Commentaries - December 2007

Wallace Stevens loved to buy paintings from Paris, especially in the late 1940s. And yet he never traveled to Paris and in those pre-internet, pre-fax days, he typically could not see the painting he was about to purchase. In several instances, he depended entirely on the descriptions in words provided by the daughter of his long-term Parisian agent (who died during the war); her name was Paule Vidal. Through long letters back and forth, Stevens came to know her well and could tell what he wanted in a painting from the way she described it. In one case, she sketched the painting that interested him and mailed the sketch to him along with yet another letter of descriptive language. The sketch is reproduced here above right.

I found this whole process fascinating: a modern poet imagining his paintings for weeks and months before he saw it. And of course this wouldn't be nearly as interesting is Stevens didn't write poems about some of these paintings. I should say poems "about" the paintings, because it's not entirely clear whether Stevens could properly be said to have written "about" the painting or about the description of the painting or indeed about the interanimations entailed in the process of slowly apprehending or viewing the painting. After all, their representations slowly emerged for him.

So I wrote a long essay about this, and chose the story of one painting and one poem to tell--that of Stevens' "Angel Surrounded by Paysans" (first published in 1950) and Still Life by Pierre Tal Coat. The painting depicts some items on a table: a napkin surrounded by a tureen and some vases and bottles. The angel-like quality of the napkin is something Stevens "saw" in the letters from Paule Vidal. Back in the late 1980s my colleague Wendy Steiner was editing a special issue of Poetics Today and invited me to write this story for that. It appeared in the summer 1989 issue. Here is the article as a PDF. The full citation: "Still Life without Substance: Wallace Stevens and the Language of Agency," Poetics Today, "Art and Literature II," vol. 10, no. 2 (Summer 1989), pp. 345-72.

I once visited Stevens' daughter, Holly Stevens, at her ocean's-edge home in Guilford, CT, and spent the afternoon with her and my friend and co-editor Beverly Coyle. I had a chance to see many of Stevens' paintings right there on the walls of this small house. I was struck by the Tal Coat. There it was. I either took a color photograph of it then, or later had Holly or Bev take a shot of it, but in any case somewhere in my files I have a color photo of it. The black-and-white reproduction of the painting done for the Poetics Today article was taken during a 1963 exhibit of Stevens' paintings at Trinity College in Hartford.

The Penn Electronic Poetry Center (PEPC) recently secured permission from Susan Bee and Jerome Rothenberg to reproduce, as a PDF file, the Granary Press 2005 special illustrated edition of The Burning Babe, which is also now the third section of his Triptych. Here the link.

Rothenberg will be at the Writers House in April 28-29, 2008, as a Writers House Fellow.

William Carlos Williams, "Between Walls"


Can such a brief bit of writing - William Carlos Williams's "Between Walls" - be a "campaign poem," as host Al Filreis at one point in PoemTalk #1 suggests? Saigon-born poet Linh Dinh (Jam Alerts) insists that it is a garbage poem and prefers not to claim for it such large literary-political territory. Williams is "flirting" with the poetic, but never quite gets there. Teacher, editor, poet, translator, college administrator Randall Couch sees greater awareness of the poetic line in the poem as printed on the page than in the way Williams's read the poem at public readings. Linh and poet Jessica Lowenthal (As If In Turning) see and hear two different poems. Al keeps wondering if the poem can be negative (be about nothing) and yet at the same time produce something and point toward this bit of shining broken modern shard to discover, or re-discover, life. To Al and Jessica it's positive ("lie / cinders / in which shine") but Linh insists with pleasure that Williams is being neutral - just a snapshot of an urban scene. As such, the poem has had a huge influence on poetry and photography since its first publication in 1934. Yet can any artist today get away with so straightforward and seemingly objective a mere observation?

Between Walls

the back wings
of the

hospital where

will grow lie

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green

We at PoemTalk were celebrating Williams's 124th birthday a little while back when we noticed several bloggers seemed to feel it necessary on that very day to "avoid[...] the urge to romanticize" WCW. The blogger who creates Caught in the Stream led the way, pondering - and then rejecting as untrue - the distinction between Walt Whitman's long-lined sentimentality and WCW's succinct and seemingly exclusive focus on things. We delighted at the way respondents to the blog weighed in on one side or the other. But on our cake, at least, we held an extra candle for Walt, sensing that the two poets are very much in the same line.

PennSound's Williams page has the complete recordings, every last one so far as we know. Including, of course, the three recordings of the poet reading PT's first poem, "Between Walls."

PoemTalk #1 was recorded in Studio 111 at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The show was produced by Al Filreis and Mark Lindsay, and was directed and edited by Steve McLaughlin with help from Curtis Fox.

If you're fed up with antiquity, and feel that even the automobiles are antiques, and that religion alone remains an entirely new religion, which is to say it remains as simple as an airport hangar, then get thee to Paris and look at this spot under the chestnut trees, backed by the walls of the old monastery, surrounded by children at play. MORE>>>

"The guy who invented the wheel was an idiot. The guy who invented the other three, he was a genius." — Sid Caesar


In response to this, Tim Carmody wrote: "Who am I to argue with Sid Caesar? But as William Carlos Williams knew, the wheelbarrow is a pretty genius invention. Sometimes one wheel is enough."

To which I repled: "The flaw in Sid's thinking is in the assumption of the precise number of wheels that take a concept beyond its invention. (He was such an automobile-age sachem.) But the thought about thinking is still good to me: Invention is a thing done to a concept."

To which, in turn, Tim responds as follows:

I agree. I'm also reminded of Pound's quote of Leger quoting Hegel in the ABC of Reading: "Man should be prouder of having invented the hammer and nail than of having created masterpieces of imitation." Then Pound goes on to quote Spinoza: "The intellectual love of a thing consists in understanding its perfections." And to write: "You don't sleep on a hammer or lawn-mower, you don't drive nails with a mattress. Why should people go on applying the SAME critical standards to writings as different in purpose and effect as a lawn mower and a sofa cushion?" Given that Pound refers to the latter kind of writing as an "REPOSE, dope, opiates, mental beds," and later attacks Shakespeare for having "upholstered" language, Pound does seem to be positioning himself on the hammer/lawnmower end of the spectrum. [LINK]. The Pound/Williams generation didn't just say "no ideas but in things" — they really did seem to try to use things to think.