Criticism: Wallace Stevens Wins the Day

Wallace Stevens, I believe, is the progenitor of contemporary verse.  Maybe Mallarme, before Stevens.  Mallarme’s poetry “evokes” meaning, rather than stating it.  His “Prelude a l’apres-midi d-un faune,” probably his most well-known poem made even more immortal due to Debussy’s musical setting of it, is a model example of his style.  Even in English translation, one can discern the flavor of his French evocations.  I put Wallace Stevens in his lineage as Stevens, also, evokes and does not declare in his poetry.

Contemporaries of Stevens–Eliot and Frost–differ in their treatment of language.  They make declarative sentences and they make points.  While they both employ the modern “objective correlative,” the imagery they employ is to make a point, or argument.  Their sentences connect subjects with objects.  When Robert Frost writes, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” we know that Frost is using a New England stone wall to reflect on division between humans.  Wallace Stevens criticized Frost for this, saying, “The trouble with you, Robert, is that you write about–subjects.”  To which Frost replied, “The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you write about bric-a-brac.”

When one approaches a Stevens poem, one doesn’t ask what Stevens is writing about.  He doesn’t write about subjects.  He writes “about” language and word juxtapositions.  Some say he writes about human subjectivity or the creative process.  But I won’t even give him that.  His word situations defy meaning.  One enjoys the words themselves, not what he’s talking “about.”  Contemporary verse follows the style of Stevens.  He doesn’t write about subjects, but I’ll not say it’s bric-a-brac.

My complaint about Stevens and much contemporary poetry is I find it wanting in depth.  Having fun with words is fun, as far as it goes, but ultimately one wants to come away from a poem with more than a bare feeling evoked by words.  Nietzsche turned philosophy into literature.  Though his literary works are as vapid as Stevens at his worst.  Frost is a true embodiment of Emerson’s philosophical poet.  Frost was a philosopher, maybe even a mystic (he said he was).  And Frost made philosophy in verse.  I fear that contemporary styles of poetry are but a fad.  Everybody is writing in the school of Stevens, just like a generation ago everybody was writing sestinas because Pound reintroduced them into modern poetry.  What will last into time we cannot say today.  But we can say that for today, Stevens wins the day.


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. João-Maria
    Jun 05, 2020 @ 03:05:27

    Stevens is very much a hyper-literary “let me see how far I can take language” sort of creator, but I do not think, oh, for the slightest breath of a minute, that Stevens is the progenitor of modern English verse; the influence of Whitman is the one clearly expressed in the semblance of every modern english creator, to the very point of mimicry.
    Stevens was a jocose, comedic creator, and he only started his poetic emprises much later in his life, which allowed him to effectively not care about the furthering of an Art, and do merely whatever made him look good in the eyes of literary journals, which was the type of protagonism he sought.
    Eliot has a much more subtle mind, and was indeed trained in Philosophy, but was also wise enough to know that philosophy and poetry and not congruent realms, and making them touch was, more often than not, akin to biting oneself in the ass.
    I do not think Frost made philosophy in verse, and by this, I do not mean Frost didn’t make philosophy, I just mean Frost didn’t make verse. Robert was feverishly cruel with his form, perhaps the cruelest of all poets, since he wielded the poetic format with the precise intent of alteration.



    • davidfekete123
      Jun 05, 2020 @ 03:50:23

      Hi Joao-Maria, I appreciated your well-articulated points. One of my professors said that dispute and argument is the nature of the beast in literary criticism. I would like to believe that Whitman has the preeminent status you ascribe to him, as I much admire and enjoy Whitman. I diverge from your position only in this: Whitman is intelligible to me, while much of what I find in literary journals today is not. I don’t know how you feel about journals today, but your remark about Stevens is a hint. Thanks for your comment and for stopping by my site.

      Liked by 1 person


      • João-Maria
        Jun 05, 2020 @ 04:05:55

        Depends, David! Literary journals are not a unified mass of production. The last issue of Poetry is, to me, profoundly non-artistic, sycophantic, and seems written by white, privilege trust-fund babies with Iowan MFAs, or victim-culture poetics about some Jamaican coal miner.
        None of it remotely inspires Stevens to me, none of it is unintelligible. It’s just bad.
        Now, if you were to read my own works, you’d find that unintelligible mish-mash of stroke and toast that you’d find in those postmodernists birthed by Stevens, and I suck and I’m fully aware that I’m bad.
        But, then, you read the Glass Essay by Ann Carson, and you might not even like it, but it’s both entirely intelligible and rich in context and form and essence and being, and she’s one of the most revered poetic authors of the current age.
        Thus, this artificial vision that only perfunctorily touches upon what is made and has been made, that of “I must understand expression” or “I’m entitled to project my isometric view and demand of a personal piece of poetic expression a profound and divine meaning that is entirely clear to mine and all eyes” is reductive to modern, and past literature. One likes literature for the challenge, for the expansion, for the discovery. One does not like literature for conceptual tenancy and acquiescence. That’s what I think.


      • davidfekete123
        Jun 05, 2020 @ 13:03:58

        Joao-Maria, Again, I appreciate your comments. And, as with all well-articulated statements, learn. I went to your web page and enjoyed one of your poems, HIPOMENOS AND HIS INNER GOD. I see you’re writing about style now. I’m a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to technology, and I couldn’t find a way to like said poem, but would have.
        Speaking of dinosaurs, I am amazed that the wonders of internet whereby I can connect with a writer in Portugal (I believe you to be) and exchange wisdom. Please stay in touch and continue to add your perspective to mine which is in flux!

        Liked by 1 person

      • João-Maria
        Jun 05, 2020 @ 13:24:30

        Oh, David, I followed you for your marvelous poetry, and it means beyond the world to me that you’d like one of my works, despite my absolute knowledge that it’s not good enough to grace the eyes of an author such as yourself.
        I felt the impetus to interact with you merely out of the interaction, and not so much to be read, but I’m very grateful you’d expend the energy.
        I’m only twenty-four, which means I’m an Homo Digitalis, but I understand technological struggles, as even at 24, with the pace of the world, I already feel myself waning. And I shall certain interact more with you, over time, if I have anything of worth to say.


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