Commentaries - April 2011

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.

The book is littered with many other marvelous condensations. When the “firecat” of “Earthy Anecdote” is said to be found in “[m]inor Indian legends tell[ing] of a cougar or mountain lion who brings either helpful or destructive fire”—and we learn that while recent tellings use the very term “firecat” “but the relevant Smithsonian historical volumes on the American Indian do not record the word” (31)—we easily imagine hours of research done in the service of this modest qualification. It’s a valuable nuance. If Stevens did invent the word “firecat” for this bit of modernist ethnography, we know he nonetheless got his folklore just right.

These are specific advantages resulting from the guidebook format, its special constraints, which Professor Cook has mastered. The book has more conventional virtues as well—such as the finest introductory close reading of “The Man with the Blue Guitar” that has been published. This reviewer happens to agree with Cook’s assessment that “Blue Guitar” is “a pivotal, crucial series, richer than it may appear” (113), a work “packed with thought as Stevens positioned himself for the last quarter of his life” (17). Doubters of such a claim will still need to reckon with this assessment.

Evenhandedness—-giving each poem its proportionate due—-is impossible in such a project, and readers must anticipate that some significant poems are too briefly annotated. “Imago,” arguably an important poem, is presented here in 4 ½ lines, while “How Now, O, Brightener…,” a lesser work commended by few, is given four times the space. In the former poem, the line “Who can pick up the weight of Britain” is said to echo Job 38 and to refer to postwar Marshall Plan reconstruction, but nothing about Stevens’ use of imago, the Freudian concept of representations presented by the unconscious to the ego. Is there a psychoanalytic aspect to postwar language used to “say to the French here is France again”? Yes, surely. Readers will have to piece together that connection on their own.

Even when, as rarely is the case, the interpretive commentary fails to engage the poem sufficiently, or seems imbalanced, Eleanor Cook’s Reader’s Guide is otherwise an excellent companion to the more traditional bibliography prepared by J. M. Edelstein many years ago. Readers who work straight through the book—to be sure, it was designed to enable other approaches—will receive the best first lesson in the whole arc of Stevens’s work. Although this book would seem to provide an atomized, poem-by-poem experience, its reader's greatest reward is the sense he or she gets of the overall shape of the Stevensean project.

The very fact that audio recordings of poetry are now readily available to the classroom can be turned to a great advantage and can at least temporarily change the relationship between teacher and student. It is surely the case that when my students and I in class together listen to sound files instead of reading poem-texts, our vocabularies tend to be on the same plane. I might have a subtler response to what we’re hearing, and certainly I know far more than they about the sound in literary-historical context, but they are never struck dumb by the terminology I bring to bear on the point I seek to make about the specific sound of the words, the poetics of it. The students notice this difference – between their talk about the poem on the page and their talk about the sounded or recorded poems – and their discussion of poetics generally becomes charged with it. If it is true of those who perform spoken poetry that (as David Antin has put it) ‘it was my habit to record my talks / to find out what i[’]d said’ then similarly, the disorienting and terminologically disruptive mode I am describing is the means by which we might find out what we are teaching.

In my basement I found a water-warped address book dating from the period 1978-1985. This morning I went looking for a few old addresses, picked up the little half-rotted black codex and out fell a pink card, which brought back a flood of good memories. It's a researcher's card given to me on the occasion of my very first visit to an archive of literary manuscripts: the Huntington Library, December 1982. Virginia (Ginny) Renner was the readers' services librarian who immediately befriended me. Dave Wyatt took me there (MLA was in LA that year, I think); we visited his father in Laguna Beach and he escorted me around and across the LA of his youth. At the Huntington, as I read the unpublished correspondence of Wallace Stevens, I got to know Stuart Curran and Joe Wittreich, who were enormously generous and hospitable, knew the Huntington and Pasadena like the backs of their hands.

And I met Marjorie Perloff for the first time, who sat next to me reading Stevens' WW2-era letters for a paper she was writing arguing his social and political ignorance. Marjorie and I enjoyed several long lunches together at the researchers-only cafe to which at noon the readers were sent walking (they closed the library for an hour, partly to enforce the daily gatherings of the scholars). We walked past the building in which was displayed Blue Boy, through the meandering Shakespeare garden, had lunch, and walked back to our manuscripts by way of the Japanese garden with its giant hungry carp. Thanks, Dave; thanks Stuart; thanks Marjorie. Thanks to the late Holly Stevens who sold her father's letters to the Huntington in part because he and wife Elsie had stopped to see Henry Huntington's collection on the way back from their trip through the Panama Canal and up the west coast.

Yes, I did note that Marjorie sat next to me researching a paper on Stevens' wartime political ignorance (and/or obliviousness). What I didn't mention--but those who have read my scholarly writing will already know--was that I was beginning to write a book arguing precisely the opposite. This did not put Marjorie off. In fact, quite the opposite. It endeared me to her and was the basis of the beginning of our friendship. We argued, to be sure, but in a way I found utterly productive (and perhaps she felt the same). She was the first energetically open-minded member of my profession I had met. We were teaching each other the conflicts. I'm going back to that first book to be sure I acknowledged her in this way. It's been a while. And in any case, now I've done so here.

Speaking of Vachel Lindsay... Helen Sewell Johnson, one of the funniest and sharpest and kindest people I know, passes along a story of Lindsay, as follows:

Lindsay visited Agnes Scott College for a reading before I was there and I still remember one of my professor's description of the event. The college president at the time was a very small man, a Presbyterian minister, Dr. Gaines. He gave a flowery introduction to Lindsay and then pronounced, "and now, I present Mister Watson." Lindsay pounced up to the podium, shaded his eyes, assumed a semi-squatting position, peered from one side of the hall to the other and shouted, "Paging Sherlock Holmes." She further described his "lion's mane of yellow hair," which he flung about as he danced around the podium performing "The Congo." The audience, I gather, was transfixed.

To be mentally healthy, don't worry about current events.

I own a battered paperback copy of an unusual book: The Story of my Psychoanalysis, published in 1950 and authored by "John Knight," a pseudonym. (Published in New York by McGraw-Hill, and was 225 pages in hardcover.)

The jacket is dramatic. There's John, arm crossed helplessly across forehead, lying down, apparently on his shrink's couch.

It's a tell-all book, and the mode of confession is the revelation of actual psychoanalysis. The work purports to reveal all the dark secrets of the sessions--and, thus, of course, this man's sins and desires. Here are a few choice excerpts:

I'm envious of my father...I also have a vivid image in my mind of my boss's beautiful estate...I visited it last fall...he even has an artificial lake for his private fishing parties...I dreamed last night about an invention...I invented the zipper but someone stole it from me...I sued for ten million dollars...

Doctor Maxwell discouraged too much concentration on current events. He would not discuss politics or world affairs, and encouraged me to disregard current issues unless they caused fairly intense emotional reactions. As he pointed out, it is very easy to try to escape the unpleasant, buried, ancient memories by discussing everyday matters....

There's something here I don't like...the color of your walls annoys me...I'm tense...I'd like to get out of here...Where was Moses when the lights went out?...I'm a Jew...

A longer excerpt from the book is part of my 1950s web site.

John's problems seem to have much to do with politics and culture--especially careerism in the context of social conformity and consensus--but it seems to be the job of the shrink, and of the book (John comes round to seeing that the shrink is right), to dissuade us from concluding that national issues, e.g. cold-war tensions, are helping to cause his ulcers (his original reason for seeking help) in any way.