Harold Levy was an interim chancellor of New York City's public school system at the end of Giuliani and the beginning of Bloomberg. Levy got his BA from Cornell at a time when people like Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind) and poet A. R. Ammons held forth — and Harold Bloom, too, for that matter (I think). Levy hung out in an intellectually vibrant circle that produced (not surprisingly, when you think of A. Bloom's potential influence) Paul Wolfowitz and other neo-conservatives. (Wolfowitz had grown up partly in Ithaca; his father was a professor of statistical theory at Cornell.) Somewhere along the line — from Ammons and maybe Harold Bloom — Harold Levy picked up an absolute love of Wallace Stevens. And, many years later, when he was appointed chancellor he told all the members of the New York City School Board that they would be convened to discuss three poems by Stevens (Levy now recalls that two of these were “The Emperor of Ice Cream” and “Sunday Morning”) and would be given a violin lesson by Isaac Stern. Levy's role (he was a businessperson) was to bring efficiency to the system, but he also brought what might be deemd the opposite — a conviction that Board members should be conversant in the philosophical questions of the sort that one would hope kids in the schools would face if and when presented with probing teaching.
Some time ago I wrote about what happened when New York City schools chancellor Harold Levy asked members of the School Board to read and discuss three poems by Wallace Stevens. Now I want to add one of the letters to the editor the Times published in response to their article about Levy's unusual move.
A Long Island-based psychotherapist who blogs quotes Wallace Stevens out of context — as self-help gloop. Renders the partly regular iambic blank-verse couplet into hyperlineated bloggy mush and even chooses a so-you-can't-miss-it mustard font color for the key phrase but (at least by implication) seems to get it right. What does mind-body psychotherapy and meditation have to do with the poem “Man Carrying Thing”? What does that poem, a gradually intensifying wintry all-nighter pulled by the poet, have to do with any of the good doctor Crew's other entries: always shop from a list, he urges us; how to stretch your hamstring; have a clear conscience and feel good? Well, not much, but that this man would be attracted to these particular Stevensean lines did, surprsingly, get me thinking freshly about the poem, so I suppose trawling the blogosphere for 21st-century Stevens has its occasional rewards.
In the morning, we suddenly see what we had not been able to see before: “A horror of thoughts that suddenly are real.”
We must endure our thoughts all night, until The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.
See freely beyond (or, really: after) the sight-obscuring blizzard of uncertainties, as the uncertainties themselves have kept hidden from us the terror of truth; thus see that that enactment is inescapable. This is his turn from the torment of difficulty toward lucidity. Description is revelation, yes, but better still is the poem that describes the process through which the writer can get (in the clear light of day) to the point of being able to describe with some confidence.
A few years ago I read a collection of essays given the title Wallace Stevens across the Atlantic, edited by Bart Eeckhout and Edward Ragg, published by Palgrave Macmillan. The many pleasures I derived from this book do not always have to do with its topic, which seems capacious but is in fact fairly well and even narrowly defined: Wallace Stevens in Europe.
The connection is rich but in several ways it’s a not-so-supreme fiction, since of course Stevens never visited Europe, never went further abroad than Cuba. Once Europe must be identified as the Europe of Stevens’ imagination, anything goes. To be sure, I’m mostly glad of this. My favorite passages generally explore the terra incognita of the subject. Frank Kermode claims, doubtless a fact, that it was he who introduced Stevens to the Swiss. George Lensing elegantly rehearses the old but nonetheless accurate generalization that Stevens “survived on postcards,” and offers a brief but good reading of “A Dish of Peaches in Russia,” an under-read poem. Robert Rehder describes “mastery of the syntax of doubt” in “Description without Place,” making one doubt the relevance of “Place” beyond the many name-dropped references in that end-of-war poem, such that “without” (does it indicate dislocation or evacuation?) becomes the key term. J. Hillis Miller gives, along the way, a personal recollection of Stevens’s important reading at Harvard in 1950, and, as a bonus, a quite moving evocation of the “Danes in Denmark” passage testifying to Stevens’s unironic sense of the power of the indigene truly living the local life (“And knew each other well”).
Yet as we read this book about Stevens’s Europe, Stevens in Europe, the Europeans’ Stevens, we must remember that the “Danes in Denmark” notion was never about Denmark, nor even about Europe at large. It’s about fully occupying any place but one’s own place, and Europe is a site chosen by way of analogy rather than a cultural or geographic context. Miller, for instance, is right to wonder why Stevens landed on Denmark to make this fabulous place-unspecific point about place.
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.