Sunday, March 05, 2006

Big Wally

Wallace Stevens was a tall man, and fat, and enjoyed the sensual enticements of life just as much as his poetry suggests, against the backbeat of that tiny Episcopal Victorian bug in his ear buzzing about duty and responsibility and high tones just as insistently as it did in Marianne Moore’s.

Stevens and Moore both took a similar coy, eccentric stance toward the idea of American middle-class propriety—just as both chose to stay in America—and I hope you’ll keep Moore’s poems in mind as you read Stevens. The assertion of imagination, the exotic, of art itself as an alternative to the strictures that everyday U.S. life demands is a prominent feature of both poets’ writing.

Stevens is probably the most formally uninventive poet we’ll read all term, which just means he poured his new wine into more familiar wineskins than Stein, or Eliot, or Pound, or H.D,. or even the tidy but more syllabically-inclined Moore. Consider how Stein and Stevens represent two ends of the spectrum of American modernism: consider what the heck America, or modernism, even is.

The tensions in Stevens’s poetry point in so many different directions that in contemporary U.S. writing, both experimentalists and the more traditionally-inclined cite him as a major influence. Only Ashbery rivals Stevens I think in charting a territory so many divergent groups want to lay claim to.

The literature on Stevens is huge, and if you choose to write your paper on him there’s no dearth of poets and critics to put yourself in dialogue with (or to react against).

Here’s a tidy bibliography of major full-length studies on Stevens. and a more extensive one here.

The Modern America Poetry site has a fun gathering of “Recollections on Stevens By Contempoaries” in the Biography section. It’s a big (and perhaps exaggerated) part of the Stevens myth that he worked in corporate America and lacked a bohemian bone in his body. He’s up there with Eliot and Moore in defying notions, then and now, of what a poet’s life should be. What do you make of his image?

The Academy of American Poets has a thumbnail sketch of American Modernism along with the usual basic info on Stevens.

Hear Stevens read “The Snow Man” and other poems.

For the budding Stevens fanatics among you, you’ll probably want to get the coffee mug (or maybe explore an article from the Wallace Stevens Journal).

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