Reflecting on Wallace Stevens

Guest post by Natalie Gerber

On Thursday at noon, Wallace Stevens’ poetry will be the focus of a program sponsored by the U. S. poet laureate Charles Wright. The program, which is free and open to the public, will present two poets, Jennifer Michael Hecht and Peter Streckfus, celebrating Stevens’ birthday by reading selections from his work and discussing his influence on their own writing. The event will be held in the Whitthall Pavilion on the ground level of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. SE, Washington, D.C.

The choice of Stevens (1879–1955) for a national celebration sponsored by the Library of Congress is both a source of delight and yet also perhaps a puzzle. Such events typically honor not only great but also representative poets: those whose works and life embody in some way the American experience. And while Stevens is, inarguably, a master poet, even seasoned readers may scratch their heads at the notion of Stevens as a representative American one.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, who plied or helped to story particular regions of America (both actual ones, as in Frost’s New England regions “north of Boston” and Williams’ Paterson, and imaginary territories, as in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County and Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River), Stevens’ poems often seem incidental to the geographical facts of their location. One of his most beloved poems, “The Idea of Order at Key West,” might seem to lose little, beyond biographical interest, were it retitled to any tropical location. And even though Stevens famously remarked that for him “life is an affair of places,” his reasons for choosing particular place names (be it the Carolinas in “Comedian as The Letter C”; Tennessee in “Anecdote of the Jar”; or the “thin men of Haddam,” Connecticut, in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”) often appear to invoke place more as staging than as essential or existential reflections on a specifically American identity or position.

This question takes on immediacy in WSJ editor Bart Eeckhout’s forthcoming essay, “The Planet—or Just America? On Helen Vendler’s Claims about Stevens’ Americanness,” which appears in this fall’s special issue, Helen Vendler’s Stevens. Eeckhout questions whether Vendler is right when she considers Stevens to be an American poet or rather if she is right when she considers nationality incidental to the force of his poetry and poetics. Do we read Stevens through the critical tradition of Western literary tradition as the poet who sets out to write “the great poem of the earth,” since the great poems of heaven (Milton) and hell (Dante) had already been written? Or do we read him as the poet who begins Harmonium (1923) with an odd pair of poems, “Earthy Anecdote” and “Invective Against Swans,” that counterpoint the open plains and clattering bucks of Oklahoma (made a state only in 1907) against Europe’s equivalent “spaces”—boxed-in and static public squares, littered with their statuary and antiquated diction? Certainly it is question worth contemplating in a hall whose namesake, Thomas Jefferson, bears some intellectual resemblance to Stevens. (And it is worth noting, too, that it was the Jefferson Lecture for the NEH that occasioned Vendler’s remarks most vigorously ratifying Stevens’ Americanness). It is also a question likely to take on new meaning through the remarks of these two laureled American poets who themselves find inspiration in Stevens’ verse and use of language.

Representative or not, American or international, Stevens lives on for poets, both in the United States and around the world. This point was brought home by Poetry After Stevens, a two-day conference sponsored by the Wallace Stevens Society this summer in Antwerp, where nearly two dozen scholars from Belgium, China, the Czech Republic, England, France, Ireland, and the U. S. gave talks illuminating Stevens’ legacy vis-a-vis a startling array of postwar and contemporary poets who range from the canonical to the experimental. Some of these names might be expected: A. R. Ammons, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hass, and Adrienne Rich. Others, from Sylvia Plath to Dodie Bellamy, C.S. Giscombe, Terrance Hayes, and Susan Howe, perhaps less so.

In such capacious company, we might remember Stevens not solely as the poet of the mind or of “The Snow Man” but also as the poet of “How to Live. What to Do,” who once responded to a questionnaire that the purpose of art is “to help us live our lives,” as Tom Sowders reflected beautifully in this column one year ago, showing us how Stevens’ verse and life became for one reader a source of strength that sustained him through the loss of his father, who, like Stevens, was also an insurance salesman.

We are fortunate to have yet another occasion, on Stevens’ birthday no less, to rediscover how Stevens’ poetry gives “a sense of the freshness or vividness of life.”

Natalie Gerber is an Associate Editor of The Wallace Stevens Journal and Secretary-Treasurer of The Wallace Stevens Society. From 1995–1997, she also assisted Robert Hass during his tenure as U. S. poet laureate and helped organize the 1995 conference Watershed: Writers, Nature, and Community.