Stevens, Williams, & the Future
Ah, yes, who knows what the future is going to look like?
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, how poetic reputations vacillate over time. Eliot, Auden, Moore, Lowell, Plath, Sexton, Bishop . . . Stevens, Williams. And more recently? It might be just me, but I’m thinking that Stevens’ reputation and influence has now risen over that of his contemporaries. Am I right in thinking this? And if so, how and why has it happened?
In my imagination, I imagine it has something to do with John Ashbery, and, more recently, this “middle range” aesthetic between the extremes of Language poetry on the one side, and autobiographical realism on the other. His whole "the poem must resist the intelligence almost sucessfully." Is this what it is about Stevens that began speaking to us again in the run-up to the new century?
Anyway, here’s Richard Eberhart speaking, in the mid 1970s, about Stevens, and poetic reputations:
“My admiration for him fro the first time I read Stevens, which must have been in the middle thirties, was enormous. The more I read, the more I liked his mind and his poetry. As the literary climate established itself, the world was dominated for decades by Eliot and Pound. And, I must say, I was a great lover of Eliot. But as time went on, I came to think Stevens was the mountain peak of those times. The reputation of Eliot sank enormously for very complex reasons. One of these reasons is because his art was so aligned with Christianity. As the world has de-Christianized itself, people have tended to like either Stevens or Williams. It seems obvious that Stevens has no followers; he hasn’t produced a school of Stevens people. It is also obvious that Williams has had an enormous number of followers, even while he was alive. I think that’s because Williams was an objectivist and because he believed in America, the America of commotion and motion, the whole zany part of America that people can relate to. Whereas Stevens became more and more aloof, more insular and more wound up in his own imagination. Williams, as a matter of fact, had more impact on the poetic language than did Stevens. Williams tried to invent new forms; he was always more inventive than Stevens. Stevens was a more monumental mind; that gave him a kind of grandeur. I’d never use a word like that for William Carlos Williams. The reason Stevens will last hundreds of years, though (in contrast, say, to W.H. Auden), is because his mind was not enmeshed in the goings on of the day; it was on more central aspects of reality.
And yet my taste has been to favor Stevens, just because he is more private, more imaginary. I think he has a richer and more sensual and sensuous gift with words. There were whole decades in my life when I felt comfortable with Stevens . . . . I felt I belonged in his ambience, to his view of the world, and I took pleasure in that realization. I remember, for instance, every time I would go to New York, I would think of New York City from a Stevens point of view, not from a Williams point of view.
Yet now, in the last few years, I regret to say that I think that’s all fallen apart. The world has changed so much that Stevens is now a man of history. I don’t think he speaks to the young people today . . .
One of the most provocative things that Eliot said was that in poetry there is no competition. In a sense there is no competition, say, between Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. I mean, we’ve got them both; you don’t have to say one is better than the other. On the other hand, from a practical point of view, it seems there is nothing but competition in the arts and in poetry. You can say the prizes and all that are not a good thing, and there is a lot bad to be said about them. But another, more charitable, way to look at it is that a big prize draws the attention of many people to a good book.”