The Stevens wars

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.

Here is the passage of the essay on Peter Gizzi:

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Gizzi is one of our most important contemporary Stevensean poets, yet he is adamantly non-ideological about it. Periplum and other poems gathers early work from 1987 to 1992 and Stevens is everywhere, although in the background. Epigraphs from Dickinson, Spicer, James Schuyler, Oppen, Ashbery, Rilke, Rosmarie Waldrop and Keith Waldrop assert the preferred literary company and don’t so much suppress the presence of Stevens as express a remnant of outmoded embarrassment (Stevens and Dickinson? Stevens and Oppen?) and a debt more pervasive than dedications can allow. The great sequence “Music for Films,” written in Provincetown in August 1990, looks and sometimes reads like the Oppen of Discrete Series but is more interestingly Gizzi’s attempt at his own “Variations on a Summer Day” (1940), floating, chartless, using weather as device for directionlessness and (momentary) lack of poetic ambition.

Some Values of Landscape and Weather (2003) is Gizzi’s most Stevensean volume. Again the landscape-and-weather trope provides a means of laconic improvisation, a going which way the wind blows, a subject as a cloud, “imitation[s] of life” that can use terrestrial being as an excuse for impersonality and dislocation. Gizzi here is in Stevens’ floating middle period: “Landscape with Boat,” “Of Bright & Blue Birds & the Gala Sun,” “The Search for Sound Free from Motion,” “Forces, the Will & the Weather,” “Debris of Life & Mind,” even the dour “Yellow Afternoon.” The ironic word-level sonority of “A History of the Lyric” has Harmonium in it, however—

There are beetles and boojum
Specimen jars decorated

With walkingsticks, water striders
And luna moths

A treatise on rotating spheres.

Gizzi’s whole project might be captured in that phrase: “a treatise on rotating spheres”—what Jordan Davis calls a “shorthand sublimity” at the level of the line combined with a knowing engagement with the pathetic fallacy for the purpose of pushing the human to the top of abstraction and thus away from sentiment.

In Artificial Heart (1998), the book in which Gizzi came into his own poetically, the pronominal address is often generalized—points to the poet (even in the first-person plural “we”), an unidentified she (as in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” a muse or paramour a bit damaged over time but still ready for verse, a version of the subject: “She sang unwrapping her bandages”)—articles refer to general impersonal states of being (“the body remembers joy”; “The day static with stuck weeds”), and a communal, funereally functioning “they” who arrive at the end of poems—Ashberyian in this sense—to bring stories that were not told in this poem but might have been told had we not done our work of telling about something else. Gizzi’s “Will Call” ends:

It was an average day
An arrangement of place. A state of report
or a state of grace. For centuries weeds have hidden it.
Now autumn. Silence is what we make

of eyes, trees and growing vine. It pierces.
And these are the stories they will bring in boxes.

The ut pictura poesis of “Utopia Parkway,” dedicated to New York School-affiliated poet-painter Trevor Winkfield, is written out of Stevens’s poems about paintings (especially in Parts of a World) and the 1951 MoMA talk, “The Relations Between Poetry and Painting,” which in its turn had influenced O’Hara, Ashbery, Koch, and Schuyler from the start.