Querying the Connoisseur of Chaos

Querying the Connoisseur of Chaos


A Wallace Stevens conference review from poet and critic Ravi Shankar.

A Review of “Celebrating Wallace Stevens: The Poet of Poets in Connecticut,” held at the University of Connecticut, April 8-10, 2004

October 2nd, 2004 marks the 125th anniversary of Wallace Stevens’ birth as well as the 50th anniversary of the publication of his Collected Poems, and to commemorate the occasion (and because he is, James Merrill and William Meredith notwithstanding, the poet of Connecticut), the University of Connecticut recently put on an international conference to celebrate his legacy and influence. Participants from around the world gathered in the Dodd Center to praise, to paraphrase, to wax rhapsodic, and in one odd and controversial instant, to excoriate the insurance man-slash-metaphysician whose works seem to deepen with resonance and enigma with the passage of time.

After a day in which the poets Mark Doty, Susan Howe, James Longenbach, J.D. McClatchy, and Ellen Bryant Voigt discussed the pervasive influence of Stevens on their own work, and Voigt read her own poems, another day of panels began on Friday, April 9th, and what was readily apparent from the multifarious paper topics was just how capacious Stevens’ work is to accommodate different theoretical stances. To list a few examples, Boston University’s Bonnie Costello presented a paper on poetry and war in Stevens’ work, Reed College’s Lisa Steinman looked into the performance of gender and literary cross-dressing in some of his poems, University of Pennsylvania’s Alan Filreis investigated the relationship of historicism to interpretative practice, and University of Toronto’s Eleanor Cook delved into the utility of place names in many of the poems.

Steinman’s paper was perhaps the most indicative example of how academics can co-opt creative work to imbue it with thematic concerns manifest subconsciously by a particular poet. Buttressed by a close reading of Stevens’ The World as Meditation, Steinman addressed the role, or rather the performance, of gender in the speaker’s voice in Stevens’ poems. The World as Meditation is a second-person lyric that recreates the mental space of Penelope as she waits for Ulysses and in Steinman’s reading, the subject position opened up for the reader is inherently destabilized. In a poem which begins with an unanswered question, “Is it Ulysses that approaches from the east, / The interminable adventurer?”, we are asked, according to Steinman, to imagine Stevens imagining Penelope imagining Ulysses, which, in the very act of foregrounding the action of calling into question, is close to Judith Butler’s notion of gender as performed rather than as natural. For Butler all gender is a form of drag and when Stevens throws his voice, especially into the perspective of a female character, he is raising the question of who is imagining whom, and by extension, problematizing the self as something multiple and discontinuous, rather than something fixed and stable.

Picking up on some of Steinman’s themes, Southern Illinois University’s Charles Berger explored eros in Stevens’ work, which is, on the surface, something of an oxymoron. After all, when we think of Stevens, it’s the “scholar of one candle” that comes to mind, not someone who is amorous, bawdy, and bodily. But in Berger’s mind, Stevens’ vocabulary, which is profligate and excessive, is used to “ward off, not to attract, erotic fulfillment,” but that, in spite of its intention, points back to the keening of sexual desire, unsatisfied and unsatisfiable. Berger portrayed the feminine as excessive, claiming that Stevens, an interior amorist, both spurned and craved physicality, and that the verbal discharge - pun intended - of his poetry represented the anxiety provoked by this excess. What Berger eloquently called Stevens’ “vertiginous swirl of trope making and unmaking,” situated the buttoned-down poet as someone deeply interested in, if apprehensive of, unbridled sexuality.

Eleanor Cook took a different tack when looking into Stevens’ poetry and presented a paper that seemed to owe more to statistics than criticism. She had tabulated every instance of a place name in Stevens’ work, telling us gleefully that river names appeared with the most frequency and that there were eight state names mentioned in his Collected Poems, some of them - such as Florida, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania - present for obvious autobiographical reasons, while others - Oklahoma, Tennessee - were mentioned for more epistemological reasons. For Cook, naming a place staked a claim of sorts, raising the question of first-ness and origin, and in Stevens’ work, these names not only serve as a material referents, but as a kind of anthropological music. The Native American or aboriginal place names so often used by Stevens raise certain etymological question that evoke the presence of a people who have been subjugated to the margins of American society, though I found the insistence on what Cook called the “perspectives of loco-descriptive poetry,” ultimately ineffectual in better understanding Stevens’ poetics.

Not so for the next presenter, Cornell University’s Roger Gilbert, whose focus on Stevens’ use of verbs of being was provoking and integral to unearthing the unnoticed but critical syntactical structures in his poetry. Gilbert, a former student of A.R. Ammons, pointed out that, though we are initially engulfed in the variegated surfaces and unusual locutions of Stevens’ poetry, what we might miss is the predominance of his use of the different forms of the verb `to be.’ This was not something that passed by Ammons’ radar without comment, as apparently Gilbert’s mentor used to complain about the excessive buzzing - be, be, be - in Stevens poetry. In fact, it’s nearly a truism in American poetry and expository writing that the verb `to be’ is the weakest in English language, and for Gilbert this reflects the distinctly American leaning towards action, energy, and vigor. Stevens, however, debunks this stereotype by showing that “not all ises are created equal.” For example, in the move from “is it?” to “it is” we have traveled a long way, from tentative questioning to triumphant assertion, and that journey, according to Gilbert, gets at the fundamental and existential root of poetry. For Stevens, multicolored and florid phrases are threaded together with this invisible thread, and in his poetry, we can find many gradations and nuances in the use of verbs of being. One of the first poems that leaps to mind is, of course, “The Snowman,” which ends with that memorable last line, “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is,” that final is dangling at poem’s end, replete with possibility. There is a certain predicative power in verbs of being that Stevens exploits fully and in his work, throwaway phrases such as `it is’ or `that is’ are not meant as mere filler but are rather constitutive formulations. Gilbert pointed out how “that’s it,” and “here is” occur in climatic moments of “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” also pointing out how the conditional “would” also occurs with some frequency. Perhaps the poem that explicitly makes the case for the importance of the allegedly tepid verb `to be,’ is one of Stevens’ final poems, “Of Mere Being.” The double entendre of “mere” as both “bare” and “utter,” gets at the importance of what is, providing the reader, in Gilbert’s phrase, an engine of pure assertion.

The next two panelists, Marquette University’s Milton Bates and University of Pennsylvania’s Alan Filreis engaged with the subject of historicism as it relates to Stevens, a topic difficult to discuss for a poet so oblique and admittedly metaphysical. As Dana Gioia has written, “few poets have written so obsessively about a single subject [poetry], and probably no lyric poet has written so well so often and revealed so little about his personal life. Consciously or unconsciously, Stevens excluded `the grey particulars of man’s life.’” Gioia, Dana. New York Times Book Review. October 27, 1985, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Section 7; Page 13, Column 1; www.nytimes.com/books/97/12/21/home/stevens-mythology.html [registration required] Bates concentrated on the appearance of soldiers in Stevens’ early work and the open, non-determinist view of history that many of the poems operated under. Of course abstractions and elisions make it hard to situate his poetry in any ideological spectrum, but Bates elucidated certain moral possibilities inherent in the negotiation between the human mind and the climate it finds itself in. Filreis followed up by offering an impassioned defense of a certain kind of historicism, not what had been misconstrued by its critics as a reductive point-to-point parallelism between an author’s work and a life. According to Filreis, a poem like Stevens’ “Description without Place,” can only be readable through historicism as it was a poem commissioned by Harvard University for its commencement in June of 1945. The poem excludes any reference to World War II and in fact, is resolutely ahistorical in its conceptualization, “deliberately inciting controversy, or at least disappointment, as its point is to frustrate the usual effort to hear topicality in a poem recited on such an occasion, to contextualize the very decontextualization of the historical moment in the face of an overwhelmingly clear expectation that it would plainly describe that moment.” Filreis, Alan. Wallace Stevens and the Actual World, Princeton University Press, 1991. www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Stevens/vangeyzel.html For Filreis, all literature is synecdoche, in the sense that it manifests an analogical relationship between the world of words and the lived experience of the person writing those words, though he was willing to grant that historicism was one of many possible methodological strategies - not the strategy - for dealing with a text, As Stevens himself has written, “the squirming facts exceed the squamous mind.”

The poet and critic James Longenbach, from the University of Rochester, continued this discussion of the relationship of history to poetry by focusing on the use of figurative language in Stevens. History, Longenbach claimed is in the poem because of figurative language, not in spite of it. He also raised a handful of questions about the action performed by metaphors; for example, do they repress what they transfigure? Is there something inherently evasive about substituting the figural for the literal? Is the anxiety poetry feels in the face of historical events justified? In taking the example of Stevens, Longenbach found that the metaphoric act of displacement was not the opposite of omission, that, in actuality, the language we use to represent, to make connections to, or in some cases, to evade the world inevitably becomes the language we use to confront it, and as such, profoundly necessary to any broader historical or social significance a poem might have.

The final panel of the day was the most memorable if most incendiary discussion of the conference, one of those academic exchanges that transcends academia to get to the root of aesthetic valuation, while ruffling a flock of feathers along the way. The topic was “The Collected Poems: the Next 50 Years,” and the panelists - Massimo Bacigalupo, Stevens’ Italian translator, the poet Susan Howe, John Serio, the editor of the Wallace Stevens Journal, the critic and scholar Willard Spiegelman, and the new editor of Poetry, Christian Wiman - were presented with the unenviable and nearly impossible task of prognosticating what Stevens influence on the next 50 years would be. It is difficult enough to predict the weekend’s weather, so to perform the aforementioned task, each of the panelists couched their comments in hesitancy and yet proceeded nonetheless to spell out what they considered Stevens’ pervasive influence to be and to become.

Serio, the longtime editor of the Wallace Stevens Journal, looked backward in order to better see forward; in his tenure as editor, he had received a lot of prose, much of which was increasingly interdisciplinary. He had published pieces that linked Stevens with artists such as Klee, Kandinksy, and Picasso, architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, and musicians such as Stravinsky and Debussy. Additionally, pretty much every -ism, from feminism to postmodernism, from postcolonialism to structuralism, from Marxism to queer studies, had found in Stevens’ work fodder for their particular theoretically inquiries, and Serio did not think that would change in the near future, even if we are entering a moment where, as Terry Eagleton has pronounced, theory is dead.

Bacigalupo spoke to the gradually growing interest in Stevens’ work in Italy and in continental Europe. Admittedly, according to Bacigalupo, Stevens was caviar, a rarefied flavor that the common reader could not afford. Nonetheless, he had found that translating Stevens’ work, even though it was replete with abstractions and idiosyncratic music, was easier to translate than someone like Robert Frost, for the simple reason that Stevens’ work was less embedded in the particulars of a culture. Abstraction lends itself to translation more than the demotic does. Bacigalupo also mentioned that Stevens’ later work, being less opaque, constituted the translations he felt most comfortable with. He saw no reason why Stevens’ influence should diminish in the next 50 years.

Howe, the next panelist, began by paraphrasing Marianne Moore, who once said about Stevens, “in him America has an example of a poet professionalism that will never diminish.” Being a poet herself, Howe found that the opinion of other poets best informed her sense of what to value. The works of criticism she most admired - William Carlos Williams’ In the American Grain, Shakespeare on Balzac, H.D. on Freud, Robert Duncan on H.D., Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, and of course Wallace Stevens’ Necessary Angel - were too quirky and theoretically innocent for University presses, but gave her the best sense of what artworks would persist. What Howe felt was necessary to ensure Stevens’ survival into the future was publication of unexpurgated versions of his letters, the complete editions of his early journals, and the annotations and marginalia in his books; more, in short, than the carefully cultivated version of Stevens presented to us by daughter Holly, executor of his estate. Howe then compared Stevens to theologian Jonathan Edwards, saying that for both figures, a kind of linguistic perfection was sought after, their words disciplined into naked embodiments of ideas, and that for Stevens, poetry was a religious calling in a secular world. The persistent difficulty of his poetry, in Howe’s mind, was heroic, because it was not related to greed or to easy consumption, but rather to sustained spiritual deliberation.

According to my program, Willard Spiegelman was the next panelist, but this humble reviewer begs his and your clemency, because I have no notes, nor abiding memories about his presentation. Perhaps it was being hunched in the basin of the afternoon for too long, or having gone for coffee, or having been transfixed by the poster-sized photograph of Wallace Stevens on an easel (the insurance man in his wool suit, arms crossed, looking gently away from the camera and into a middle distance, where perhaps the Comedian as the letter C and his cohorts performed) that is to blame; nonetheless, I can only convey the visceral feeling of the panel up to this point - positive, if perplexed on occasion, that Stevens’ playful machinations would continue to captivate us well into the future and rightly so.

Enter Christian Wiman. The new, young editor of Poetry, the journal that recently received the much-publicized $100 million gift from an heir of the Eli Lilly fortune. Throughout the entire proceedings, he had sat a bit pushed back from the table, looking sallow and brooding, else intent and reticent. When his turn came to speak, he cleared his throat and slowly, in carefully enunciated syllables, began with this proposition: if Wallace Stevens is influential in 50 years, then the break between American poetry and the world will be complete. Much of the crowd, a bit confused by this comment, leaned in attentively. Was Stevens a great poet? Yes of course. But, was he a companionable poet? No, not at all. In fact - Wiman continued in measured tones - he was almost inhuman, uprooted, impenetrable, unpenetrating, a self-indulgent effete, a hyper-cerebral poet with raw talent blazing but little sense of how to convey something a reader might enter into, something born of blood and emotion and the shared commonalities of lived life. He was a destructive influence on modern poetry. By now there was palpable and shocked hush in the air. Stevens’ poetry has abjured the world, Wiman continued, he lived in a bubble of the mind so that he might not be infected by life. His poetry corrosively and obsessively studied itself and was utterly unconcerned with the specificity of things and with relationships to people. There was coldness or distance that Wiman sensed in Stevens’ poetry and it turned him off, way off, didn’t arrive at the root of him as a reader. The early poems thought in sounds, not in ideas, and throughout Stevens’ career, all he could see were busy associative surfaces with very little depth. The greatest poet of the next 50 years, Wiman offered as a way of summing up, might be completely repelled by Wallace Stevens, which is, in the end, tantamount to great influence.

You could have skied the slopes of tension risen in the room then, everyone seemingly scandalized but tongue-stricken, unable to fully process what had just been said to them. It was the metaphoric Christian throwing himself to the lions, and the gathering of Stevens acolytes, having been delivered a shot to their aesthetic sensibilities, indeed to their constitution and, in some cases, their very sense of purpose, sat stock-still and overwrought, unable to speak, unable to breathe even, until from the other end of the table, came Susan Howe’s voice, high-pitched and authoritative: “If you have problems with Wallace Stevens, I have problems with Poetry magazine and have for many years!” The room exhaled collectively then, some folks applauding, others clamoring to raise indignant hands to ask a question, and Wiman, looking a little red and tired and sheepish, answered Howe, by claiming he too had a problem with Poetry magazine and was in the process of changing its editorial direction.

Considering what had just been said, the remainder of the discussion was remarkably polite, if tinged by anger and disbelief. Wiman was asked if he did not like Stevens, which poets, he did like (he came up with Heaney, Yeats, and Frost); how he might teach Stevens (when asked to do so, he would have his students memorize poems, never discussing them beyond that); what exactly the new direction he was taking Poetry was (there were copies of the latest issue on the table outside and anyone was welcome to them to decide for themselves). When the session was finished, someone from the conference accompanied Wiman out of Dodd Hall - a bodyguard smuggling him out of the conference so he would not be pelted with glares and words.

This exchange proved to be the highlight of the conference, and for the remainder of the evening, folks were abuzz with what had just taken place. Had it been preordained by the organizers to throw a little controversy into the mix? Did Wiman’s stance - which, say what you will, took courage to articulate to such a partisan audience - have any merit? How might Stevens himself have responded to such a charge? During the reception and the dinner, other facets of Stevens emerged, like the fact that he did not get along well with his wife, Elsie Moll, who was considered at the time the most beautiful girl in Reading, PA, and whose profile was used for the bust on the Liberty head dime. Someone offered up the infamous story of Stevens and Hemingway getting in a fistfight in Key West, with Wallace taking the brunt of the beating. Someone else appended to that story the rumor that Stevens got into a number of fights, often dead-drunk at office cocktail parties, and that he would always feel terrible afterwards and get his secretary to send a note of apology. Yet another person brought up a charge of racism, relating the story of when Stevens was in a room with Gwendolyn Brooks and jocularly asked his companions, “Who’s the coon?” These salty stories, some verifiable, others exaggerated, helped complicate the notion of Stevens as poet and human being.

The final event of the evening was a keynote address by Helen Vendler, who spoke in front of a room filled to capacity, and was rather self-effacing in her public persona. She did not spend any time on Stevens’ person or oeuvre, launching instead into a close reading of four lesser known of his poems - “Arcades of Philadelphia The Past,” “A Dish of Peaches in Russia,” “Last Look at Lilacs,” and “The Rock.” One of her points was that it was possible to find reticulated constellations of images throughout disparate groups of poems and the reiterative insistence on certain kinds of grammatical structures might provide a key in helping us untangle his skein of words. Her reading, as usual, was inflected with wide-ranging brilliance, as when she brought up Kierkegaard’s Either/Or and Milton’s Satan with respect to the final stanza of “Arcades of Philadelphia The Past,” and when she spoke persuasively of the importance of the comma in this line from “Last Look at the Lilacs”: “…we breathe / An odor evoking nothing, absolute.” In all four of the poems she discussed, there was a sense that the immediacy of sensual experience has a specious relationship to the petrifaction of memory in recreating the lyric instant.

When Vendler finished, so did the day for all intents and purposes. The participants parted ways to prepare for the next day, which included retracing the steps Stevens walked from his home to his office building in downtown Hartford. Awash in Stevensian lore and the multifarious responses his work had engendered, I also walked that night, which turned out to be cool and limpid, wondering if I could pinpoint exactly what the allure of this distinctly New England, yet exceedingly cosmopolitan poet was. In the end, like Wiman, I did not feel emotionally about Stevens’ work, and yet, like many of the other folks at the conference, his poems had an inextricable hold on me. Perhaps reading him confirmed the sense I have that language retains a measure of magic that in confronting reality, which constitutes the boundaries of our imagination, creates that reality, and in that act of creation, we are closer to understanding our own role in the process… Or, to put it in Wallace Stevens’ own words, “what our eyes behold may well be the text of life, but one’s meditations on the text and the disclosures of these meditations are no less a part of the structure of reality.”