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.

 

Poetry Lives!

Prose about poetry.  A few years back, my church held a celebration of the arts.  We were invited to bring personal art works for sale at our national gathering.  I brought some CD’s and some booklets of poetry.  I sold some CD’s but hardly any poetry booklets.  By way of consolation, one minister told me that people just aren’t reading poetry anymore.  He told me that poetry is a lost art.  About a year ago, I placed 3 of my poetry books on the “local writers'” shelf at a bookstore near where I live.  One book is gone, to date.  I sadly had to agree with the minister, that poetry is a lost art.

Then I noticed other evidence.  In my own blogging, I usually get a better response of likes when I post a poem, rather than when I post prose.  I visit the sites of the likes I receive, and, to my surprise, there are a lot of people out there also writing poetry.  Good poetry.  I also used to go to a late night coffee shop which held a poetry night once a month.  There was usually quite a good turnout for these poetry nights, and there were a lot of local poets sharing their verses.  I found out that there are other coffee shops in town which do the same thing.  And I have to mention hip-hop.  While some of the rhymes are simple, there is strong rhythm, and solid rhyme.

Then there are those university poetry journals.  Wallace Stevens started the trend to write verse that an ordinary reader can’t understand.  I am an educated reader, otherwise ordinary, and I can’t understand these poems.  I don’t mean that the ideas are complicated, or that they use big words–like T. S. Eliot, whom I do understand.  Rather, the verses are not ordinary sentences, with subjects, verbs, and objects.  The poets I’m talking about deliberately craft sentences in which the words don’t go together.  Why they would want to do that, I don’t understand, don’t care to understand.  But the poetry I read online, that I listen to in the coffee houses, that I hear in hip-hop songs I do understand, care to understand.

Robert Frost said that strong feeling is the beginning of poetry.  With the cultural apathy we seem to be surrounded by, I find strong feeling in the poetry that I encounter.  Underneath the political rhetoric, the apparent nonchalance of people you run into, the apathy to organized religion, there is strong feeling.  One poet writes, “Indifference is by far the least/I have to fear of man or beast.”  I disagree.  Indifference is a virus that infects the human spirit and leads to spiritual death.  But if poetry lives, humans live.  Poetry lives because humans live.  And that minister wasn’t right.  Poetry isn’t moribund.  It is alive, lively; it lives.

Saint Lucia (An Epic)

I am posting a poem called “Saint Lucia (An Epic)” over a few days.  It is a long poem in 5 parts.  I am posting one part per day.  Yesterday I posted part I.  Today I post part II.  My girlfriend said that passages in part II sound racist.  My intention is social criticism, not racism and I hope that readers will understand my intention.

II

Arrival: The Resort

Beyond words, beyond generous

Our luxurious resort home for a week

Riding through impoverished exclusively Afric locals

We few white riding into opulence

Did I detect resentment in our driver’s responses to our questions?

 

Morning coffee overlooking the ocean

Reflecting about self, self-esteem, why we are who we are

What we want, what we wish for out of life

 

Last night I saw the Southern Cross for the first time

My camera can’t photograph it

It belongs to the sky—the dark, night sky

 

Breakfast and the pool for a while and some Wallace Stevens

A Hobie-Cat, a snack, and some Wallace Stevens

The pride of the atheist and texts of atheism

Smart words

 

We few white

Pleasant indolence, calm, tranquil

And some Earl Klugh

And there is no time but the clocks and the calendars mark it

What day is it today?

Is it Tuesday?

And enjoying Joe Zawinul

The easy pace-in everything-leads me to wonder if my life in the city is too frenetic