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"The old dude has a lot he can teach us."
February 18, 2011 10:59 AM   Subscribe

The National Book Foundation has launched an essay series dedicated to the 57 winners of the National Book Award for Poetry. First up: William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Archibald MacLeish, and Conrad Aiken.
posted by Iridic (12 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
I really want to like this project, but all the blog entries I've looked at so far seem, well, kind of dumb. They mostly seem dashed-off, superficial, either fairly obvious and summary or else full of wine-tasting adjectives about the poets' I mean, honestly:

Maybe Paterson is Williams’ dream of democracy, of freedom. His attempt at being free. Can a poem be that?

Ya think? And this is to say nothing of the MacLeish piece, a bit of writing I wouldn't award high marks even in an introductory undergrad poetry class.

The Stevens piece is worthwhile, though. ("Ultimately Stevens’ poems delight because they show indulgence to be a kind of virtue—they claim indulgence in sensation as the way to recover the dead meanings in language overused by a culture of buying and selling, transaction and loss." Interesting how good readers of Stevens seem always eventually to end up in economics.)
posted by RogerB at 11:46 AM on February 18, 2011


Sorry, that should be "wine-tasting adjectives about the poets' tone."
posted by RogerB at 11:48 AM on February 18, 2011


I didn't know Clay Aiken wrote poetry. Oh wait.
posted by slackdog at 12:15 PM on February 18, 2011


but all the blog entries I've looked at so far seem, well, kind of dumb

Some are better than others, and a few entries are pretty good (if necessarily superficial) reads; my pet peeve are the entries that call attention either to the fact they are blog entries or, worse, the ones that start out by admitting they have never read the poet who is the subject of their entry before being assigned to the blog entry (come *on*!).
posted by aught at 12:40 PM on February 18, 2011


Yeah, the "I never read this before I was assigned to blog about it" confessional opening is embarrassingly frequent here, and much more annoying than the writers seem to realize. I really wonder who chose these particular poets to write the blog (instead of, say, critics), and why.
posted by RogerB at 12:58 PM on February 18, 2011


"Ultimately Stevens’ poems delight because they show indulgence to be a kind of virtue—they claim indulgence in sensation as the way to recover the dead meanings in language overused by a culture of buying and selling, transaction and loss." Interesting how good readers of Stevens seem always eventually to end up in economics.)

Eponysterical I'm commenting on Stevens, I know, but I wanted to unpack this a bit b/c it seems to me as too reductive. While it's in part true that Stevens seems to want to recover what stills breathes in living language, this is true of many modern poets (from Mallarme to Pound), and thus does not really tell us much about what makes his poetic vision so singular.After all, if that were the end of the story his poems would lack both the complex philosophical content of self-awareness, and the subtle sense of world-weariness, that they have. In other words, the economy in Stevens is the economy of meaning, and in this he obstinately refuses to see parsimony as a virtue (hence what is seen as "indulgence" is actually more radical: Stevens might say it is only an indulgence if one is being Puritanical).

In other words, Stevens has just enough Yankee pragmatism to recognize any real "recovery" of dead meaning (either as sensate matter or lost incantation) will not be forthcoming, but (as a former student of Santayana) there is also just enough of the Emersonian in him to recognize the way in which, as Emerson stated, "the whole of nature...[serves as] metaphor for the mind."

Thus, the strangely hypnotic gaze of Stevens is a gaze that meditates on the way in which language always leaves a ghostly residue or trace like the nimbus of thought, but is itself never really wholly transparent to itself as thought: each time one takes off a mask another one appears. The austere metaphysician in Stevens recognizes the way in which objects are vestiges of an emptiness, and this is reflected in his gestures towards exoticism: the gnostic, vaguely occult way in which the lapidary sonorities of Stevens' linguistic lushness comes to have its aura. The atmospherics, Stevens seems to be saying, cannot be separated, if we scrutinize them, from the supposedly lucid referents of the logician. Logic, by implication, is simply another kind of voodoo. The "necessary angel" is not necessary b/c we are weak, but because language without mytho-poetic residue is quite literally impossible--form and function cannot be neatly severed from one another.

(One last digression: Rexroth once said that Stevens was the greatest French poet who ever wrote in English, and that seems a more accurate way than reading him, as Vendler and Bloom are want to do, as a neo-Wordsworthian late Romantic.)
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 1:19 PM on February 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


Emperor, that's an eloquent reading of Stevens, but I think it has the same problem as the reading of Stevens as reanimator of dead language: it can be applied to any number of poets (Keats springs to mind). It's less a way of getting at the peculiarity of Stevens' work than a way of making Stevens stand in for a more general understanding of What Poetry Is.

Also, that Rexroth quote recalls (maybe intentionally paraphrases) John Rodker's comment about Ford's The Good Soldier, "It is the finest French novel in the English language." In my view, both remarks say more about Anglo-American ideas of Frenchness than they do about the literary works themselves.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 1:51 PM on February 18, 2011


Anglo-American ideas of Frenchness

Perhaps, but Rexroth was not alone in noting parallels between Stevens' work and French verse; Auster called Stevens the "most Francophone of [American] poets," and Stevens himself, who translated Fargue and other French poets into English, once wrote that "The French understand poetry...so much more naturally, easily and thoroughly than other people do or seem to do."

Even though he peppered his poems with occasional French words and phrases (though he never set foot in France), I'll admit that one can over-read him here.

However, like Eliot, who indebtedness to to French symbolist poetry (thanks to the work of Arthur Symons) is well known, the philosophical side of Stevens poetry, which was the focus of my remarks, as well as the tonal sonorousness (an effulgence he shared with the oft-neglected American imagist poet John Gould Fletcher) of it, bears more in common with the symbolists (Mallarme, for instance) than it does to the English Romantics (to my mind at least). But it is true, just as with Pound's philological appropriations and orientalism, one should not mistake Stevens for anything other than an American poet.

it can be applied to any number of poets (Keats springs to mind). It's less a way of getting at the peculiarity of Stevens' work than a way of making Stevens stand in for a more general understanding of What Poetry Is.

I hope there was at least some small glimmer of what makes Stevens unique in my comments, though without further detailed exegesis of his actual poetry it will have to suffice. I would only say that whatever poetry-as-poetry held for Keats had already shed several layers by the time of Stevens, and the result was a poetry more self-conscious about these questions; indeed, Stevens is often read as one for whom the question "what poetry is" is of paramount thematic importance.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 2:25 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, at least Ginsberg still matters. The rest have all become irrelevant. Hugely irrelevant, since the praise only helps stifle the voices of today.

The works of dead poets should all be incinerated after 50 years. The clutter of the past KILLS.
posted by Twang at 3:02 PM on February 18, 2011


Hugely irrelevant, since the praise only helps stifle the voices of today.

Toss this jar onto a hill in Tennessee and see what you get.

/raging Stevenist

WTF praising the "ancients" stifles the voices of today!??! Whatever happened to standing on the shoulders of giants?
posted by chavenet at 3:11 PM on February 18, 2011


The rest have all become irrelevant

All great art is irrelevant, and therein lies its greatness. Relevance is just another way of saying mediocre.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 3:16 PM on February 18, 2011


"...A new scholar replacing an older one reflects
A moment on this fantasia. He seeks
For a human that can be accounted for.

The spirit comes from the body of the world,
Or so Mr. Homburg thought: the body of a world
Whose blunt laws make an affectation of mind,

The mannerism of nature caught in a glass
And there become a spirit's mannerism,
A glass aswarm with things going as far as they can."

-Wallace Stevens

One can see in these lines what remains of Emerson in the inflections of Stevens' Modernism. The difference is Stevens' wanting to transform the self not the world. Stevens who has made "terror out of nothingness meaningful to his age" transforms nothingness into something, into "mere being".
posted by clavdivs at 2:43 PM on February 19, 2011


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