A few thoughts on Vendler's Stevens

I recently re-read Helen Vendler’s 1986 review of Milton Bates’s A Mythology of Self (1985) and Albert Gelpi’s collection of essays (The Poetics of Modernism, 1985) which included Marjorie Perloff on Stevens experience (or inexperience) during World War 2, Michael Davidson’s critique of Stevens as not a prosodic innovator, and Alan Golding on Stevens and Zukofsky. (I have insufficient space here to deal with Vendler’s complex reaction to Perloff’s piece – a topic that should surely occasion another foray into the matter.)[1]

Vendler was in general not fond of the essays collected by Gelpi, but she did admire Milton Bates — whose meticulous book was the first full-length biographical/intellectual/historical reading of Stevens.  Toward the end of her review, Vendler commended Bates as follows:

Milton Bates’s learned book is the one to recommend henceforth as the first critical book for the novice reader of Stevens. It sets Stevens firmly, as other books do not, in the personal, literary, political, and philosophic context of her era and of his reading. It sees Stevens as a fallible human being, subject to the errors of his sex, his class, his education, and his historical moment, and yet it treats him chiefly as a heroically experimental artist, daring a terrain where few could, then as now, follow him.

The key here is to discern whether affirmation of experimentalism is meant as a rejoinder — maybe even, indeed, a sop — to those who would focus on the “fallible” Stevens committing “errors” of sex, class and ideology — or if, on the other hand, heroic commitment to linguistic and formal experiment could or should stand as a poetic value whether one rejects or accepts concerns such as those raised by Davidson and Perloff.

Helen Vendler of course has been never so formalist as to not welcome the biographical reading of Stevens, and this review helped launch Bates and other similar work of similar methodology, and helped bring about a rapprochement among formalist and historicist modes.

I should here report that this affirmation gave heart to me as I was working then on two full-length historical and political readings of Stevens. 

That’s how I remembered this review until I went back and re-read it. On re-reading I of course noticed that alongside the mediation of formalist and historicist – or poem-centered and intellectual/social-context-centered — modes of approaching Stevens, there is a brief but energetic foray into the other main schism among Stevens’s readers, critics, scholars and fellow poets at the time.

Golding’s essay in the Gelpi book brought Zukofsky and Stevens together significantly for the first time, and it was itself a gesture intended partly to entice the word-as-such/objectivist/Spring and All-loving/New American Poetry-influenced critics of modernism and postmodernism in Stevens’s direction. Not only wasn’t Helen Vendler having it — saying that “the feeble lines of Zukofsky seem to have nothing in common with Stevens’s brilliant atmospheres (debating content and form).” But, moreover, she reads Golding’s attempt to create détente in the lyric/post-lyric critical wars as in fact arguing that Zukofsky “condemns by exclusion Stevens’s epistemological meanderings,” thus reinforcing rather than lessening the Stevens/Zukofsky split.

Turning then to Davidson, she identifies him as someone then writing about the San Francisco poetry renaissance and puts that phrase – “San Francisco Renaissance” — in distancing or doubtful or ironic quotes — and then stresses how much Davidson dislikes Stevens.  Davidson does not believe that Stevens was a prosodic innovator, and Vendler points out his preference for Ashbery: Ashbery’s poems, unlike Stevens’s, reflect “the kind of personal insecurity and crisis that one finds in Ashbery.”  Vendler then, correctly in my view, identifies Esthetique du Mal, The Auroras of Autumn (she might have added An Ordinary Evening in New Haven) — later long poems — as reflecting insecurity and crisis, in the writing and the open non-narrative form of the poems, in just such a way. Her tone here in this review is one of frustration: “Can Davidson have read ‘Esthetique du Mal’, ‘The Auroras of Autumn’” etc.?

Actually, as Vendler notes, Davidson’s argument embraces the long poems as marking a transition from modern to postmodern – open-ended rather than evincing “modernist closure”; self-reflexive and self-critical.

There’s little getting around Vendler’s distaste for Davidson’s (and Golding’s and Perloff’s) variously founded distastes for Stevens in the mid-1980s, nor can one misunderstand her sense of the damage being done by what she calls Davidson’s “uniform misunderstanding of Stevens.”

Yet despite the pleasure (is that the word?) of looking back on the world of Stevens’s critics and readers in 1986, it seems that the lines of distinction and disagreement were and are not so clearly drawn — and that even then they crossed and got productively confused.

Vendler’s gesture of recommending Bates and thus the historical, biographical, intellectual and even the political reading — in the same review where she lambasted Davidson’s “Marxist diction” as governing his view that “Stevens’s critical function stops at the border of institutions and ideologies” — actually signified something of an opening of the field, as did, too, the carefully worded yet ringing endorsement of experimentalism, so that what we would still have to do, in the second half of the ‘80s and in the ‘90s, was begin to define “experiment” in Stevens’s complicated case and discern how experiment stood with or against postmodernity and the ideology of the modernist lyric.

And of course Vendler would come to take up a real interest in Ashbery, and to write affirmatively about him in certain modes, contending that his rendering of American speech “has surpassed [that of] most of his contemporaries” and at the same time crediting his consistent reach back into the poetic tradition.[2]

And Davidson’s affirmation of the long poems as instances of postmodern seriality and self-criticism had in the first instance depended on the brilliant rhetorical readings (the first available) of Vendler’s On Extended Wings (1969), as is pretty evident in the essay he prepared for the Gelpi book.  Of Davidson’s own 1997 book, Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material World — while it even more emphatically sets Stevens’s ideas about words' sound in the postmodern context — it cannot be said that Davidson dislikes Stevens at that major point in his career.

And what we’ve learned since about Zukofsky’s special way of revering and depending on Stevens — on the crucial role of Stevens in the development of Zukofsky’s modern/postmodern long poem “A” — connects the two both aesthetically and literary-historically in a way that takes us beyond Golding’s first intervention and Vendler’s initial impatience with its implicit claim that the two can be read together.

As I re-read I am struck by the importance of Helen Vendler’s conclusion to this carefully constructed review — praise of a critical work that, despite its integration of non-poetic and even political materials, finally identifies a “heroically experimental artist.”  This has been a consistent value for her from On Extended Wings to Last Looks, Last Books (2010).  It puts me in mind of her affirmation of the experimental modernist form of “The Man with the Blue Guitar” in On Extended Wings — experimental writing almost for its own sake, an experiment “daring a terrain” so experimentally that the linguistic constraint chosen for the making of the poem could not be kept up for very long. Ultimately a failed poem because its radical cubism and surrealism, its extremes of language-centeredness and anti-mimetic repetitions, could not be sustained,[3] but Vendler teaches us, in readings of the later long poems, that it was worth the effort. Sounds pretty heroic to me.

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1. Helen Vendler, "New Books on Wallace Stevens," New England Quarterly 59, 4 (December 1986), pp. 549-63.

2. Helen Vendler, “John Ashbery, Toying with Words,” New York Times Book Review, December 8, 2009, p. 14.

3. Helen Vendler, On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens' Longer Poems (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1969), pp. 119-43.