During a recent one-hour interview/conversation with Hilton Als conducted by me, I had occasion to ask Hilton about a reference to Gertrude Stein in one of his essays. Here is a four-minute excerpt from the video recording of the discussion. In another essay, collected in White Girls, Hilton does a close reading, here and there, of Wallace Stevens’s poem about the muse, “So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch.” I asked him about Stevens, too, and that excerpt is presented below as well. The discussion was a program hosted by the Kelly Writers House for the annual Kelly Writers House Fellows program. Hilton Als was the second of the three spring 2021 Fellows to engage with the Writers House community, and many others, in three sessions. This was the third of those events.
In Seattle, Washington, Al Filreis convened Kate Colby, Tyrone Wiilliams, Mónica de la Torre, and Aldon Nielsen to talk about a late poem of Wallace Stevens, “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain.” The group collaborates on an enumeration of possibilities for understanding the poet’s current ruminative state as a retrospective view of his previous poems and old ideas about poetry. Past perfect and conditional language — had needed, would be right, would discover, could lie — make us doubt that there is or ever was such a thing as a “there” in “There it was.”
Scholars and critics too initiate “transpositions.” Even a casual observation can make a familiar poem appear in a new light, for example when Helen Vendler wonders, in her review of Wallace Stevens’s Selected Poems, what we would make of “The Snow Man” if it had been called “Stoicism in a Failed Marriage.” Sometimes such interventions go further, transforming our ideas about not only what a poem means but what it does and even what it is.
Jake Marmer and I, on the road (as it were) in San Francisco, conversed somewhat randomly on Bob Kaufman’s “CROOTEY SONGO” and Wallace Stevens’s “The Man with the Blue Guitar.” How could these two poems connect? Maybe they don’t but we gave it a try. To hear a reading of Kaufman's poem, skip forward in the video to 25:19.
The title of Morning Ritual superimposes the divine and the mundane: one thinks simultaneously of a prayer to greet the sunrise and of brushing one’s teeth. In this book, however, Rogal is firmly rooted in the quotidian: it’s toothbrushing that she’s interested in, and she resists the urge to give daily “rituals” like this more than their usual significance. What she shows us by doing so is that their usual significance, though minor, is nonetheless an essential part of the tapestry of our experience and worth exploring.
[The recording of the deformance described in this commentary is here.] When Jed Rasula and Steve McCaffery 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.
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”: