Wallace Stevens as an American Poet

Stanford University this program is brought to you by the Stanford Humanities Center for more information please visit us at SH C stanford.edu hello everybody I'm sorry to be addressing you from a chair instead of from the lectern but the fates did something to my knee and so I'm glad to be here at all this is a polemical talk in the sense that Stevens has been identified mostly and often with hostility as a poet who was not particularly American and who was closer to the expatriates Eliot and pound perhaps then he was to frost and Hart Crane and other such American poets who made a great deal of the American scene of American monuments of American heroes but I think he's a deeply American poet he's not merely a Euro file or an elitist high modernist or the various of the tags that have been put on him but it annoys me that people don't recognize when he's writing about America except when they see an actual name in a poem a poem that will mention Tennessee or Oklahoma then he's an American poet a high sifting it's not an American name a reference in the poem he's not American and this seems a very narrow criterion to me of what is American and I would like to see literary histories of America and of American poetry think of Stevens as a deeply American poet and write about the views he has of America having said that I want to because I don't want this to go too long I want to start briefly with where oh sorry I have to get my hand out with where Stevens begins in thinking about how to be an American poet it's very funny where he begins because mostly in some of his earlier poems he had placed America against as the paltry nude poem where he fixes a new Venus who will arise here out of the foam and so calling her the golden or mute of a later day that we will have a golden goddess ourselves but she's not quite ready yet but then he thought that instead of placing America against Europe it might be interesting to think about the indigenous enemies might say of poetry and they are interestingly for him the South American Aztecs who wore their big feather capes if you've ever seen one in a museum I was so on astonishing garments huge long things multicolored feathers all over them and he imagines a little bantam rooster confronting a great big rooster and he addresses the rooster as a Aztec chief in a caftan of feathers and therefore he wants to define the new America against the indigenous America you might say of the Aztecs all the Mayan civilization or whatever might have been here before we got here and it's very funny when he has the little rooster in appalachia address the great big bantams in pine woods chieftain if you can of as cannon caftan of ten with henna hackles halt damned universal as if the Sun was black more to bear your blazing tail FAT FAT FAT FAT i am the personal your world is you i am my world you ten-foot poet among inch Ling's fat begone an inch ling bristles in these pines bristles and points their appalachian tangs and fears not portly as kin nor his whose whose is stephen's word for nonsense he says the ocean cries who and rises and cry o su and falls and then says life's nonsense pierces us with strange relation so the nonsense of the other cultures is being objected to portly as Ken and his whose is objected to by the little bantam rooster and yet Stevens although he writes about himself in the comedian is the letter C he's long on a biographical poem stops in the south he was native to the north he was born in Pennsylvania and he stops in the south in the Carolinas he represents himself in the committee in the comedian as let us see as born in Bordeaux European coming across Bordeaux going to Yucatan South America coming up to the south southern United States and then domesticating himself in the Carolinas and when he's seeking whom he should imitate for such a poem he chooses the long poem by Robert Browning known as sordello about which the famous quick was that sort of browning once said that when he wrote sordello only God and he understood it now only God understands it and so he chose this enormous Lee complicated rhetoric to write the comedians letter Sein and as though the American poet had a right to all a baroque flourishes available to anybody as complicated as Browning but then he decided that really America couldn't have poetry written that way and he comes in comedian Isleta seek after really arguing for the Americans write to every rhetorical flourish known to poetry he declares that American poetry must spring from prose in your neck excerpt and he says as a young poet when he renders that prose he uses only high syntactic theatricality I mean if you think of stripping things down you think of William Carlos Williams and little lines and little wheel barrels but instead in this poem he only announces his own vocation he gripped more closely the essential prose as being in a world so falsified the one integrity for him the one discovery still possible to make to which all poems were incident unless and then is the dream that prose should wear a poems guys at last so he's stuck not knowing whether to write is high syntax or whether to sound like browning or whether to sound as he does in other cases like heat source Stevens he steeped in the English tradition and literally doesn't know how American life which seems so stripped down by comparison to the flourishes when you think of them all the way from the Renaissance on of European art he wonders whether you have to forego that an elaborate syntax and vocabulary that have been indispensable to Western philosophy religion history aesthetics and poetry itself can the Democratic poet rise to the greatest philosophical questions if he has to strip them of philosophical diction Stephen says yes and he offers an answer thirteen ways of looking at a black bird in which every sphere is haunted by the black bird does the Bible say that man and wife should be two in one flesh that a lot has been written about that a lot has been thought about it Stevens writes a man and a woman are one that indisputable as people think proposition about marriage and then the next line a man and a woman and a black bird are one you might say the black bird is always in the bed between the man and the wife and you it's like Poe's Raven of course it has it looks back to Pauls Raven the Raven is always sitting there in the middle of the falsity of two human beings of different genders are now the same gender being able to make a oneness that is lasting it's that sort of thing he will take up it makes you think about marriage why it is one-on-one why we want to think that a man and a woman are one in one flesh is the Bible now the black bird keeps migrating around through thirteen ways of looking at a black bird so that Stevens again takes up the philosophical principle of contradiction a thing cannot be and not be same way at the same time and so on and that's why people say I am of two minds supposing that one of these days you're going to straighten it out and be of one-ninth after you get rid of your ambivalence Stephen says I was of three minds like a tree in which there are three blackbirds and therefore ambiguity doesn't stop at two it could be three you could have 42 blackbirds in the tree as far as that goes you could have many opinions about something it's Polly not true that you only have yes and no as answers you have the whole spectrum of gray in between also when he's seeing the black bird in his own Connecticut he implies that there are laws other than the laws of physics that is there are strange compelling laws in Connecticut and he quotes them in the last of these the river is moving the black bird must be flying hmm you think what connects the current of the river and the flying of the black bird and of course that is the congruence of Steven sees it between the natural world the river the current of life you might say always symbolized by the river that you can step into twice and the fact that above the river source thought in thirteen different ways perhaps any number more the eccentric he says is the base of design rather than the symmetry that we're used to in European art so the blackboard is everywhere making us think about what laws govern our universe and what philosophical principles or principles of religious injunction to him one flesh could be true thirteen ways of looking at a black bird is in a way a New England primer proclaiming the omnipresent not of God but of the black bird it's his aggressive repudiation of the poetry chiefly discursive of his conventional American predecessors and contemporaries if you think of Edwin Arlington Robinson a Conrad Aiken they were writing long pentameter spun out and this is 13 ways is of course a manifesto and taking American art down to its naked bare bones like that tree you only see the three black birds when there's no foliage on the tree of course otherwise there'd be hidden so it's a great eccentric picture the three black birds anybody reading Stevens Collected Poems is struck by how widely over the years Stevens casts his poetic net hoping to catch genuine American fish as he wrote in his notebook and I think this should be printed at the head of every head note describing Stevens in textbooks he wrote nothing could be more inappropriate to American literature than its English source since the Americans are not British in sensibility and we're not though that there has to be a different sensibility and that will express itself in different symbolic forms from what the English found he saw his own task as the vacation of a specifically American sensibility but he rapidly perceived that a reductive bonfire of the Western literary inheritance doesn't automatically create an American culture do you burn up all the rest what you left with but ash for the rest of his life Stevens asks what will or can take the place of what has been lost or destroyed what will American culture become what does it need who will be its heroes where we would find happiness how would the imaginative artists stripped of patronage of course in a democratic system redefine his own function when he's no longer a court ornament on the person who sings the praises of the heroes of the culture because Stevens poems usually presents such essential topics at a symbolic remove without specific mention of America critics describe Stevens theory of cultural modernity without reference to its native origins in the land and in his own psyche I see Stevens theories as a set of urgent discoveries springing from his specifically American plate I've chosen I think perversely probably but nonetheless by examples tonight of three poems from Stevens thirty-one cantos sequence called melts toward a supreme fiction he considered it his major theoretical poem and it was done in that provisional way of the three black words in the tree it is the supreme fiction but it's notes toward a supreme fiction it's the sort of thing Elliot didn't Elliot have notes towards the definition of culture or something like that because this notes toward its the modesty topaz modesty showing of the self but still it's a very serious and important poem with a lot of symbolic figures in it I think that this is a natural place to look for the poet's American sensibility a supreme fiction a Stevens name for an ideal of perfection which is by definition unattainable like all perfection but he thinks that that perfection can stand if although unattainable can stand as a model for human imaginative invention it's what people should be thinking about making he in this he follows Lucretius and Montaigne among others in specifying what such an ideal fiction might be Montaigne says for instance in the apology for Raymond Simone that very funny essay the Pythagoras taught that the being of beings must be and it's wonderful Slyke on house'll disappointed uh Nanao in Hamlet the being of beings must be undefined unprescribed undeclared that it was nothing else but the utmost effort of our imagination towards perfection each man amplifying the idea of it according to his capacity that's moon training Stevens leaves the supreme fiction undefined because as Montaigne says is undefined and prescribed undeclared but he declares that is recognized by its three essential characteristics you'll know a supreme fiction too if you come upon one because it will exhibit these three indispensable characteristics it must be abstract he says that means it mustn't be merely topical can't just talk about you know the car crash that happened last night or whatever but it has to be raised to a different plane a plane of abstraction which we would call a symbolic plane or a metaphor complain he never does first-order transcriptions of his life never he always turns it into bantams and a rooster you know that's even when he's at his most personal i am the personal he translates it to a fictive plane so that the poem has to be in supreme fiction has to be abstract not merely topical so and you do that so that it's symbolic form will be widely applicable so everybody can participate in it it won't be restricted to your particular self history nature gender plays the living whatever second thing after it must be abstract it must change or else it wouldn't participate in the flux of life life for Stevens is always in motion it is that current and the third characteristic after it must be abstract and it must change is it must be it must give pleasure on nobody would ever read the poem again I mean to perpetuate culture it has to give pleasure pleasure is the motive of culture these qualities which are enjoined on creators of your poet and you want to create a poem it must be abstract it must change and it must give pleasure these qualities of a heading for the 3:10 canto parts of notes toward a supreme fiction I offer a sample canto from each of the three sections in the hope of showing Stevens intense Americanists in lines which nowhere mention America a supreme fiction Stevens thought is an interpretation of life that makes sense to a whole culture as Greek tragedy or Shakespearean drama or Christian theology did in their day the supreme fiction cannot be peculiar relevant only to a few alienated persons it must be and Stevens repeats this over and over it must be normal Stevens is essentially a comic poet he's not a poet of catastrophe and tragedy he wants to talk about ordinary life as people live it like Jesus parables of the prodigal son of the Good Samaritan the supreme fiction is advanced by means of universally applicable symbolic anecdotes the imagined dramatis personae of these anecdotes we'll see some service representatives of the human condition Emily Dickinson wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson when I state myself as the representative of the verse it does not mean me but a supposed person it's hard to remember that when she's always writing I and me but it's true she's writing as a symbolic person rather than as a native of Amherst at a particular moment for poets most committed to symbolic abstraction and openly on a biographical narrative is merely distracting they believe with Aristotle the poetry because it is philosophical a second-order reflection rather than a first-order transcription that poetry is truer than history because it rises to that philosophic abstraction my first example from the section of notes called it must be abstract is a poem and I will read it in a minute but let me introduce it to you first it's a poem about the weather a strange topic the weather of a particular day he said that that it as it represents and is represented by that abstraction property symbol Montaigne reminds his readers that the Philosopher's and acts of meanies thought that air immense ever moving was a God and you could imagine Stephens thinking the same here about the weather by what analogy Stephens asks can the American poet represent abstraction itself what will be the symbol for abstraction he had been attempting before the poem began as you can see when the poem starts it begins he had been attempting to define the abstract by turning to quasi theological terms as we'll see but finding these terms passe he must turn away from definition to example what American quality or object can symbolize abstract Americanists it can't come from architecture American architecture is so heterogeneous as to have no abstract herbal unity neither do the other American Arts other varieties of American religion offer an abstract able unity Canon Americans preme fiction be represented by a symbolic national landscape perhaps it could in Europe where countries are small relatively and a single simple stand for the whole way Alps betoken Switzerland and dykes conjure up Holland the American landscape is to various to embody a single descriptive symbol the only sufficiently broad phenomenon available to all think stevens is whether which surrounds us and generates the atmosphere which we live but what is whether taken alone not specified as fine weather or stormy weather a hot weather but merely as weather it can't be seen certainly it can't be defined it doesn't talk to us it doesn't enter into colloquy with us it's without limits stretching as it does into the infinity of the sky it doesn't produce anything as plants produce fruit it makes no characteristic sound weather exists even when the birds aren't sing it's not penetrable it doesn't drop its garment to show us its nakedness underneath although it may be its cincture it's a GOP uses the French name it may be loosened that cincture enough for us to perceive an underlayer of its changing seasonal Wester because the weather does change with the seasons the weather has no standard name as a goddess night Demeter or as a season night autumn it's too large finally to be a target of human desire we could desire almost anything but nobody says I desire whether it's too big to desire when we ask what other phenomenon we might find resembling weather in its abstraction we could mention for instance fragrance it's everywhere around us when it's there something diffuse uncapturable in motion well it can hardly be called a visible substance but neither is it invisible is it both it's both something we see now and something we remember having seen in the past is air and we might want to imagine a genius low sigh a genius of the Pierre of the place in the old latin version a giant of the weather Stevens calls it some sort of God of the weather presiding over the changes weather shows we might think of The Melancholy genius loss I of September say our the agitated spirit of hurricane what in us is weather most like just as we live by physically just as we live physically by currents of blood that circulate through our bodies so we live intellectually and emotionally by currents that circulate through our minds and sustain our thoughts weather is he says an abstraction blooded as a man by thought it is whether it is Stevens and now you can see what he says it is not to be realized because not to be seen not to be loved nor hated because not to be realized whether by France house brushed up by brushy winds and brushy clouds wetted by blue colder for white not to be spoken to without a roof without first fruits without the virginal of birds the dark blown santur loosened not relinquished gay is gay was the gay for Sofia and yellow yellow fins the northern blue without a name and nothing to be desired if only imagined but imagined well my house has changed a little in the Sun the fragrance of the magnolias comes close false flick false form but falseness close to kin it must be visible or invisible invisible or visible or both a seeing and unseen in the eye the weather and the giant of the weather say the weather the beer whether the mere air an abstraction blooded as a man by thought before composing these lines Stevens has decided to offer weather as an abstract symbol for a poetry faithful to a American sensibility weather is anything but static anything but logical anything but theological anything but fixed anything but philosophical none of that given our huge geographical extent and variation in climate how will he render that weather inwards and how will he connected to his own calling which is to be an American poet the term of the poem lies in part in its combination of a grand atmospheric language brushed up by brushing winds lifting us to the sky and then in a charming change in the poem little in consequent flower songs that return us to the earth the first little flower song is bulk color gay is gay was the gay for Sofia and yellow yellow sounds like a bird song yellow yellow fins the northern blue the second little song is about fragrance the fragrance of the magnolias comes close false flick false form but falseness close to kin the yellowness of for Sofia and the fragrance of magnolias are not transcendent symbols like the lily of Mary the Virgin nor the Rose of the role of dolls nor are they patriotic symbols like the amber waves of grain that we've been hearing so much about they simply ask bring instances of things that make us happy the American poet does not need the giant sublimity of the shelleyan Alps nor Keats and goddess of autumn reclining in the landscape knowledge as he need a lofty ethical conclusion of the fortifying sort oh sorry thank you very much neither does he need a lofty ethical conclusion of the fortifying sort offered by Wordsworth after he encountered the ancient leech gatherer on the moor no fees faint of heart I'll think of the leech gatherer no ethics incidentally says Stephen L Stephens elsewhere ethics are no more part of poetry than they are of painting that's probably his most provocative statement Stevens closes with him to the weather having gotten rid of the genius the giant of the weather Stephens closes with a to the whether the mere whether the mere air mirror is ostensibly a gesture of dismissive satisfaction but what Stevens implies is yes the weather is mere and nothing more but isn't it it's constant freshness enough for happiness in Stevens contemporary Robert Frost weather is still personal and can be spoken to oh hush duck Tober morning mild tree at my window window tree Frost doesn't welcome with Stevens visual relish the primitive energies of weather brushed up by brushy winds and brushy clouds the painterly parallels confirmed Stevens wish for an unapologetic rendering of the world of the senses without demanding more of that world and it can give the nostalgic idealisms of the world whether religious or patriotic find such a sensual satisfaction insufficient but in Stevens view idealisms become sentimental because they do not allow for the non ideal as Stevens here does by admitting that the weather is the mere weather not a transcendent thing and that the fragrance is not quite what he desires but it does come close idealisms he said decline into a pallid backward gaze the ideals of Steven's is the actual become anemic a wonderful definition of the utt deal if it's faded actual only because because people can't make the actual into a transcendent object so to make it into an ideal they have to sort of take away everything that gives it an even more vigor and therefore becomes pallid as an ideal Stevens whether arriving vigorously upon the page dispenses with a main verb as you can see the way it starts the weather is not given by someone it is not received by anyone it merely is and the poet's momentary temptation to install a genius Llosa the giant of the weather is immediately rejected as Steven says in the cantle that follows it feels good as it is without the giant try to imagine a poem such as this being written in England or France and you will see how Stevens poem deliberately floats free of explicit historical or elusive ground except for the unnamed intimation of Venus in the foamy waves and of the and the elusive use of Paul's phrase from the first corinthians firstfruits in projecting the weather as his object of attention Stevens's the imagines the American artist not as in his earlier poem anecdote of the jar as a rueful middleman between art and wilderness but rather as a creator set free within the elemental and inhuman dynamism of the universe an independent abstract dynamism all those great motions an independent and abstract dynamism which does not ask to be loved or hated seen or realized can one reads such an energetic and atmospheric poem of northern New England spring without ascribing it to a self-consciously American poet should not a historical or literary critical description of the modern American poet include a poem such as this placed within the indifferent universe of modern physics would a reading that saw this merely as a poem about spring weather be adequate to its import would a reading that saw this merely as a modernist poem refusing the consolations of religion do justice to its holy American set of images its philosophia the babyish nests of forsythia as he says elsewhere it's for Sofia and Magnolia this is an American revision of pastoral without the giant of the weather and needs to be admired for its conscious American attitudes towards the universe in itself and its dynamism in our place within it incidentally none of these poems mentioned as American at all Divac current commentary on collected poems of Stevens by Eleanor cook she says about the weather poem the elder world of early spring becomes a painting and a painting seems to take on the actuality of an outer world Stevens revises traditional religious language for Springs resuscitation and it is not connected at all to an American sense of a situation in the modern universe or to the distinctly New England whether that's in it my second example from the second part of notes it must change and again let me talk about it for a moment before you start reading it it takes up in abstract form the intimately American theme probably the most American theme of all our themes which is immigration the poem speaks of a past country left behind it talks about a present country where a habitation originally unfamiliar has become a beloved place and it suggests a yearning for a distant future America is an immigrant country there is always a former country we have come from in our successive waves and we are a nomadic population there is always an imagined frontier to which we aspire these are not the experiences of European countries which were in Stevens day especially more homogeneous and settled in language and boundaries than the United States so when the American poet declares it must change he imagines that change in three color identified time places a pink past a blue and green and orange present and aspired to tropical yellow in these time places he sets his figure of temporal change a planter now did the planter who emigrated from the pink country of melons established himself deeply in his new island landscape one that in time came to feel as he lived utterly his own his beautiful Blue Island matching in color the sky wide water surrounding it and originally offering only a terrain of wild orange trees under the planters care group greener and greener its citrus color beginning at the degree zero of greenness with his new lime trees that he planted but the green grew to tinge even the Sun until it became a green Sun baking the planters Green limes lime trees ever greener but even in the midst of his lime greens the planted dreams of yellow fruits pineapples bananas in a legendary tropical country an El Dorado somewhere south of his beloved Island now the planter is dead and with the decay of his house his island fruits have reverted to blotched patches and garbled unintelligible colors colors without aesthetic or verbal emotional meaning orange blotches the wild orange trees garbled green the lime trees in dying the poet tells us the planter had to bid farewell to the simple banjo music that voiced for him his attachment to his island here is Stevens abstract it completely opened allegory of American being immigrant patriotic and nomadic on a blue island all right on the blue island in a sky wide water the wild orange trees continue to bloom and to bear long after the planters death a few limes remained where his house had fallen three scraggy trees waited with garbled green these were the planters turquoise and his orange blotches these were his zero green a green baked greener in the greenest Sun these were his beaches his sea myrtles in whites and his patter of the long sea slushious there was an island beyond him which rested an island to the south on which rested like a mountain a pineapple pun hunters Cubans summer and la bah-bah-bah the cool bananas grew hung heavily on the great banana tree which pierces clouds and bends on half the world he thought often of the land from which he came how that whole country was a melon if seen rightly and yet a possible read an unaffected man in a negative light could not have borne his labor nor have died sighing that he should leave the banjos twang reading Stevens elegy for the immigrant settler we feel the planters touching piety towards his original land merely pink when he left it but capable he feels of evolving into a more passionate color think of the Irish are the Italians who came to this country when Italy was not yet unified but maybe someday we'll really have a nation or when Ireland was not a free of the government of England the FIH Irish immigrants thinking yes but maybe one day it will happen and it is a possible fuel green in Ireland or a possible pure red in Italy they look back with fondness to the places they came from but there's a critique of those places they're only pink but they somehow might be able to evolve into a possible red and just as we feel the immigrants nostalgia we feel to his longing to sail la ba la ba we're something larger and more golden would greet his eye incidentally a lot of the references here are to menials song in Gerdes kids to das lond which turns into in the Opera menial conneted PE but the most of the reference here to the myrtles and the sea and the gold oranges are to the Goethe we are Goethe instead of saying la ba la bas is dying dying there there it's a kind of paradise I'll look forward as this is true we need to explain why Stephens narrative here it takes place out of normal chronological order as it gives us first the present panto living in the island then the future oh if I could only get to the island where the cool bananas are and finally the past the country from which he came Stephens gives these faces an order of their own one of diminishing narrative space three turrets for the present two for the future the bananas and the pineapples and then one for the past the country like a melon pink three two one so in the apportioning of the poem habitation is more spacious than aspiration aspiration occupies more thought than recollection having tracked the relative importance of the planets colored time spaces Stevens needs an epitaph – Oh am i doing something awful again um there's no cell phone in there but that's cellphones back in the hotel it's funny there's always a demon having tracked the relative importance of the planters Collard time spaces Stevens needs an epitaph to complete the allergy shall he write a positive epitaph the planter cup no natural beauty of his Island expressed in his banjos beloved twang that would be merely an assertion what the poet offers us as an epitaph is in fact a refutation somebody has said what value has the obscure the obscure and restricted and laborious life of an immigrant who endured alone on an island which after his death regressed to its original wild state Stevens epitaph refuses while incorporating that bleak view by repudiated it in word afterward an unaffected man in a negative light could not have borne his labor nor have died sighing that he should leave the banjos twang the parters sorry the painters partings are the planter the planters parting sigh sighing that he should leave the banjos twang ratifies his own life satisfaction as and his expression of it to himself in his banjos twang can one read the parable of the planter and his former country at the Eldorado for which he yearns and the present life in which he has planted the lime trees and has become so attached even to the see that there his see slushes as well as his fruits can one read the parable of the planter and not think of it as an illustration of the ever triple existence of the American settler former immigrant and immigrant and potential nomad the American makes what music he can on his low folk instrument a guitar or a banjo he has no lute he looks back off into the Europe that melon gland of his literary inheritance but finds it static it's not evolving towards its possible red as far as he can see not yet he speculates on a grander place l'abbé that he might one day attain but mostly he plants his trees gathers his fruits and grows to love so deeply his blue and orange and green and sunny island that he must voice that love of it in music he is so intensely attached to his home that he grieves when he has to die and leave his instrument behind we are reminded both of Steven's hymns to Connecticut and his persistent longing for the palm at the end of the mind as he says at his last poem years earlier Stevens had wondered whether an ordinary earthly life even if lived in solitude as the planters was Stevens can't give the planter a mate in this Eden because Stevens didn't have a proper made himself but he can't project on to the plant or something he hadn't really experienced himself he had a wife but it was an unhappy marriage and his wife was mentally ill so you can't picture the planter with a wife years earlier Stevens had wondered whither and years earlier Stephens had wondered whether an ordinary earthly life even if lived in solitude could offer a fundamental balm and beauty the planters life demonstrate that Stevens now believes that it can the woman in the 1923 Sunday morning long ago refusing Sunday rituals refuses to go to church speculates on what could make up for the solace of belief and says shall she not find in comforts of the Sun in pungent fruit and bright green wings or else in any bomb a beauty of the earth things to be cherished like the thought of heaven the ancestry Vince gave back in the days of Sunday morning harmonium his first book there was only perhaps she can find something solace and the balm and beauty of the earth but the epitaph on the planter ratifies the planters experience against a religious view regarding an earthly life as necessarily an unhappy one lived in a veil of Tears isn't the planter a radically American figure rather than impersonal abstraction when Stevens defends an immigrants integration of labour and love of place and music as sufficient he is implicitly repudiating the ethical and intellectual Emma's emphasis of Emerson in favor of a more thorough vien life motivated by memory labour imagination sense pleasure and musical expression if I had to choose an American poem about immigration I would prefer this one to Emma Lazarus as populist cry of the Statue of Liberty I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door as we know the door was not golden for all immigrants that is one of those idealisms that is more pallid than actuality Liberty is representing America as an Eldorado there well one forgets one's past when for most immigrants a life of labour combined with regret for a lost land and an urge to move on to a better life closer to that a situation closer to that of the planter all 31 of the cantos of notes total supreme fiction can be read as statements about the predicament work beliefs lived past and future necessities of the specifically American writer read accurately they are not merely about quote unquote the modern and they're not merely about constructing modernism the figures and the cantos are not expositions of a theory of quote-unquote poetry in the abstract read with an eye towards their Americanists the figures come alive embodiments of problems for the poet hoping to establish a modern American set of aesthetic principles and to exemplify those principles by means of allegorical figures such as a planter literary history surely should reflect Stevens as a poet expressly concerned with the difficulties and opportunities of an authentically American poetry it's displacement from its European origins it's self creation and domestication and its yearning for the golden arrival of a later day that golden renewed of a later day evolving from the paltry nude who starts on her spring voyage in the early poem my last example from part three of notes it must give pleasure at first appears to be a repudiation of poetic tradition in favor of a resolutely stripped-down American aesthetic stripping down has been a major principle of course in American art literature and everything else Williams you can see stripping things down you can see Andy Warhol stripping things down to soup cans I mean it's the idea that there is some primitive level at which we must which we must find as Americans before we can construct something beyond it is a perennial fantasy Cummings of course is full of it Stevens doesn't believe that you have to go naked to be part of the new world there's more enterprising walking naked says Yeats but that was what he was throwing off his own earlier style what is it Stevens asks the conventional poets love he doesn't want to be like them because they don't produce memorable elastic poetry but what is it the conventional boats always want to do they always love they love entomology if they encounter a flower called an Argentine they hear the echo of the French Asheville silver and want to be stolen Argentines a silver sheen conventional poets love classical illusion when they see clouds as frothy they want to give them classical resonance by calling them foamy as if Venus might be born in the sky here as she was born in the sea originally they love conventional poets to prettify nature with anthropomorphize flowers while suppressing recognition of the flowers sexuality their sexual fierce addictions and those conventional poets love to compel the obedience of the objective to the subjective to invite summer heat into their abortive dreams as he says coercing that summer heat to reform them to take in human dreams its natural form the summer heat all of these conventional poetic pleasures must Stevens at first thinks be rejected by the American poet here allegorized as an American muse a blue woman who arrives in her European guys the way she used to be elaborately decorated linked and lacquered I love the idea of linked chains all sorts of change in lacquered perfectly smooth glowing finish of lacquer and there she is with all her jewelry and her perfect finish sort of like a vogue model of some kind linked and lacquered she the blue woman vows to recant her artificial trappings to use denotative rather than connotative language to be direct in speech rather than metaphorical observant rather than transcendent modern rather than classically elusive Stevens first three turrets enunciated her rejections of conventionality and poetry in intellectual decisive and two terms she's not outside in nature she's not pretended to be Venus from the waves she is within civilization looking out a window the blue woman linked and lacquered at her window did not desire that feathery Argentines should be cold silver neither that frothy clouds should foam before me waves should move like them know that the sexual blossoms should repose without their fists addictions nor that the heat of summer growing fragrant in the night should strengthen her abortive dreams and take in sleep its natural form for a canto appearing under the heading it must give pleasure this is dismaying lease turn what will the blue woman substitute for all the old diversions of poetry all those links and all that lacquering at first Stephen seeks to offer a words worthy and consolation memory it was enough for her that she remembered with the aid of the consolations of memory can the blue woman keep to her ascetic present renunciations in her reprieves of the opening turrets she once again presents she hopes undecorated lee without links without lacquer the same initial Argentines clouds flowers and heat bracketing her reprieve at beginning and end with a single statement it was enough for her that she remembered the Argentine's of spring come to their places and the grape leaves to cool their ruddy pulses the frothy clouds are nothing but frothy clouds the frothy blooms waste without puberty and afterward when the harmonious heat of August Pines enters the room it draws us and is the night it was enough for her that she remembered but though the blue woman attempts to remain satisfied in pure unadorned memory her imagination moves secretly and even involuntarily underneath the lines of her appraise bestowing intention for instance on the Argentine's which come in order to cool the ruddy pulses of the grapes even while she refuses by calling the grape pulses ruddy the etymological temptation to silver them – even as she denies the flowers puberty her word anthropomorphize as them once again and the sliding of the cloud adjective frothy directly over to the flowers makes them into cloud like frothy blooms her animal animation of heat as it enters the room and rouses and her utterly metaphorical ascription of melodious 'no stew the warmth the harmonious heat display to her regret the impossibility of remaining objective and in the way that she has been falsely persuading herself that language could be wholly denotative any new linguistic utterance is as imaginatively malleable as the rejected links and lacquers of the imitative Anglophilia practiced by many of Steven's American predecessors what is the blue woman to do something human she feels is all she fears is always coloring her objective diction with a fictive tinge just the way the Sun turned green in the planters green among the planters Green limes trying to steal herself against the implications of human warmth and imaginative sensibility the blue woman registers the pink and white dogwood before her with an exact as almost photographical the blue woman looked her ultimate of asceticism the blue woman looked and from her window named the corrals of the dogwood cold and clear cold coldly delineating being real clear so far so good perhaps she's permitted she thinks to characterize the color as coral without any reference to the words origin and marine life she intends no metaphor Carl cold clear cold coldly clear the lines clustering around the colorless orb delineating wish to render the actual and natural and sorry in naked objective words in austere lines but then at last the poem we are glad to see collapses into truth we are not photographic lenses we are eyes and eyes see perforce humanly and emotionally called coldly delineating being real clear and except for the eye without intrusion the shocking word here is intrusion it reveals an uninvited thrusting of the human eye into the Glacial delineating the unavoidable trespass of the human sensibility unnatural phenomena the American inclination to the factual in the pragmatic is an old error the blue woman desiring to strip flowers clouds and seasonal warmth of all metamorphic and human fluidity in her vain belief that the verbal imagination can be quelled that the eye can be rendered in susceptible to feeling can confine itself to scientific denotation in insidiously representing the impossibility of an inhuman objectivity Stevens denies the conventional figure of nakedness for the new world any landscape as Wordsworth had asserted of the close of his immortality old will always take on the color of the eye describing it the intruding tinge of sensibility temperament emotion the will to symbolic meaning Stevens does not explicitly identify the epistemological issues behind his allegorical figures but the resort to the denotative has been an urgent American perplexity in the 20th century we all recall no ideas but in things the other kantos of notes most of them can also be read I believe as manifestos by an American writer confronting the personal and artistic dilemmas of the new theoretically democratic world dilemmas of politics aesthetics gender philosophy religion and rhetoric the American muse it turns out is here not a classical revenant as in Whitman when Whitman says in song of the exposition close up please all those immensely overpaid accounts of ancient Greece get the muse over here and then he celebrates her she's here installed amid the kitchen where that's where the domestic viewers should be Stevens doesn't quite do that but he does put her behind a window and he strips Seraph elusive allusions to the classical world the American music turns out is here not a classical revenant as in Whitman or a purely interior paramour as elsewhere in Stevens but the earth itself the muse is the round planet but he calls Terra the fat the fat girl the Stevens who tells us the fat girl is the earth what the politicians nowadays are calling the globe he addresses her at the end of notes total supreme fiction she's seen always he says in a moving contour abstract changing a perpetual source of sense pleasure in her appearances of intellectual pleasure in her natural laws at the close of notes the muse is addressed by her poet as an American here as yet unaccounted the irrational Distortion however fragrant however dear that's it the more than rational distortion the fiction that results from feeling yes that they'll get it straight one day at the Sorbonne wonderful flip in the new century America is ahead of Paris poetic representations are always saturated with feeling and some of these Steven strongest feelings generate notes total supreme fiction and its allegorize dramatis personae a feeling of total satisfaction with the life of vigorous emotion produces the energetic weather with its northern colors it's American flower songs and flower fragrances the planter is a conduit for the American nostalgic love of ethnic roots immigrant attachment to a new land and distant longings for a golden future the blue woman embodies at first the impossible decision to achieve in American naming a cold and clear delineation apparently more suitable to the new world than the outworn pathos of Romanticism but the blue woman learns that the center is unavoidably that the senses unavoidable subjectivity will tinge even a description intended to be modern and factual the question I would leave you with is whether Stevens can toes in notes become richer read as the work of a poet always conscious of his Americanists and if so whether we need to reinterpret Stephens poems many others besides these reinterpret these poems whatever they are sensible subject a blue woman or a planter as thoroughly American in their voicing of the perplexities the aims and the fidelity's of the modern American poet literary history will take on a more lustrous and truer contour when it acknowledges in Stevens a poet always aware of his American obligation to investigate through and through what a modern American sensibility could act your accurately Express thank you for more please visit us at stanford.edu

14 thoughts on “Wallace Stevens as an American Poet

  1. Who could mistake Stevens for anything but an American? To my ear, he is as American as Whitman. Anyhoo, Stevens gives me more pleasure than any poet of any I can think of. That we can go to a computer and listen to a scholar like Professor Vendler describe genius is a gift that is sublime.

  2. Vendler is the most careful and also the most eloquent explainer of poetry. She deserves her name as the queen in the demesne of poetry criticism. I don't have enough of listening to her. Thanks for uploading!

  3. A clear separation between the criticism and the poetry is required. The voice must change. Even if only into a quasi-liturgical incantation as in the way Stevens reads aloud. This would also alleviate some of the dullness of delivery. Stevens comes off so dull and matter-of-fact in this essay. Fighting petty wars. But still a helpful survey of three sections of The Notes.

  4. Vendler has eloquently put forth what she thinks Stevens is on about, and has written about him as well, as has Bloom and at times there is a fuzzy consensus as to what the meaning of the poetry is between the two of them, at other times no agreement, and at other times both will say on occasion they don't know what the poetry means. But like all true believers, they hasten to add, even when it is incomprehensible, it is still profound.

  5. if one is to read poetry is public one has to be an actor as well—its required to carry the imagery over.

  6. Our greatest American poet–possibly—he's not for everybody who likes realist things like Frost (whom I also like)–rather more the imagery counterpart of Dickenson.

  7. I subscribe to Bloom's opinion of Stevens as a direct descendent of Wordsworth. His is a subjective territory of the 'metaphysician' exploring layers of reality, dithyrambic, though less an apparent poet of the senses, as Wordsworth and most Romantics like Shelley, and more implicitly meant to react the senses through word-consciousness, like Hart Crane or Whitman. The meditative sequences like Notes Toward a Supreme fiction indicate this. Cribled pears dripping a morning sap.wrote this in hurry

  8. What a childish premise. "Oh, we good 'Merikan scholars must redeem Stevens' as a distinctly 'Merikan poet." An anxiousness indicative of the ultimate pettiness that lies at the center of the Empire's academy.

    Stevens was not petty. And he doesn't belong to the Empire. He belongs to humanity and to the ages.

  9. I have to disagree with you about the books. Vendler is pretty boring all the time, and she has no ear. I don't see, for instance, how anyone could consider Jorie Graham a great poet.

  10. Provisionally agree with you, Dantean. Helen is,for the nonce, either pooped or disinclined to take on the recondite subject. She chooses the wrong poems to discuss. She is more interesting and edifying in some of her other forays. WS needs to be read with fist-fulls of salt, because Stevens, the soi-disant 'nothing himself, beholds nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is'. Last lines of the poem SNOW MAN. Try it on for size.

  11. Dear, dear Helen. Such a brilliant woman, such a crushingly dull speaker. I tried so hard to sit through her classes — Stevens, American poetry, and the Romantics were my ONLY interests in grad school and to this day– but she's like listening to paint dry. Better to read her. Thanks for posting, though, of course.

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