the poetry of Wallace Stevens, a resident of China, and a writer about wine. With Fongyee Walker, Edward blogs about wine at "Dragon Phoenix." His new book, "Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction," is due out from Cambridge this summer. Stevens' love of wine is naturally part of the book:
"Stevens was something of a wine lover, especially of the wines of Burgundy and one of the book’s chapters is entitled ‘Food, Wine and the Idealist ‘I” (the ‘I’ is a special case of the first person speaker in several of Stevens’ 1940s poems). The book proffers a long reading of perhaps Stevens’ most baffling gastronomic poem ‘Montrachet-Le-Jardin’, a text whose relationship with Burgundy and with Occupied France of 1942 is both ingenious and has previously remained tough for Stevens scholarship to decipher. Part of the book’s argument is that Stevens’ embrace of an abstract aesthetic was not confined merely to poetic or artistic concerns, but involved his everyday imagination, interests and needs, including a love of the finer things in life, with wine being no exception...."
After months--several years--of digitizing, consulting, traveling, etc., we at PennSound are now ready to make available the recordings of Wallace Stevens reading his own poetry. We begin our new Stevens author page with two readings he gave at Harvard near the end of his life. Our friends at the Woodberry Poetry Room at Lamont Library (though organizationally Woodberry now is part of the Houghton Library system) have shared these with us. Peter Hanchak--only child of Holly Stevens who was the only child of Wallace and Elsie Stevens--has given us at PennSound permission to make available whatever Stevens recordings we can find. I'm personally very grateful to Peter, who clearly understands that PennSound is all about noncommercial, educational use. Thanks to Joan Richardson and John Serio who helped me work with Peter on this; and thanks to Christina Davis, new director at the Woodberry, and Don Share, former director there, for their help and advice as we've moved forward. It's our hope, of course, that the way Stevens is taught will at least somewhat change now that his own way of reading the poems is widely and freely available. Long live open access!